Duty of Care

Posted on 10 April 2012

One show this year in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival I could not bring myself to review. The performer was charming, the story had lots of imaginative ideas, but the level of danger to the audience was such I felt uncomfortable recommending it.

When you run a show you have a duty of care toward your audience, your cast and crew, and your own well-being. When people come to your performances they expect to be in safe hands. You need to make sure you have done all you can to think through the risks your show presents and take precautionary measures. The last thing you want is for a ladder to fall on someone’s head and cause a serious concussion.

My father was the risk manager for a self-insured California county. He put safety guidelines in place for all the county workers and investigated accident claims. Accident investigations will convince anyone quick-smart how fragile human life is and how devastating a simple mistake can be, not only to the person harmed, but their families and the community that relies upon them.

Here are some steps you can take to make sure your show doesn’t become an accident statistic.

Identify the hazards

Are there any tripping or slipping hazards? Is wiring kept away from feet and taped down? Do you use any fluids that could be spilt and slipped upon? Do you throw props into the audience that could get under foot later when they are leaving?

Are there any fire hazards? Has all electrical cabling been tested and tagged? Are hot lights dangerously close to flammable objects? Do you use any flame or pyrotechnics in your act? Even a cigarette lighter needs its use to be thought through.

How about dropping hazards? Do all lights have effective hook clamps and safety wires? Are ladders properly secured? Are you carrying any heavy items as part of your act?

What health hazards do you need to consider? Do you use a smoke machine? Given the room in which you are performing, will it be a problem to asthmatics? Does your act involve food? Do you know the rules of safe food handling? If your act involves balloons, are you using a pump rather than potentially spreading disease through inflating them with your mouth? Could anyone experience ear damage from being too close to one of your speakers?

At one show I attended an audience member was asked to come on stage and mete out comic “punishment” upon another member. The punisher was given a real sledgehammer with a heavy metal head and told to hit the other person. Of course the comedian didn’t expect anyone to hit hard enough to do any harm. However, all it would take is one audience member who doesn’t know their own strength or doesn’t understand how much damage that hammer can do for the moment to turn into a medical nightmare.

Decide who might be harmed

You will be examining whether cast, crew, or audience are in danger from a particular hazard.

Some aspect of the stage rigging could pose a risk to those wandering around behind the curtains. Performers may need to repeatedly walk over a piece of scenery that could catch their foot. A crew member may be required to adjust lighting that is still hot or in an awkward location.

If you are throwing things out into the audience or calling people on stage, then some hazards may directly threaten your paying customers.

Evaluate the potential severity of the harm and the likelihood of its occurence.

If you throw glitter over the audience, the potential for harm is low. Perhaps someone inhales a piece.

If you throw candy into the audience the risk increases. People could have an eye damaged or trip on stray candy lying on the floor. The likelihood of either of these may be negligible, but needs to be considered.

Perhaps you ask someone to climb a ladder and swing on a trapeze. With a fall limbs could be broken or worse.

Take precautionary measures.

Do you know where the fire exits are? What about fire extinguishers? Should you put a few more in place? Do you know where a first aid kit is located? Are set pieces sandbagged, so they are unlikely to fall? Do you have a runner who collects stray props?

Go through your hazards list and within reason, think of everything you could do to make your show safer.

I attended a show by Los Trios Ringbarkus where one of the performers was seriously injured. Given they were performing physical comedy, the audience wasn’t certain whether the injury was real or part of the act. People just sat in their chairs. It took the stage management some time before they were able to get the performer help.

Cast, crew, and audience all assumed nothing could go wrong. These are skilled performers, nothing could go wrong. Circus acts often have harnesses and safety nets. This comedy duo were using no such equipment and had no safety measures in place.

Upon occasion remove aspects of your show that are just too treacherous.

Review risks and risk controls with each new show.

Certainly every new show is likely to have new risks, but even the old risks need to be re-examined. Your precautions will need another look over to ensure they are still functioning. With experience and technological advances you may even have better means to keep people safe.

Ensure that you and/or the venue have sufficient liability insurance.

ASK your venue if they have liability insurance. This could save you some money if they do, even so be sure to check what is covered. If they do not have sufficient cover, make sure to have your own. You do NOT want your life ruined by having to pay someone’s medical bills. Their medical insurance company will hunt you down and make sure to extract every penny, no matter how nice the damaged person is.

Standard insurance companies often do not understand the risks and demands of public performance and will over charge. So, be sure to shop around. Duck for Cover is a non-profit association created specifically to provide low cost liability for performers. I’ve used them before and was happy with their service.

I know far too many comedians who think, “It’s a one in a million chance that anything will go wrong,” then include some incredibly dangerous elements in their acts. Do you really want to risk someone’s life just for a laugh? It won’t be so funny when reality sends you a nasty turn. Be one of the good guys, care about your audience, attend to the details, then feel safe in yourself that you’ve done the right thing to the best of your ability.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to Duty of Care

  • […] this year I wrote about the duty of care you must take concerning the physical well-being of your audience. As funny as having an anvil fall on Wile E. Coyote’s head is, cartoon […]

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