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Rigger at Large: Fall Protection

PLSN Staff • LD at Large • December 12, 2015

These days, putting on a harness before you climb is as automatic as putting on a pair of gloves or checking your radio channel before you start work. But any lighting technician or rigger of a certain age remembers when wearing a harness — even the ones that are illegal today for fall protection — was optional. In the early 80’s I was a house rigger at the Rockford MetroCentre in Rockford, IL. The head rigger there was Bo Medearis. Bo was a thoughtful, methodical, and confident rigger — which made him everything I wasn’t. I was young, brash, and cocky.

A Once-Radical Concept

At some point, Bo became convinced we needed to be protected from falling while we rigged, which was a radical idea in 1980. Back then, entertainment fall protection was a far-out concept.

This cluelessness wasn’t willful, but it was naïve. In 1980, professional touring was barely ten years old. Generally, it never occurred to us to wear a harness. Those of us climbing trusses or walking beams just did it carefully and held on tight. The words we lived by were “keep a tight grip, and don’t step back to admire your work.” And that was the end of it. If you didn’t possess a certain confidence to hang on tight while working at height, you chose another line of work. No one thought any more about it.

If this sounds simplistic, it is. We were still learning.

Bo lobbied building management hard to install horizontal lifelines, which was another high hurdle to get over. If most of us who actually walked the high steel didn’t see the need to wear a harness, you better believe the suit in the corner office saw even less of a need to spend thousands of dollars on a vague risk hardly anyone was even acknowledging.

It took more than a year of continuous asking, but Bo finally prevailed.

The next show was The J. Geils Band. Bo put on his full body harness (another rarity in those days). It was then, on the catwalk high above the stage at the Rockford MetroCentre, that Bo and I had an argument. Bo said I should wear a harness. He had fought hard for the new lifelines, and he said it wouldn’t look good after all that lobbying to have riggers walking on the beams ignoring them. I argued wearing a harness should be optional. Why on earth, I reasoned, would I voluntarily restrict my movement with a bulky harness, plus constantly fiddle with a lanyard, if I didn’t have too? I had other things to do — I had points to pull. After a few minutes of listening to my hubris, Bo gave up. He clipped his lanyard to the lifeline and stepped out on the beam. I followed him…without a harness

The show was rigged that day without incident. And I continued to climb “Commando” throughout the 80’s, or when the venue was really high (as if that made a difference), I’d wear a climber’s cheap sit harness.

A Shift in Attitude

Fortunately for fall protection (and music and fashion), the 80’s ended. There’s probably no single answer for why fall protection began to take hold in the 90’s, but what I remember is people started to become aware: aware that workers were peeling off of wire rope ladders, and aware of the life-and-death risks of working at height. Personally, I can point to one single event that made me pay more attention to that thing I was buckling (or wasn’t) around my waist.

What happened was, I got married.

All sorts of things changed in my life when I said “I do,” but professionally, it included having a harder time touring, and for some nutty reason, developing a keen desire to stay alive.

That desire translated into the first of several purges of the contents of my rigging bag. Gone was that cheap sit harness that I used only for the “big rooms.” Gone were the aluminum carabiners. Gone was the 1-inch wide nylon webbing loop tied in a water knot that I used for a lanyard.

Fortunately, at exactly the same time I was emptying out my rigging bag, Rocky Paulson, founder of Stage Rigging, Inc. in California, started what seemed like a one-man campaign to make all of us in show production who climbed more aware of the hazards. Rocky began educating us on what we should be using — and why — instead of using whatever we’d been able to buy at the local climbing store.

Once I put the right harness on, I never took it off at work — except once. I was the house rigger at the Riviera Theater, in Chicago. Spinal Tap was on their Break Like The Wind tour, and Kurt McLaughlin was the tour rigger. One of the set pieces in the show was the giant horned skull used in the movie. The skull hung from a 10-foot piece of truss and flew into view during “Hell Hole.”

During the show, a few minutes before the cue, I looked up and noticed that a cable had somehow swung underneath the truss. If the truss flew in, it would become fouled on the cable. I pointed this out to Kurt. The choices were two: scrap the cue, or ride the truss in and kick the cable out of the way.

I dashed up to the grid and slid down a hoist chain to the truss. The truss started moving, and I stuck out my foot and kicked the cable out of the way. Problem solved — except now, I had to get off the still-moving truss with me perched on it like pigeon before it came into view of the audience. As the truss came level with a catwalk that ran along the Riviera’s upstage wall, I stretched as far as I could to reach the catwalk railing — which turned out to be just a few inches out of my reach. For a second it looked like I might become part of Tap’s Chicago show after all. Then, from out of nowhere, it seemed, Kurt appeared on the catwalk in the semi darkness, and with one long thick arm, he reached out and scooped me off the truss and onto the catwalk.

Our industry is full of stories like this, and I am fully aware that I am one of the lucky ones who escaped injury or worse on that or any of the other countless gigs where I did something risky. But we can no longer rely on luck to keep us safe. Luck and flaunting convention were part of our rock ‘n’ roll outlaw ethos when we started, but it doesn’t serve us in the least today.

Today, organizations like ESTA and people like Jim Digby, who founded the ESA (Event Safety Alliance) have helped our learning curve to angle sharply up. SPRAT (Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians) and IRATA (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association) training give anyone who climbs an education on access and safety at height that I could only have dreamed about years ago. These organizations are providing us two incredibly valuable things: They are providing an awareness of the risks involved with what we do, and they are providing solutions — or inspiring us to come up with them — to keep accidents to a minimum.

I am grateful to Rocky Paulson for showing me another way in those early days of transitioning to wearing the proper safety equipment. And like Bo at the Metro Centre, who somehow figured out that this was the right thing to do more than 30 years ago, it just feels better once I strap the right equipment onto my body.

Michael Reed is president of Reed Rigging in Chicago.

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