Safety in the entertainment industry with Janet Sellery
Anyone who has ever worked backstage knows how important safety can be. No more than Janet Sellery from Sellery Health and Safety in Canada. A former stage manager turned safety consultant to the entertainment industry, Janet helps theatre and all kinds of live event based creative practitioners play it safe on a daily basis.
StageBitz caught up with Janet to talk safety in the entertainment industry and discover what lead to such a transformation in career.
Janet and her new career found each other in less than delightful circumstances.
“I was happy as a stage manager. The change came in 1995 when I was working on the Scottish play and an actor fell. We’d rehearsed the scene in the morning and got back on set after lunch to continue our rehearsal work. The actor in question was wearing a mask that partially obscured her peripheral vision. She was positioned on a balcony and when she went to exit, she misjudged and fell. It was a 9 foot drop. She was 71 years old. She survived a fracture skull, punctured lung and numerous other injuries, and was out for 4 months. It struck me at the time that something more needed to be done. Four years later, an OH&S based role became available and I applied.”
In the years since, Janet has really come to enjoy working with people on making their events and productions safer.
“I have been doing this as a private consultant for 5 years. My stage management training has helped a lot. I really like dealing with people, community groups, events and especially theatres. There’s always something new to learn and some other challenge to tackle. My work is varied and puts me in contact with a lot of different situations. I’ve worked with municipal theatres funded by the city, corporate events, touring companies, musicals, community theatre and all kinds of events. I run a lot of Theatre Health & Safety workshops with people and make presentations for CITT (Canadian Institute for Theatre Technology), too. Companies also bring me in for issue based solutions to solve particular problems after inspections or because they have recognised a need to respond to a concern in the workplace or on-site.”
The right attitude can make all the difference when it comes to safety and training in theatre.
“Fifteen years ago, you may have found an attitude of ‘only stupid people fall’ on set and fall protection was tough to implement. However if you spend enough time with people and explain things in ways that makes sense to their day to day working life, people can and do change their attitude. One thing that is really important to keep in mind is no one can have a truly great time with a theatre performance if people are concerned about their safety. It’s a distraction from being able to create their best work on the piece. And that’s why it’s great to see backstage professionals in high hazard jobs such as riggers and people working at height are really paying attention and switched on these days. The students of today are also very well versed in safety. Now they receive training in fall protection and how to work safety when they are high up. They gain training in using hazardous chemicals and come to their jobs with a readiness to learn more. Gone are the days when ‘don’t put your hand in the table saw’ was the only safety message. And this is a great thing to see.”
While many sectors have come a long way, Janet says there are always opportunities for learning more and making improvement when it comes to safety.
“One of the biggest issues in North America at the moment is event safety at outdoor venues. This is partly because you need robust engineering to support the projects effectively, and partly because you need to be really clear and on the ball when dealing with weather issues, the sheer weight of some of the equipment on the rigging, electrical requirements and so on. You’ve got extremely large and heavy plasma’s being hoisted into the air and all sorts of moving parts with thousands of people around. This is why the Event Safety Alliance in the U.S. has taken the British Purple Guide and adapting it for the North American market to aid with information sharing and prevention.”
When asked for a recommendation on how to improve health and safety in the entertainment industry and creative workplaces, Janet had this advice.
“Make training a part of what you do on a day to day and regular basis. Have a clear understanding of what you need to do to meet regulations, and also to make the process as safety sound and worry free as possible.
If you do find yourself with an issue, make sure you’ve had the right training to report what has happened effectively, and what steps you need to take to resolve it.
And focus on making safety part of the conversation in your overall workplace culture. Culture is often the basis of the safest places. People should be able to speak up and be encouraged to do so. The lady who fell during the Scottish play had trouble seeing and she didn’t want to create a fuss prior to finishing the rehearsal. But it isn’t about a bother or a fuss. We’re always trying to do our best work when we’re on set and we simply can’t if we don’t feel safe or something isn’t quite right. It’s far better to speak up if you are concerned beforehand than after the fact.”
For anyone looking to introduce the safety conversation to their workplace, Janet had this to say.
“Always make your safety conversation as relevant as possible to your intended audience. That’s what works for me. When I’m talking to high school students, I’ll talk about Peter Pan and have the students read the script and highlight and respond to the hazards they can spot. It’s not about taking in big folders and reading from them. You need to read the legislation, but you need to be in touch with the people in the room with you, who they are, how it impacts them, and who their colleagues are. I use a lot of stories and talk about of my own encounters. Make it relatable to their work day.”
Personal safety is also a big part of staying safe on set and in the workplace.
“We need to take care of ourselves. Fatigue, exhaustion, hunger, being under caffeinated or unable to concentrate all takes their toll on how we think, respond and move. We need to look out for each other and make good decisions. Be mindful about the exhaustion because fatigue can be a type of impairment. Be sensitive to the needs of the people working the long hours. That means sending the guy who has just worked all the night through for a rest, instead of sending him up a ladder. If you care for each other and look out for moments where safety could potentially be an issue because someone is run down or overloaded, it can really make a big difference. It’s about caring for your colleagues.”
To catch up with Janet as she brings safety to the creative process, head to Sellery Health and Safety.