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An inspector calls

lighting rig

There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it’s because nobody in the school really understands the rigging system. Or maybe we trust that the system seems to work okay and we haven’t had an accident. Some of us with the best of intentions may plan to schedule an inspection, but year after year shuffle the expense into the next budget to make room for spending that has a more visible effect on our shows.

pulley system

Administrators and parents look to us to take care of both the equipment and the children they have entrusted to us. To operate safely and without risk of damage, a counterweight rigging system must be routinely examined and maintained. No matter the depth of our training, it is unlikely that we know enough to guarantee the safety of these systems. Thus, our budget planning should provide for regular inspections by a rigging expert.

In broaching the topic of rigging inspections with your administration, make them aware of the cost and the benefit of the inspection. Make sure they understand that your primary concerns are the safety of the students and the functionality and upkeep of the system, and that in well-run theatres an annual rigging inspection is the norm.

Your case for the inspection will be strengthened if you can cite any recent problems or if you suspect the system is damaged. Don’t start the conversation by raising the specter of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration penalty, but do share this language from OSHA’s regulations: “A thorough annual inspection of the hoisting machinery shall be made by a competent person, or by a government or private agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. The employer shall maintain a record of the dates and results of inspections for each hoisting machine and piece of equipment.”

OSHA rules do not specifically mention theatrical rigging, but a reasonable person can assume that a counterweight system falls within the definition of “hoisting machinery.”

A rigging inspection will typically cost between $800 

and $1,600. The fee will include the inspection, travel costs, and a per diem for the inspector. This may seem pricy and initially difficult to sell to your administration, but as Steve Riordan, principal at Mt. Vernon (Indiana) Senior High School notes, “Rigging inspections are just part of the cost of doing business. The benefits of the inspection, in the light of potential liability in the event of an accident, far outweigh the expense.”

How to find an inspector

Rigging companies and inspectors are easy to find through organizations such as USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) or ESTA (Entertainment Services and Technology Association). Both of these U.S.-based groups represent the best companies involved in entertainment technology. You can contact USITT at info@usitt.org and ESTA at info@esta.org.

Get references, and check them out, from any company you are considering hiring for an inspection. The entertainment technology industry is a very small world and most people are very honest and straightforward in discussing the services they have received.

Unfortunately, there is no licensing for riggers. However, ESTA has recently introduced what it calls the Entertainment Technician Certification Program; seek out companies with ETCP certified riggers. The certification shows that these riggers are truly experts and the risk of substandard work is greatly diminished. A list of riggers carrying this certification can be found at http://etcp.esta.org/. Also, the list of rigging companies on the Dramatics website includes a notation of those companies that have certified riggers on staff.

What to expect

Upon arrival, the rigging inspector will need complete access to your rigging equipment, so you will need to clear the stage and arbor areas. You will also need to provide a man lift so the inspector can look at the loft blocks, head blocks, and any other equipment or attachments found overhead.
An inspection may take anywhere from four to eight hours, depending on the complexity of your system. During that time the inspector will look at (the numbers refer to the photographs at left and right):

  • All wire rope/cable terminations (1)
  • The condition of all lift lines (2 and 3)
  • The condition of loft blocks, floor blocks, head blocks, etc. (4)
  • The condition of all purchase/hand lines (5)
  • The condition of the arbor and guide mechanisms
  • The functionality of the linesets (6)
  • The rope locks (7)
  • All hardware and the appropriateness of the load ratings for the task assigned them (8)

The inspector will also make note of any needed updates based on current standards.

Hand on rig system

 (If your rigging was installed twenty-five years ago, no matter how well it has been maintained, it probably needs some upgrades.)

 He or she will also evaluate stage drapes and their fire-retardant certifications, and note any violations of generally accepted standards of safe practice.

Alert the inspector to problems you have noticed and share any critical issues such as runaway linesets. The inspector usually will not make any repairs during the inspection but will tell you if a portion of your system is in imminent danger of failure and needs to be shut down.

How to get ready

Things to do before the day of the inspection:

  1. Clear off the stage and the arbor loading area.
  2. Provide a man lift.
  3. Don’t clean up dirt and dust. The remnants may include evidence of problems.
  4. Have your rigging log book available to the inspector. The log book is a journal of observations, maintenance, and inspections, dated and signed by the parties involved.

In addition to those preparations, you may also do the following before the inspector arrives:

  1. Make sure your linesets are clearly labeled.
  2. Cross-stack counterweight no more than one foot in height.
  3. Make sure all emergency exit signs are visible and illuminated.
  4. Make sure all fire extinguisher positions are clearly marked.
  5. Be certain that your linesets are in balance and that spreader plates and stop collars are in place.

These are not big problems to fix. You’ll save the inspector some time and yourself the aggravation of explaining why you didn’t already address these issues.

How to prevent problems

The easiest way to minimize problems with your rigging is to get appropriate training. One of the greatest contributors to system malfunction and damage is inappropriate use. A lack of regular system checks and an ignorance of basic system function can cause small problems to grow larger and create ongoing safety issues. Examples include keeping the linesets out of balance, which puts excess strain on liftlines and rope locks; allowing arbors to hit their bottom or top stops rather than slowing the arbor to avoid “smacking” the top or bottom; and being inattentive to changes in system noise or a different feel in the handlines as the arbor moves.

Training doesn’t have to involve a trip to Las Vegas for a three-day seminar. There are several rigging seminars that are offered each year throughout the United States. (For a list, see the material linked to this story on our website.) If it’s impractical for you to attend a seminar, a presenter can be hired to do one at your facility. This opportunity for students and teachers to become better educated will likely save you time, money, and aggravation—and most importantly, will better ensure student safety. If you’re like most of us working in educational theatre, almost everything you know about rigging was based on what someone showed you or told you. Unless that person was an expert, your knowledge is only as good as theirs.

After the inspection

Following the inspection you should expect a full report with pictures, descriptions of problems, and recommendations for repairs. The report generally takes three to four weeks to generate; if you haven’t seen it by then, call the company.
You don’t have to be a rigging expert to understand the report, but it is wise to acquaint yourself with the system’s parts. After you’ve received the report, set up a conference call that includes the inspector, yourself, and your administrator to discuss the report and any remedies suggested.

A common question is, “Won’t the inspector try to find problems so that his company can sell me more costly repairs?” This is a fair question, and the answer is, maybe. That kind of unethical behavior is not unheard of. There is a degree of trust that you must have with the company you have hired. A good way to avoid problems is to talk with their other clients. Also, you don’t have to use the company that did the inspection to perform any recommended work. In fact it’s likely that some simple repairs can be done by you or by school maintenance personnel.

Repairs on critical elements of the system, though, should be done by a qualified rigging company. During a recent inspection at my school, it was discovered that our projection screen was being held up with baling wire. The work had been done by a general contractor who likely thought, “This looks strong enough.” This “rigging” was also missed in a previous inspection.

During the conference call you should try to determine what the logical next step will be for repairs. Rigging repairs are not cheap, and you cannot always pick and choose what will or will not be done or the sequence of repairs. The interdependence of system components may not allow for one repair while ignoring another. Moreover, doing the work in stages will likely increase the cost, because of additional travel expenses for the rigging personnel and inflationary increases in material prices.

Administrators sometimes believe that theatre educators are experts in all things theatrical, and who are we to argue? But we can’t be experts about everything in our theatre, and this is especially true with respect to technical theatre elements. We are, however, professionals who have an intelligent understanding of the complexities of theatrical systems and the need for consistent maintenance and oversight.

Rigging is machinery, and like all machinery, it needs to be inspected and maintained on a regular basis. The question for you and your administration is, “Can we guarantee that our theatre’s rigging is safe?” If you cannot answer yes, then you need to have an inspection. 

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