Orchestra Pit Codes/Laws

EPAC Shakur

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Joined
Aug 20, 2020
Location
California
Hi Folks! New to Controlbooth after years of lurking.

I manage a fancy PAC that's part of a high school, and we've got a great big open orchestra pit that drops down 8' directly at the edge of the stage. Currently there's no pit cover, filler, or net. I've done what I can with ropes and signage, but I'd love to get the wheels moving towards a better, more real solution.

It's been a long-time issue, notably freaking out the school orchestra's conductors (who have to perform with their back to the pit). And, of course, this is a high school venue where students will, from time to time, jump over it for fun. Frankly, it's more good luck than anything else that's kept us from a serious incident so far.

In my experience with the school district before, if I can make the case for something as a serious safety hazard, they seem to be better about finding the money in the budget. I've been looking through for laws or codes that might support this, but I wanted to try here to see if anybody's got the appropriate stuff already bookmarked and/or could offer any further advice.
 

JVTD

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Joined
Nov 20, 2014
Location
Logansport Indiana
I would seek out and ask a local Theatre Consultant. They are usually very well versed in the code requirements for performance venues. Over the past decade I have reached out occasionally when I had fire code questions. This is one of those things that can vary from state to state and may even have local codes that apply. Trust me its just easier to write an email or make a phone call than it is to search it out for yourself. https://theatreconsultants.org/
 

kiwitechgirl

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Jan 22, 2009
Location
Sydney, Australia
It’s going to vary hugely depending on where you are and what local regulations are. I spent far, far too many hours of my life discussing pit nets when the theatre went through a renovation; there’s no legal requirement to have one here however our risk assessment determined that one was required (known, recent occurrences of people falling onto the existing net). We were having issues because the existing net was obstructing some players’ view of the conductor (at the right angle, it was opaque) so there was a lot of conversation about how far the new one needed to extend over the pit, and what it should be made of to work as a people-catcher but also not obstruct the musicians’ view. There have been deaths where people have fallen into pits (although the one at the Bolshoi a few years back wasn’t a fall from stage into pit, he walked into the pit when it was raised so the door opened into a void). If you have an opera or ballet house near you, have a chat with them as they’ll have some helpful info I’m sure.
 
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RickR

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Sep 18, 2009
Location
Spokane, WA the great "Inland Northwest"
Get onto https://tsp.esta.org/tsp/documents/published_docs.php for great industry standards, like E1.46 on fall prevention. These have been written and updated by teams of experts and widely reviewed.

ANSI standards are not codes or laws but often have the power of laws, especially in court or with administrators. Note also that you can go beyond standards to "Best Practices" but those are much harder to define. You are probably on the way to creating a procedures document that will get some sort of blessing from above to protect you from charges of negligence.

Cal OSHA has a lot to say on fall prevention. Most governments default to OSHA for safety issues, but they are not theater specific and can be very hard to navigate. Your district risk management office can help, as can any local Cal OSHA office. OSHA is intended for workers but many schools simply declare they will follow it for students as well. E1.46 is intended to meet federal requirements, and probably meets CA requirements as well.

Companies selling solutions should not be overlooked. They have enormous practical experience as well as pretty deep legal and technical knowledge. Just don't let them drive the process.
 

Jay Ashworth

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Feb 7, 2014
Location
St Pete FL USA
Politely threaten the powers that be with the school's own liability insurance carrier, which would likely have an aneurysm about it.

The trick is to focus that angst on fixing the problem, not closing the venue; you need to make the case first, there; do you do any revenue rentals, as my college house does?
 

EPAC Shakur

Member
Joined
Aug 20, 2020
Location
California
Well at the moment, the venue's already effectively closed due to COVID concerns, which is fortunate since the fire curtain also does not currently function. 🙃

Back in August I did get deep into Cal OSHA's documentation, as well as the TSP resources (notably E1.46). Even though OSHA doesn't technically cover students, it's a pretty easy argument that their safety falls under our Duty of Care, and that OSHA provides the best workable guidelines for such. Bringing all of this to my Asst Principal was super helpful in getting the attention of the school district folks who make these calls.

I also went and designed a system of platforms to serve as a walkable pit cover but, since I'm not a structural engineer, I suspect the district is going to have a difficult time getting behind that plan (which is a bummer, since I can do it for $3k in-house, but it's unlikely to cost less than $10k from a contractor). Last I've heard of it the district facilities people have been talking about a net. None of them have talked to me, of course, but that's just how it goes sometimes.
 

MNicolai

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Premium Member
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Location
Sarasota, FL
I would strongly discourage pursuing school-fabricated decks or even contractor-fabricated decks. Generally when a school ends up getting national media attention for an accident, it's because no one ever anticipated an entire crowd of students walking out on the stage lip and jumping up and down in sync to the music -- causing maximum force on the deck.

Most importantly -- neither the district nor you personally nor a random carpenter want to bear the responsibility and risk exposure of an accident involving 30 students collapsing into the pit. It's happened more than once, always makes national news, and often involves multiple people being removed from the theater in neck braces for their ambulance rides. A wooden-type structure is also at risk for modification. 10 years after you move onto your neck job, someone could decide to cut away some supports or drill giant holes into the legs to temporarily build a staircase or an escalator into the pit as part of a scenic design. Those modifications could reduce the load capacity of the deck, leading to an accident where whoever originally built that deck system will get fingers pointed at them and nobody will remember the name of the parent who modified the pit support structure for that one show a few years before the accident.

Whether Cal OSHA applies to students is more academic than anything else. You are an employee. If there are employees of the district in the room, any risk of fall to them needs to be protected from.

In terms of the best option, it's really hard to say without some reference photos and dimensions of what we're talking about. To my mind, 8' is shallow pit for a horizontal net. If someone falls into that pit, the net will have give in it and will sink at least a couple feet to arrest their fall (could be farther -- the length x width of the opening and the span distance of the net plays a role in how far down the net will sink when someone falls into it -- but think about it like wearing a shock-absorbing fall arrest lanyard. If you fall from 8', you're still going to splat onto the floor because the lanyard won't have enough distance to absorb your fall. Not only do you need to be worried that someone fall into the pit will still end up hitting the floor -- just slower, but there will also be chairs, instruments, music stands, and sometimes musicians down there who could also get injured. In terms of a net solution -- without knowing the actual dimensions of your application, a horizontal net seems unlikely to be viable -- though it's not entirely impossible that it could work.

If that is the case, you generally have 2 other options:

1) Engineered, pre-fabricated pit fillers platforms. Aside from fall protection, these can have added benefits if you only use the pit a couple times a year. Essentially you're buying a stage extension and directors/performers/choreographers/etc will all love the opportunity to get closer to the audience. Conductors will also like having more stage space to spread out their musicians in. A possible downside is the time and labor it takes to remove the decks as-needed and then store them somewhere out of the way, but generally that's not too hard with the modern pit filler systems on the market.

2) A removable stanchion system where there are pockets cut into the stage floor or placed on the structural lip of the stage where stanchions can be dropped in that have high-visibility webbing clipped between. The stanchions that go around the perimeter of the pit and are removed as-needed and reinstalled at the end of each night. It's extra work and doesn't provide the same 24/7 protection of a horizontal net but generally isn't super expensive either. There are some variations of this where you mount a webbing system on the upstage side of the proscenium and pull the nets across the stage as needed and retract when not -- though often times that leaves other access to the stage such as from stairs at the audience still exposed to a fall risk because it doesn't as tightly surround the perimeter of the pit.
 
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RonHebbard

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Jun 12, 2004
Location
Waterdown, ON, CA
I would strongly discourage pursuing school-fabricated decks or even contractor-fabricated decks. Generally when a school ends up getting national media attention for an accident, it's because no one ever anticipated an entire crowd of students walking out on the stage lip and jumping up and down in sync to the music -- causing maximum force on the deck. If not designed as part of the deck solution, a

Most importantly -- neither the district nor you personally nor a random carpenter want to bear the responsibility and risk exposure of an accident involving 30 students collapsing into the pit. It's happened more than once, always makes national news, and often involves multiple people being removed from the theater in neck braces for their ambulance rides. A wooden-type structure is also at risk for modification. 10 years after you move onto your neck job, someone could decide to cut away some supports or drill giant holes into the legs to temporarily build a staircase or an escalator into the pit as part of a scenic design. Those modifications could reduce the load capacity of the deck, leading to an accident where whoever originally built that deck system will get fingers pointed at them and nobody will remember the name of the parent who modified the pit support structure for that one show a few years before the accident.

Whether Cal OSHA applies to students is more academic than anything else. You are an employee. If there are employees of the district in the room, any risk of fall to them needs to be protected from.

In terms of the best option, it's really hard to say without some reference photos and dimensions of what we're talking about. To my mind, 8' is shallow pit for a horizontal net. If someone falls into that pit, the net will have give in it and will sink at least a couple feet to arrest their fall (could be farther -- the length x width of the opening and the span distance of the net plays a role in how far down the net will sink when someone falls into it -- but think about it like wearing a shock-absorbing fall arrest lanyard. If you fall from 8', you're still going to splat onto the floor because the lanyard won't have enough distance to absorb your fall. Not only do you need to be worried that someone fall into the pit will still end up hitting the floor -- just slower, but there will also be chairs, instruments, music stands, and sometimes musicians down there who could also get injured. In terms of a net solution -- without knowing the actual dimensions of your application, a horizontal net seems unlikely to be viable -- though it's not entirely impossible that it could work.

If that is the case, you generally have 2 other options:

1) Engineered, pre-fabricated pit fillers platforms. Aside from fall protection, these can have added benefits if you only use the pit a couple times a year. Essentially you're buying a stage extension and directors/performers/choreographers/etc will all love the opportunity to get closer to the audience. Conductors will also like having more stage space to spread out their musicians in. A possible downside is the time and labor it takes to remove the decks as-needed and then store them somewhere out of the way, but generally that's not too hard with the modern pit filler systems on the market.

2) A removable stanchion system where there are pockets cut into the stage floor or placed on the structural lip of the stage where stanchions can be dropped in that have high-visibility webbing clipped between. The stanchions that go around the perimeter of the pit and are removed as-needed and reinstalled at the end of each night. It's extra work and doesn't provide the same 24/7 protection of a horizontal net but generally isn't super expensive either. There are some variations of this where you mount a webbing system on the upstage side of the proscenium and pull the nets across the stage as needed and retract when not -- though often times that leaves other access to the stage such as from stairs at the audience still exposed to a fall risk because it doesn't as tightly surround the perimeter of the pit.
ALL of the above and plus there are fire codes / sprinklers / drainage concerns to be considered / accommodated.
Toodleoo!
Ron Hebbard
 

EPAC Shakur

Member
Joined
Aug 20, 2020
Location
California
My design's for a system of stress-skinned, steel framed platforms on steel supports, but...point taken. Although it looks to me like the existing sprinkler system is fine (the pit has its own sprinkler system) and that I build all kinds of things in compliance with fire code all the time (and all of this information is available), it's pretty hard to argue that I can convincingly handle every consideration myself. Although it's pretty hard to picture a scenario where I leave this job and get replaced by somebody who wouldn't also understand how a pit cover works. Again, you're right, of course you are, grumbling finished. I rail enough against the "I've been doing this for X years" rationale enough to notice when it's coming from me.

That said, the stage extension-style solution still seems like the best bet to me, both for the advantages of having more room AND the added safety (walking on a platform > falling unpleasantly into a net). Most of the time we don't need the pit. Anybody have suggestions on where to look for a removable pit-filler solution?
 

MNicolai

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Location
Sarasota, FL
I wouldn't look at it in terms of competence as much as long-term liability. I've seen lots of high schools hire a TD who's really just a student who just graduated college. At the moment we're in an unprecedented economic crisis. States and municipalities are losing their tax revenue which means someone is getting cuts over the next 3-5 fiscal years to make up the difference. That could be eliminating your position and replacing you with a part-time janitor. I'm not saying that's likely, but you have really have no control over what happens in the long term and a pit filler system can be a 30+ year investment. A lot can happen in 30 years. Do you want that risk of future liability hanging around your neck for something someone may ruin well after you leave? What happens when someone decides to remove only part of the pit system so they can have an elevator or stairs into the pit for a show? Does your design still have enough lateral bracing for that possibility to remain standing with the partial structure in place? What about when someone rolls a 1,200 pound concert grand on it or a 4,000 lbs scsisor lift? Do you have the point load capacity for that when the 19 year old facilities guys need to hop in a lift to change light bulbs or perform other maintenance work?

I would say if the district is willing to entertain a pre-fabricated solution, by all means let them. Just because you can do it cheaper in-house doesn't mean you want to own that.

In terms of fabricators, I would say Wenger STRATA is the most common that I encounter but they're not the only players in that market. You can find more opinions about different deck systems in this thread.
 

EPAC Shakur

Member
Joined
Aug 20, 2020
Location
California
Indeed, that's part of the plan.

After looking into STRATA, it looks like that would end up costing about $39k. Worth every penny, but it's way more pennies than I have. Now I'm back to thinking that me building my own for $3k is a not completely ruinous idea. At $3k, it doesn't need to be a 30-year investment, and could potentially be worthwhile as a kind of "proof of concept" that I can dismantle before ever leaving the job, while still having something to handle our largest fall hazard while attempting to raise funds for the real deal. At the moment, solutions are pretty limited, and I'm having a hard time convincing myself that a great big open hole is better than any other short-term option. Then again, it's pretty unlikely we'll have any crowds in the venue this year, and possibly (probably) on into next year.
 

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