Overhead Rigging and Stage Safety

Standing on a stage area you may not realize that there are thousands of pounds of equipment suspended overhead. A theatrical rigging system supports heavy loads that are either “dead hung’ or “flown” over the heads of students, staff and the public. This includes stage lighting, curtains, projection screens and scenery. Most rigging systems work reliable on simple principles, but there are inherent risks of serious injury if the equipment is not properly inspected and maintained and if operators are not properly trained.

In many schools, theatre rigging is not included in the overall maintenance plan of the building and is often ignored. Yet, the stage is one of the most used assembly spaces in a school and frequently has large groups of students and community members on the stage. Overhead rigging equipment should be inspected annually by a certified rigging professional, the inspection should be followed by a written report detailing any safety deficiencies found and any equipment repairs made. This report should be kept with building maintenance records.

Stage areas generally contain one of three types of overhead rigging systems or a combination of them (1) counterweighted fly rigging (2) dead hung rigging (3) rope fly rigging.

Counterweighted fly rigging works on the principal of counterbalancing the equipment (lighting, curtains & scenery) suspended over the stage area with an equal amount of weight (the working load) on a counterweight arbor. The arbor is attached to the rigging equipment by fly cables that run over a series of pulleys that allow the rigging equipment to be raised and lowered. Counterweighted fly systems offer the most flexibility of use of any of the rigging systems. Sets can be lowered to change or move lights and curtains. There is no limit to the various configurations that can be made with scenery on a fly system.

Counterweighted fly systems are also the most inherently dangerous of the various types of overhead rigging. The combination of the many different components of a fly system and the fact that working loads and counterbalances can be added and removed can expose the operator and bystanders to serious danger.

Counterweighted fly systems require regular inspection, upkeep and maintenance in order to maintain a safe properly operating system. Annual inspections are an absolute necessity for counterweight fly systems and remember, even with annual inspections, the condition of a counterweighted fly system can change with each use. Students and staff that are not properly trained in the safe operation of a counterweighted fly system should never be allowed to use it.

For many of the reasons stated above, counterweighted fly rigging is the most expensive type of system to purchase and maintain.

Dead Hung rigging equipment is permanently attached to the buildings steel roof structure. Dead Hung rigging sets do not have the ability to raise and lower like counterweighted fly sets.

Dead hung sets should be inspected to ensure that the equipment used to suspend the rigging sets is rated for the existing working loads. Many Dead Hung systems consist of small open link chain that is not rated for the amount of weight that has been suspended from it. The method of attachment to the buildings structure is also an important factor and should be verified to ensure that it complies with industry safety standards.

If rated equipment is properly installed, Dead Hung rigging systems can be economical and maintenance free as compared to counterweighted fly rigging.

Rope Fly rigging utilizes manila rope to suspend rigging equipment over the stage area. The manila rope is attached to the rigging sets, travels through a series of pulleys and is attached to a pin-rail which is mounted on the stage floor. Most Rope Fly systems are circa 1940-1950 and can still be found in many older school buildings. Rope Fly systems are not considered a safe method of suspending and flying stage rigging. When fly ropes are unhooked from the pin-rail there is no counterweight to assist in holding the weight of the rigging set, the strength of the operator is the only thing that prevents the rigging set from falling to the stage floor. If your school building contains any Rope Fly rigging equipment you should have it removed immediately.

The best method of preventing stage rigging accidents is with annual system inspections, proper maintenance and training of all students and staff that use the system. Building supervisors should be very cautious of school staff or community volunteers who help build sets and attach the sets to rigging. While this assistance is well meaning, it can make for some very serious safety issues if people supervising the work not well trained.

The stage area is without a doubt one of the most dangerous places in a school building or community theatre and should be given the same attention as any other designated hazard within your building. Most systems that have safety deficiencies can be upgraded to meet industry safety standards at a reasonable cost without the expense of replacing the entire system.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments that you have regarding the information in this blog.