It’s pantomime time again (oh no its not, oh yes it is). As well as my involvement with the u3A Sociable Cyclists I am also a member of St Marks Players amateur dramatics group. We rent the local Longwood Mechanics Hall and put on shows for the community including a pantomime every winter. We rehearse songs, dances and scripts diligently for about 3 months and then go on stage and forget everything we have ever learnt. Even so the audience seem to enjoy themselves.
We have several members of our group who are concerned with health and safety issues - myself included and we always do a risk assessment of the building to make sure that any accident waiting to happen is dealt with before it does. Whilst an employer of a company or a small firm willingly addresses the issues of health and safety because they have to; this practise is sometimes overlooked for clubs, groups and leisure activities. It is often assumed that because you are there for fun, health and safety goes out of window.
I have acted for the bottom half of an 8 foot tall “woman” who fell off the stage of a theatre during a dress rehearsal because no one had thought to paint a broad strip on the edge of the stage or to adjust the lighting properly. This led to the “woman” stepping off the stage into the orchestra pit and injuring the two people inside the costume whilst at the same time wiping out the brass section…..LOL as they say but not when people are injured and are unable to work. The man I represented sustained leg, back and shoulder injuries which prevented him from working for several months as a builder and it took him even longer than that to get over his fear of heights.
We had a similar situation at our pantomime many years ago when King Rat suddenly disappeared off stage left and fell behind the piano because his costume – although magnificent – had restricted visibility. Fortunately he bounced and was not injured!
Accidents sometimes just happen so it is important to do a risk assessment to minimise the risk and also make sure yourinsurance policy is up to date. I have found that stages and theatres can be dangerous places to be with performers and audience being injured by among other things falling scenery, slippery floors and collapsing stages.
David Rendall – one of the most successful British tenors of recent decades, performing at Covent Garden, the Met and other major houses wrote in April 2012 of his accident in Denmark in 2005. He is still fighting for the right to claim compensation from the theatre for an accident which he alleges was caused by human error and lack of training. As a result of the accident he has sustained severe hip, shoulder and hand injuries which have prevented him from appearing on the stage again. He believes that the accident occurred because the company had recently changed theatres and whereas the scenes were changed manually in the old theatre by means of ropes and pulleys, at the new theatre they pushed buttons on computers to move whole stages from side to side, back to front and from basement to the top.
The stage hand in charge of the scene changes pushed the wrong button on a computer and instead of two stages going up, the stage which David Rendall had just left started to go across to the wings. Because there was a rather large piece of mock rock between the two sets, the top sets movement crushed it and tore the roof off the set he was in. With all the debris falling on him he was knocked off the pyramid where he was standing and down the stairs to the floor below; some 15 to 20 feet. It was pitch black and he was screaming but nobody came to his aid. He eventually crawled to the rear of the set and tried to get away from danger. Only then did a stage hand appear. An announcement had been made to the public that the performance had to be stopped due to technical reasons but nobody was hurt. He remains disabled is unable to work.
The show must and does go on, as Lady Gaga proved in June 2012 when she was struck in the head by a pole and kept on rocking during a performance in Auckland, New Zealand. Gaga briefly left the stage before returning to perform another 16 songs telling the audience “I want to apologise, I did hit my head and I think I may have concussion, but don’t you worry I will finish this show”. Videos of the incident show male dancer accidently hitting Gaga in the head with a metal set piece while taking it off the stage. Gaga who was performing “Judas” (ironically) briefly staggered and rubbed her head before walking off the stage. She was back a short time later.
Bret Michaels took a big blow to the head while performing at the 2009 Tony Awards. As the Poison frontman walked off stage, he was hit by a piece of scenery that knocked him to the ground. Photos of his fractured nose and busted lip went viral online, and Michaels later sued the Tonys claiming that the accident forced him to cancel scheduled Poison concerts and contributed to a life-threatening brain haemorrhage he suffered 10 months later. In May 2012, Michaels settled with the Tonys and all the parties named in the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum of money.
It is sensible to consider the element of risk of any fund raising activities that you may want to put on as a group and to check that the company hired to provide those activities is insured.
In the case of Gwilliam v West Hertfordshire Hospital NHS Trust and others 2002 there was an appeal by the claimant from a decision dismissing a personal injury claim against the defendant. The circumstances were that in 1997 the claimant, then aged 63 was injured when using an apparatus at a fund raising summer fair organised by the Mount Vernon Hospital in Middlesex which was part of the Defendant Trust. The apparatus was a splat wall which aimed to allow the participant to bounce from a trampoline and stick to a wall by means of Velcro material (an accident waiting to happen in my view, particularly when some of the participants were Saga louts!)
The equipment had been hired from a company called Club Entertainments and the claimant had been injured because the apparatus had been negligently set up and left unattended. The claimant’s claim against Club Entertainments was settled in the sum of £5000 – that sum having been accepted by the claimant because Club Entertainments public liability insurance had expired four days before the incident and thus they had no cover for the injury.
Mrs Gwilliam then brought an action against the hospital based on their failure to ensure that the entertainment arranged was covered by public liability insurance. She claimed the difference between the £5000 and the total value of the claim ie what she would have recovered had they been insured. At the hearing the claimant primarily alleged that the Defendant Trust as the fair organiser had a duty to ensure that the persons providing entertainment were covered in respect of public liability insurance. The Defendant Trust averred that enquiries had been made when the booking was confirmed and Club Entertainments had stated that adequate insurance was in place.
The Judge had held that the Hospital owed a duty of care under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 and that this duty did extend to checking whether the independent contractor had insurance cover since this would be relevant as to whether they were competent providers of the equipment. However there was no breach of duty since the Hospital had enquired and had been told by Club Entertainment that they had insurance cover and it would be unreasonable to expect the Hospital to check the terms of the insurance policy. Accordingly ( and surprisingly in my view,) there was no duty upon the organisers of the fair to ensure that insurance was in force for the benefit of the users of the equipment.
There are some who would argue that today’s so called compensation culture prevents clubs and charities arranging any fun days without incurring massive restrictions and costs which prohibit the staging of the event itself. This is very often not the case at all and there are many situations where it appears that health and safety rules and regulations have gone mad when this simply is not the case.
The Health and Safety Executive are often blamed for spoiling people’s fun by banning many activities people enjoy but the HSE is now hitting back by saying in most cases the organisation has little to do with these decisions. Among the seasonal myths being challenged is the idea that performers cannot throw sweets into the audience at pantomimes, because the sweets may strike and injure someone. The watchdog says this kind of story raises its head annually and is typical of the misunderstandings that encourage the public to view the HSE as a bunch of killjoys and also promotes the idea that there is a compensation culture fuelled by the lawyers.
The chance of someone being seriously hurt from being hit by a sweet thrown by a panto actor is of course very low providing common sense is applied and the actors are sensible and are not chucking gigantic gob stoppers around the auditorium!
Today’s myths have started because organisations use health and safety as a convenient excuse not to take any risks as they are fearful about litigation by anyone hurt on their premises. Real health and safety is about avoiding death, serious injury and ill health – not wasting time on trivial risks or covering your back by stopping activities which bring great enjoyment to the local community.
It is however, advisable to do a risk assessment when you plan to put on a production, or an event, because a risk assessment can prevent an injury – which after all is the main thing.
Compensation (in this country, given the low value of most awards) will never make up for the pain and suffering and in a lot of cases continuing disability caused by an accident. Break a leg!