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Theatre Safety

This information is applicable to all members of the theatre community including directors, performers, crew, stage managers, and front-of-house personnel and is designed to follow a production from planning stages to strike.

Stage and Screen


Event Planning and Registration

Pyrotechnics and Fire Code Permits
When open flames or pyrotechnic devices (such as flash pots) are a planned part of the performance, contact the Safety and Risk Management Office (828-227-7443) a minimum of 4 weeks before the performance to obtain a fire code permit application.  Fire Code permits from the local municipality are required for open flames and fireworks/pyrotechnics. 

Special Effects
Certain special effects should be reviewed to ensure all necessary safeguards are in place. Contact the Safety Office at the earliest phase of production if the performance involves the use of:

Knives, swords, guns or any prop weapons
Items suspended over the audience
Pits, trap doors or other changes in elevation
Fog or smoke
Strobe Lighting
Rigging or flying performers
Any unusual stage effect which raises safety/health concerns

Set Design and Construction

Props and Decoration
Decorative materials such as curtains, draperies, streamers, fabrics, cotton batting, straw, hay, vines, leaves, stalks, tress and moss must be noncombustible or flame resistant or be rendered so with commercially available products.  Certain types of decorative materials may be used only with the approval of the Fire Marshal.  Contact the Safety and Risk Management Office (828-227-7443) if you have any questions about the approved use of decorative materials.

Structural Issues for Set Design
Any set design which includes ladders, traps, scaffolds, rakes, rigging or other specialty devices must be approved and inspected by the production crew before each use. Some rigging guidelines include:

  • Anything attached to a flybar must have a safety cable attached as well.
  • Check that everything attached to a light, including barn doors, gel cases and safety cables, are secure before it is raised.
  • Make sure the rope or cord is strong enough for what you are lifting and that the rope or cord is not frayed or damaged in any way.
  • Warn people on the stage or grid before moving any rigged scenery or other objects.
  • Maintain visual contact with a moving piece at all times.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment includes all types of equipment used to increase individual safety while performing potentially hazardous tasks.  This may include eye and face protection, head protection, foot protection, hand protection, respiratory protection, or any equipment used to protect against injury or illness

Hand & Portable Power Tools
Crewmembers should use a power tool only after receiving proper training.  Stage managers should review the operation of the equipment, making sure to point out safety features and guards.  Crewmembers should be familiar with the owner’s manual for the tool, and should know both the use and the limitations of all power tools.

Only trained crewmembers are permitted to use power tools such as mitre saws, table saws, and drill presses.  This training must be documented. 

Machine Guarding
All mechanical equipment is to be equipped with guards that prevent access to electrical connections or moving parts, such as belts and pulleys of a vacuum pump.  Each worker should inspect equipment before using it to ensure that the guards are in place and functioning.  Careful design of guards is vital.  An ineffective guard can be worse than none at all, because it may give a false sense of security.  Emergency shutoff devices may be needed in addition to electrical and mechanical guarding.  Please reference the Machine Guarding Program for more information.

Ladders are one of the most common tools of the theatre trade.  Misuse of portable ladders can result in serious injuries from falls or, in the case of metal ladders, electrical shock.  Portable ladders must be maintained in good condition at all times, and inspected at regular, frequent intervals.  Whenever possible, ladders should be hung horizontally on wall hooks in a dry place not subject to extremes of temperatures.  Users can do minor maintenance, like lubricating hinges and tightening hardware.  However, ladder repair is specialized work and should be completed by qualified persons or the manufacturer.  If conditions exist that make a ladder unsafe for use, it should be removed from service immediately and marked with a warning such as "Dangerous - Do Not Use".  Personnel using ladders are required to take Ladder Safety training.

Chemical Hazards
Most chemical use in theatre is limited to paints and stains.  However, if you are using any new or non-routine product, contact the Safety Office for assistance on proper use, PPE, spill and disposal procedures.  

Work areas can become congested while constructing the set and while rehearsals take place.  Clutter makes it difficult to move around and can be a fire hazard.  To prevent accumulation of materials, trash should be removed daily.

  • Place trash in proper receptacles, preferably in metal containers.
  • Clean up after each work session
  • Avoid accumulating scrap lumber and materials
  • Purchase materials as needed to avoid the need for additional storage
  • Store tools in the proper areas when not in use

Storage of Materials
The proper storage of materials in theatre spaces is extremely important to the efficiency of the production and the safety of the cast, crew and audience.  The NC Fire Code mandates certain storage requirements, such as:

  • Flammable and combustible liquids must be stored in approved flammable storage cabinets.
  • If the building has sprinklers, materials must be a minimum of 18 inches below sprinkler heads and a minimum of 24 inches below the ceiling in unsprinklered areas.
  • Materials must never obstruct an exit from the building.
  • Stored materials must be a minimum of three feet in all directions from unit heaters, duct furnaces and flues.
  • Smoking is prohibited in all places of assembly and in spaces where combustible materials are stored or handled.

Lifting and Material Handling
Moving and transporting set pieces can be some of the most significant hazards during set construction. The following tips are recommended to avoid injury while moving and lifting objects:

  • Ensure you have adequate help to lift heavy or awkward items.
  • Plan your route before lifting.  Ensure pieces will fit through doorways, openings on vehicles before attempting any lifting.
  • Use hand trucks or carts whenever possible to reduce lifting.
  • Strap or secure items that may fall during transport. "If it can fall down, lay it down."

Lighting and Sound Production

Electrical Hazards
Follow these guidelines when working with electrical devices.  Many students have never worked with electricity directly before working on stage.

  • Repairs: Students should not attempt electrical repairs without proper training.  Equipment that malfunctions or causes shocks should be removed from service and repaired by a qualified individual.
  • Extension cords: Extension cords are only designed for temporary use.  Use of thin, light duty extension cords can increase the risk of fire and shock.  Make sure extension cords have adequate current capacity for the equipment being used.  Do not pull an electrical cord out of a socket by the cord.  This breaks interior wires and can cause a short and, possibly, a fire.  Inspect for frayed or split cords or plugs before use.
  • Electrical Cords: Electrical cords can also be a tripping hazard.  It is a good practice to route cords away from traffic areas to prevent trips and falls. Avoid stretching or pinching cords between objects.  This can break interior wires, causing overheating which can result in a fire. Do not cover electrical cords with rugs; this can also result in a fire.
  • Circuit Protection Devices: Circuit protection devices are designed to automatically limit or shut off the flow of electricity in the event of a ground-fault, overload, or short circuit in the wiring system.  A ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, should be used in high-risk areas such as wet locations or outdoor sites.  Portable GFCIs are available from any hardware store or safety supply catalog.
  • Training: Training is essential in working with lighting circuitry, dimmers and instruments.  Employees and students should be trained before being authorized to work the control areas.  Document the training. 
  • Keep food and beverages out of the light control areas to prevent possible shocks and damage to the circuitry.
  • Overhead Lighting: Lighting dimmers have limits to the lamp loads they can handle.  Overloading dimmers can cause a fire hazard.  NOTE: The wattage of the bulbs MAY NOT exceed that of the dimmers they are plugged into.  

Ladders & Catwalks
Lighting work sometimes requires working from ladders or elevated surfaces such as catwalks.

Catwalks are designed with fall protection in the form of guardrails.  Guardrails may not be removed, climbed or defeated in any way without additional fall protection practices in place.  Ladder and guardrail safety training must be documented.

Safety Concerns for Cast and Crew

Products approved for makeup use have been tested extensively for toxic hazards.  Only these products should be used for stage productions.  Old containers of makeup could contain bacteria and should be thrown away.  Wash your face and hands before applying cosmetics.  If you are using makeup from a “communal” make-up kit, use a clean brush or your clean fingers to apply.  Shared makeup should not be applied directly to your face.  These guidelines should be followed for shared makeup users:

  • Creme sticks: slice these out with dental spatulas on to individual papers such as butter trays.  Label and reuse them individually for touch-ups.
  • Lipsticks:  These too can be sliced and labeled. 
  • Pancakes and powders: Powdered products provide a less viable environment for infection, but try to individualize usage.  Supply powders in the smallest containers available.
  • Mascara: Use individual applicators/containers if possible.
  • Eyeliners and Eye makeup: Use individual products if possible.
  • Brushes: Use disposable brushes.
  • Sponges: Use disposable sponges whenever possible.  Reusable ones can be disinfected.  Give out individual sponges at the beginning of a show, and maintain separate use.
  • Miscellaneous: Any type of facial hair, skullcaps, sequins, or other face product should be disinfected before use by a new performer. Use an approved bactericide for disinfection.  Carefully store these types of products in labeled individual plastic bags between performances. 
  • Makeup artists should make a practice of washing their hands between actors.  Sponges and brushes should be washed after use on each individual.
  • When removing spirit gum or latex, avoid prolonged skin contact with solvents.  Use moisturizers to replace lost skin oils and to guard against dermatitis.

Fatigue is a serious safety concern that should be considered during all stage productions.  With performance dates approaching, most crewmembers can become severely overworked.  Follow these simple guidelines to avoid fatigue:

  • Get proper rest. The average person requires 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Limit drugs that might contribute to fatigue (tranquilizers and cold/allergy medications)
  • Reduce caffeine, nicotine and alcohol which can also contribute to fatigue.
  • Take frequent breaks while working.  Repetitive or long work sessions can reduce one’s ability to concentrate on the work at hand.
  • Plan ahead.  Having your building materials and equipment ahead of time can increase efficiency and reduce the work time required.
  • Know when to quit.  Recognize signs of fatigue – loss of concentration, slow reaction times, memory loss – and knock off for the day.

Heat Stress
Theatre spaces are often without air-conditioning and, even if they are air-conditioned, stage lighting can produce an incredibly hot glow.  Add that to the stress and/or excitement of performing, and cast members are prime candidates for heat stress.  Working in hot conditions may pose special hazards to safety and health.

Drink plenty of liquids during a performance to replace the fluids lost from sweating – as much as one quart per hour may be necessary.  Water and/or sports drinks are recommended.  Avoid caffeinated beverages such as cola, iced tea and coffee.

During the Performance

Crowd Control
Attendance for an event can be controlled through ticket sales, so overcrowding does not become an issue.  The number of people involved and the nature of the event are the primary determining factors if security may be required.  

Front-of-House Personnel
The house manager and all front-of-house personnel must assist the audience to evacuate the building safely in case of an emergency.  A fire safety and evacuation plan must be prepared and all personnel should be trained in the duties they are to perform under the plan.  Front-of-house personnel may wish to be instructed in the proper use of portable fire extinguishers. Fire extinguisher training is available through the Safety and Risk Management Office.

Exits (Means of Egress)
The means of egress is the continuous and unobstructed path of travel from any point in a place of assembly to an exit or public way (e.g., sidewalk, street, etc.).  All parts of the means of egress must be available for immediate, emergency use. 

  • Aisles and corridors must be unobstructed and kept free of flammable or combustible materials.
  • Event organizers must inspect the means of egress immediately prior to any event and remove any obstructions immediately.
  • Exit doors must be unlocked.
  • Ensure that the exit discharge is also unobstructed (e.g., not blocked by dumpsters or vehicles, no materials stored against the exit door, all snow removed, etc.).
  • All exit signs must be clearly illuminated and unobstructed at all times.
  • The width of a means of egress cannot be blocked or reduced.
  • Draperies or similar decorative hangings cannot obstruct the view or the access to an exit.
  • Mirrors cannot be placed near an exit in any manner that may confuse those trying to exit.
  • Exits cannot be used for any other purpose other than a means of egress. 
  • Spaces within a stairway enclosure are not to be used for storage of any materials. 


Set Deconstruction & Material Disposal
Strike can be a chaotic, hazardous aspect of any production.  Care must be taken to ensure that the stability of set pieces is not compromised as they are deconstructed, creating fall or crush hazards.  Strikes should be organized with individuals assigned discrete tasks.

Chemical Waste Disposal
Most commonly used organic solvents (e.g., acetone, methanol, toluene, mineral spirits, turpentine) and paints are considered hazardous waste and cannot be disposed of with regular trash or poured down the drain.   If you have hazardous waste to be disposed of, contact Safety and Risk Management (828-227-7443) for assistance.

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