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The Future of Safety Lies In The Hands of Humans

Guest Feature: Jim Digby

Jim Digby's love of the entertainment industry started at an early age. In fifth grade, Jim found inspiration when his teacher made him Master of Ceremonies and the technician of the annual May Day celebration. From that point on, he was hooked for life. He was fortunate to grow up during a time when funding for the arts was widely supported in schools, which enabled Jim to explore and develop his interests backstage from a very young age. After high school, he went on to continue his education at an electronics trade school which helped him land his first entertainment-related job at a Philadelphia-area nightclub. At that time, Pulsations was under construction so it could host a 2,500 capacity audience. Hired as a lighting and effects installation technician, Jim later became the lighting/automation operator and the personality of the club's robot host, Pulsar. This first professional entertainment role is where Jim’s safety origin story begins which later led to the creation of the Event Safety Alliance.

Jim Digby

On Pulsations’ grand opening night in 1983, a fatal accident occurred when a lighting fixture fell from the ceiling. In the rush to open, the safety mechanisms preventing the fixture from coming off the end of its track had not yet been installed by the construction team. The resulting mechanical failure killed a patron very near to where Jim had been operating it. Jim continued working at this venue and became a participant in the immediately implemented safety practices developed in the wake of the tragedy. From then on, nightly safety pre-checks were routinely executed fueled by a desire to never experience anything like the opening night tragedy ever again. From the beginning of Jim’s professional journey, tragedy yielded a personal defense strategy which helped to ensure the pain of this early moment would not be repeated.

He then went on to work at Disney where the devotion to customer experience, care, and safety were reinforced as essential ideals and were paramount in maintaining employment. Post Disney, Jim got his first taste of the tour life when he traveled the country as a Technical Director for a museum tour in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Snowballing from there, he got involved in Rock & Roll touring and production working with MTV during the Unplugged and Fashionably loud series, alongside a wide variety of music touring artists.

Historically, live event safety was not at the forefront of operations, nor did safety competencies need to be proven upon hiring. It has been a business that was by and large done by on-the-job training, where event personnel learn skills and lessons overtime on the job. Yet, safety has nearly always been a principal element of Jim’s professional journey.

How did the Event Safety Alliance come to be? Triggered by the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage collapse, Jim had an overwhelming feeling that we as an industry lacked the tools to prevent such a tragedy and had collectively let down the seven who lost their lives and the fifty-five other people who suffered permanent injuries. He realized that it could have been him or any number of his colleagues in the same situation as those in Indiana and despite not being involved in the incident, the tragedy tore open the scar tissue leftover from the nightclub accident; he could not sit idly by. Jim initially set out in search of education to improve his knowledge of safety, yet found nothing that directly addressed the risks related to the event production career he entrenched himself in, nor any professional development that came close. Simultaneously, Jim was in a group of like-minded production professionals who were holding routine thought leadership calls to drive a response to the tragedy. Eventually, it became obvious that a more organized advocacy was needed, so Jim proposed the concept of forming an alliance of production, safety, legal, insurance, and teaching professionals to address the glaring gap in safety knowledge that existed in live events. This led to the birth of the Event Safety Alliance and within two years resulted in the publication of North America's first collection of reasonable practices, the Event Safety Guide. While no single publication could ever capture the entire spectrum of live event types, venues, audiences, and risks, the Event Safety Guide memorializes a reasonable, scalable, and referenceable starting point for safety across multiple disciplines.

Event Safety Summit

“From green fields to enclosed venues, understanding one's duty of care is critical.” What does ‘duty of care’ mean? Jim breaks it down with the example of a Tour Manager. In this role, one has the legal duty of care of the artist, the elements belonging to or actioned by the artist, such as the trucks and production leased to the tour and the staff hired to run the production. However, duty does not stop here, the conscious duty of care is to do no harm to anyone and yields its best results when the leadership promotes and leads by example a culture of safety. In order to achieve this, communication is key. Demonstrating the steps taken to maintain safety amongst mutual stakeholders is of the utmost importance. “We are all stakeholders in safety.” The jurisdictional boundaries of who is responsible for safety boils down to who has control in that space. When thinking of a venue, the venue is responsible for the humans inside it, the audience, the back of house venue staff, as well as ensuring the structure itself is safe. In some instances, some of this legal responsibility may be shared with a promoter. Yet regardless of which entity has a duty of care for a particular portion or area of an event, risk identification, risk assignments, risk prioritizing are all component parts of risk management which must be a priority of everyone involved. The vision the ESA tries to communicate is that as part of a planning process for a tour. For example, the beginning of those discussions need to have safety as a component and must be specific and tailored toward what you are producing. The process involves risk assessing and measuring from all areas of what is entailed in the event; from the personnel touring on the bus to patrons driving to and from the venue. In this way, we are preparing ourselves so that if a risk-assessed situation occurs, and it has an impact, the response steps are in place. Encouraging our vendors to be able to demonstrate their safety mechanisms as part of the hiring process goes a long way because when you do that you inspire safety.

Event Safety Summit

"The future of safety lies in the hands of humans; technology is merely a tool in the expanding safety toolbox." The current state of play in many places in the industry is that stakeholders may or may not be making safety their priority, and those who produce live events are not required to have demonstrable formal knowledge about safety and risk mitigation. Clearly, this needs to change. Unfortunately, many don’t consider safety an integral part of executing a live event and those who do the hiring have not yet adopted a practice prioritizing the humans who have a clear safety knowledge. “The principal cause of death in Indiana was not the weather nor was it the stage collapse, the principal cause was the lack of an actionable plan coordinated with all of the relevant stakeholders. In some sense this is a hopeful truth, we can fix the lack of planning, we can’t fix the weather.” And that’s what the ESA has been striving to achieve since it’s inception 8 years ago. Two of the Event Safety Guide subjects are now American National Standards Institute (ASNI) standards; the rest of the guide is in the process as well.

"Without the existence of compassion, safety doesn't matter." “The intrinsic value of safety is impeded when compassion is not prevalent, we need to elevate the culture of safety while empowering everyone to be active participants in its execution.” This value is critical when implementing safety protocols and it's equally important to teach to both new and veteran producers. Most of the time, people have difficulty changing because it is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and requires new knowledge; it’s easier to stay with what you already know. It is one of the foundational goals of the ESA to make safety easy to understand and execute at all levels. “It’s often not the fault of just one person when something goes wrong; there is almost always a chain of causation that results in failure. The job of safety planning and a proactive safety culture is to break that chain.”

How do live events reopen safely amidst a global pandemic? ESA Vice President Steve Adelman - and Director of Operations Jacob Worek, brought together some 300 professionals associated with the organization, or what Steve refers to as our "smart friends", to create the ESA Reopening Guide. The reopening guide quickly became the go-to resource for those producing events of all shapes and sizes and has been downloaded more than 28,000 times from ESA’s website. The WHO and CDC guidelines, the Event Safety Guide, and the events professionals created the reopening guidance in the voice of live events in an effort to ensure a familiar lexicon helping to keep COVID at bay in the entertainment sector. While the guidance is comprehensive, there remain four principle tenets that have not changed as we continue to learn more about the disease: wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, and remember we’re all in this together (be compassionate). This year has been an emotional rollercoaster for EVERYONE; it’s important to keep room for a variety of emotional responses while on-site executing events. This is the compassion part that we need to invest widely in.

Event Safety Summit

A 6-month update was released in November, and it is essential to note that the 4 basic principles are still our best defense. WE MUST WEAR MASKS. One prevalent early finding has been updated; presently there is a widely held belief that surface contamination is less of a hazard.

What’s next? Yes, we have to respond to COVID, but it’s also important to think from a long term perspective. Can we cause our response to the current pandemic to be broad enough that the next time there’s something that inhibits our ability to produce live events, like a pandemic, we can turn on a response and we don’t have to worry about figuring out the details, whether that be political conversations, a lack of resources, or something else?

Want to learn more? The Event Safety Summit will take place from December 7–11th and will (for the first time) be 100% ONLINE, making the "least sexy subject of safety" - but most important topic in the business - accessible to all. Jim hopes that COVID induced a change of delivery for the annual Event Safety Summit, and will attract even more smart friends and a greater participation by the industry at large. After all, the most pragmatic way to produce safe events is to learn from the experts and each other.

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