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Risk management guide: Re-opening theatres

Last reviewed: 06/07/2021

This information was true and accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing. Please visit the HSE website for further guidance and to download one of their risk management templates.

After more than a year of intermittent lockdowns, from 17 May 2021 theatres and other entertainment venues were allowed to re-open their doors to live audiences. However, with a strict capacity limit in place, many theatres were financially unable to reopen due decreased audience numbers and increased overheads.

Despite an extremely disheartening pushback from 21 June, the next key date for theatres is 19 July – where it’s hoped that restrictions will be lifted, and it’ll be more viable for large-scale events to take place - finally putting an end to the UK’s culture drought.

But before getting this show on the road, have you updated your theatre’s risk management plan to include new COVID-19 measures?

Here are some of the key points you may need to be consider when updating your theatre’s risk management plan, as well as some useful links and extra tips around the types of insurance you might need to protect your theatre or performing arts group.

What needs to be included in a theatre risk assessment?

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 applies to theatres just as it does to other businesses, extending to crews, casts and audience members.

But business owners’ not only have a legal obligation to protect the safety and welfare of their staff and customers – they have a moral obligation as well. Therefore, it’s important that you have a robust risk assessment strategy in place for your theatre that identifies and manages any risks your staff or customers could encounter on the premises. These are some of the key areas that should be reviewed as part of your theatre’s risk management strategy:

Working at height and manual handling

Nothing says “show business” quite like a cast member being suspended 20 feet in the air.

But with the majority of injuries in the theatre industry relating to working at height and manual handling, it’s important to make sure you have appropriate measures in place to meet your legal requirements and mitigate accidents as much as possible.

This applies to the use of equipment such as gantries, bridges, catwalks, trampoline systems and more, as well as the safety of lighting and electrical technicians working at height in the theatre – for example, there should be processes in place to ensure all equipment and scenery is brought to ground level for adjustment and repairs.

You should also consider the safety of your employees when it comes to loading and unloading equipment, as loads can often be heavy as well as having to be moved at speed – creating the perfect environment for strain-related injuries.

Your risk management strategy also needs to outline processes for training technicians and staff members on how to install, test and use fall mitigation equipment - such as airbags, nets and inertia reel harnesses.

Further information on working at height can be found in the ABTT Code of Practice for the selection and use of temporary access equipment for working at heights in theatres.

Further guidance for manual handling at work can be found on the HSE website.

Electrical safety

You should arrange to regularly inspect and maintain any electrical or lighting equipment as part of your theatre’s risk management plan.

Most theatre productions will have some sort of electrical equipment on set, all of which needs to be PAT tested before it can legally be put into use. Items that do not have a current electrical safety test tag should not be used anywhere in the theatre.

You should also consider whether any of the electrical items on stage could cause a fire, burn or trip hazard.

Find further electrical safety guidance for entertainers on HSE’s website.

Employees and customers

It’s your legal duty to identify and mitigate risks to the health and safety of your employees, including having employers’ liability insurance in place - you could even be fined up to £2,500 for every day you’re not properly insured.

This applies to anyone that has a contract of employment in place (whether spoken, written or implied) – including managers, directors, designers, cleaners, technicians, cast members and more. You will also need to consider contractors, apprentices and volunteers when assessing your need for employers’ liability cover.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the theatre business the risk of injury is high – whether you have crew members working at height, or suspended objects that could fall if not installed correctly.

When assessing employee risks, it may be worth doing a full walk-through of the set to check for things like whether the stage is stable or at risk of collapse, or whether employees could trip due to drapes or particularly cumbersome costumes!

You should also carry out regular inspections and maintenance of all electrical, lighting and sound equipment.

However, it’s not just employees you need to factor into your risk management strategy. You’ll also need to consider risks to audience members - and any other members of the public that attend your theatre - and outline ways to mitigate those risks in your assessment. For example, what if a customer trips and injures themselves? Or falls ill after eating food from the concession stand?

You should also consider the potential financial impact of a third-party injury or illness – could your theatre afford the legal costs should a member of the public make a claim for compensation?

Public liability insurance provides protection against any claims, compensation payments and legal costs that could arise should a member of the public injure themselves or damage their property while visiting your theatre.

Get a quote for public and employers’ liability insurance as part of your bespoke theatre or community group insurance solution.

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Fire and emergencies

Planning an explosion as part of a performance? Or even just lighting a single candle? If you’ll be using explosive devices or open flames for a show - no matter how small - you’ll need to carry out a risk assessment and apply for the appropriate permits plenty of time in advance to ensure you’re meeting your legal obligations under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) fire legislation.

This includes maintaining fire detection and alarm systems and ensuring staff, cast members and audiences are familiar with emergency evacuation procedures – as well as keeping these procedures up-to-date.

Read the government’s 'Fire safety risk assessment guidance' for theatres, cinemas and similar premises here.

It’s also your responsibility to protect the financial interests of the theatre, and so you may need to consider arranging building and/or contents insurance for any assets that the theatre owns or is financially responsible for (for example, under a lease agreement) under your theatre or community group insurance policy.

You may also need to consider taking out business interruption insurance which provides cover for losses following an incident that interrupts or interferes with your normal activities – such as a fire or flood.

COVID-secure measures

Number 1 on your risk management checklist - or at least in the top 5 - will be carrying out risk assessments relating to COVID-19, identifying any high-risk areas and implementing hygiene and social-distancing measures for staff, crews, cast and audience members.

Even though the government are aiming to reduce and remove COVID restrictions, it’s likely that there will be a continued need for baseline safety measures. This is in order to promote audience and staff safety, and of course, prevent the spread of the virus.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the key points you’ll need to consider for your risk management strategy:

  1. Hand hygiene

It’s essential that everyone practices hand hygiene when attending or working at the theatre. Ensure adequate supplies of soap and fresh water are always available and kept topped up, or provide hand sanitiser (minimum 60% alcohol based) where hand washing facilities are unavailable. You should also ensure that hand washing facilities are cleaned regularly.

  1. General cleaning

You may need to upgrade your theatre’s cleaning procedures to reduce the risk of contamination, including continuous monitoring and increasing the frequency of cleaning for higher risk areas (such as toilets, surface areas, hand sanitising and food service areas).

  1. Social distancing

Although the plan is to hopefully remove social distancing measures from 19 July, given the fact that the COVID outbreak is still in motion, you may wish to advise safe distancing in your venue. That being said, this is unlikely to be enforced by law, so hopefully there should be no reason you can’t operate at full capacity. You could enforce safe distancing at a theatre-level to remind people to be mindful of each other, not to stand too close in queues to the bar etc.

You could have a site access plan in place to help with social distancing and clearly signpost one-way systems and exit / entry points to the premises.

In relation to staff, to reduce risk, you could even keep the number of crew and cast members on site to a minimum by staggering start times or reducing the number of people in attendance at rehearsals.

  1. Face coverings

By the time ‘Freedom Day’ (hopefully) arrives, it will have nearly been a whole year since the government made it a legal requirement to wear face coverings in specific settings (unless an exemption applies).

Going forward, it’s thought that the mask mandate could be removed after 19 July. So you should consider whether you would like to enforce masks within your theatre, and also when and where people will need to wear them to reduce the risk of exposure. And if you do decide to make masks a requirement, it’s always good to keep a spare supply for anyone that forgets. But keep in mind that if the government do decide to remove the mask mandate, mask-wearing will no longer be required by law and you may find it tricky to enforce.

  1. Ventilation

Make sure you’re providing adequate ventilation in enclosed spaces, whether through natural ventilation (by opening doors, windows and vents), mechanical ventilation (by using fans and ducts), or a combination of the two. This is a simple measure that drastically helps to reduce the spreading of COVID, so it’s likely to remain a requirement, or at least recommendation following July 19.

  1. Symptoms

Remind everyone, including crew, cast and audience members, not to come into the theatre if they have symptoms of COVID-19. If a staff member develops symptoms at work, they should inform their manager and go home to self-isolate straight away. You can also ask staff to fill out a “health status self-declaration” before returning to work confirming they’re free from the symptoms of COVID-19.

  1. Compliance with NHS Test and Trace

It’s been reported that Test and Trace may no longer be in operation for bars, restaurants and other venues in England following 19 July. However, whilst still in situ, continued compliance with the Test and Trace system will be vital in maintaining the success of the UK’s restriction-free future.

That means still enforcing NHS Test and Trace check-in for staff and visitors (whilst you can) and adhering to self-isolation rules should members of your team be asked to self-isolate.

Outbreak management will likely be an ongoing requirement in a post-pandemic world, so it’s a sensible idea to start thinking about your plan of action should members of your team be required to self-isolate.

For example, depending on how your theatre runs, it may be effective to trial shift teams, where small teams are allocated to work together. Meaning if one of those members of staff are diagnosed with COVID, they’ll have only mingled with the rest of their team whilst on shift – leaving the rest of your organisation with no need to self-isolate.

This is not an exhaustive list of all of the measures you’ll need to have in place for your theatre - you can read the full COVID-19 guidance for the performing arts on the government website.

Further information can be found in the ABTT COVID-19 Risk Assessments for Returning to Work in Places of Entertainment guidance notes.


Other risks

Let’s face it - we’re never going to be able to summarise everything that needs to go into your theatre’s risk management strategy in this whistle-stop guide, so please note that this is not an exhaustive list.

Consider whether you’re planning any other activities that may pose a risk, or whether you need any further advice to undertake activities safely. There are a number of risk areas relating to theatres that don’t always directly concern health and safety, but that also need to be considered as part of your wider risk management strategy, including things like:

  • Financial risks
  • Reputational risks
  • Cyber security

Essentially, if something could go wrong or there is any possibility that harm could be caused – be it physical, reputational or financial - it needs to be accounted for in your theatre’s risk management strategy.

If in doubt, speak to your theatre’s in-house technician who should be able to advise you how to proceed safely and responsibly.

Theatre insurance

Part of your theatre’s risk management plan could include having theatre insurance in place to mitigate financial, reputational and third-party liability risks - including covers such as public and employers’ liability, business interruption, cyber liability, directors’ and officers’, risk management, buildings and contents, motor insurance and more.

With over thirty years’ experience and over 3,000 not-for-profit customers in the UK, we work with market-leading insurers to provide competitive coverage, expert consultation and specialist advice for charities, community groups and not for profit organisations.

Speak to one of our specialist account managers to find out more about theatre insurance and get a quote.

Find out more about insurance for charities.

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