October 2003

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“Regulated to Death: Safety Regulation in the Live Event Industry”

by Ben Challis 
October, 2003

This article discusses the recent event safety problems faced by the live music industry, and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of health and safety legislation. The author argues that improvements in health and safety will only take place where governments and authorities involve those in the live concert industry. At the same time it is pointed out that those in the live concert industry must be pro-active on health and safety issues – or they will find their industry “regulated to death”.

SINCE the death of nine young music fans at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2000, the music industry could not have faced a more challenging year than 2003. The tragic deaths of 21 clubbers in Chicago on the 17th February, was followed, within a week, by extraordinary scenes at the Station Club in Rhode Island, New York. When pyrotechnics ignited by the band Great White set fire to the sound-proofed interior of the Station Club, hundreds of people were left dead and injured – including one member of the band.

Then, in July, suicide bombers killed 16 young people at the Krylya Festival in Moscow. Next, in September, a UK court awarded the highest ever level of damages for a performer’s injury. Trapeze artist, Suzy Barton, fell twenty feet from a hot air balloon at the London Millennium Dome after her safety harness failed. She received £510,000 for serious injuries. And in that very same week, 20 members of the cast of a Sound of Music tribute were injured – some seriously – when a temporary wooden stage cover for an unused orchestra pit collapsed, at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, England.

Each of these disasters impact on the management of health and safety at live events, but also give us clues to the failings of the industry’s attempts to promote health and safety as being of paramount importance. The Chicago incident in February allegedly originated when security staff let off pepper spray to break up a fight, leading the audience to panic – and then causing a fatal crush at locked exit doors. The local fire chief pointed out that part of the club was supposedly closed to the public, having previously failed fire safety checks. The Rhode Island tragedy was described by State Governor, Don Carceieri, as ‘a real disaster’. He emphasised that ‘the building went up so fast no one had a chance’. It was estimated that over 300 people were inside the one story wooden building. The venue had a low ceiling, and had no water sprinkler system – it was too small to require one by law. It also had no pyrotechnics licence (although the band claim that they had checked in advance with the venue, and permission for their display was given). Reports at the time also suggest that the sound-proofing was not flame resistant.

Denmark’s Roskilde Festival was admired by many as a benchmark for a well run and safe event. And yet, on 30th June 2000, nine fans died in crowd surges. Many in the live music industry moved to rethink existing safety procedures, and at the 2001 International Live Music Conference, an important new panel of live music industry experts was convened – named, the Safety Focus Group (SFG). But industry event organisers must be aware that the natural reaction of legislators and administrators will be to pass more legislation, and implement more stringent regulations – not always to positive effect.

In the United Kingdom, event organisers are already subject to a myriad of legislative Acts of Parliament and associated regulations, which are enacted to promote health and safety, and to redress policy concerns, such as noise pollution, consumer protection and drug abuse. Promoters and venue owners have to satisfy the satisfy the provisions of: The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, The Occupiers Liability Act 1957 (and 1984), The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1992, The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, Civic Government Act (Scotland) 1982, The London Government Act 1963, The Public Entertainment Licence (Misuse of Drugs) Act 1997, The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987, The Environment Act 1990, The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995. And this is not an exhaustive list!

One of the problems with regulation is that when rules and regulations are made without any input from the industry that such rules are meant to regulate, then those rules have, at best, little moral authority, and, at worst, are irrelevant to – or impracticable within – that regulated industry. Likewise, when regulations are passed but not implemented or enforced, they can often cause more problems than they cure: those who are regulated and initially implement changes and follow best practice, can become lax where enforcement is weak and costs rise. Some never implement change or follow regulations at all. And, of course, some regulations are so nonsensical they are ignored by the world at large (even if behind the regulations there is a good idea). It seems almost unthinkable that the two February tragedies could happen in America. How could fire doors be locked? How could security staff create such a panic? How could there be no sprinkler system? How could a venue ignite in seconds?

Two examples of the failure of a regulatory framework in the United Kingdom can be seen in the management of the state-managed National Health Service, and the management of the national rail infrastructure. It was reported in October that the UK Government’s own Better Regulation Task Force had found that each NHS hospital was regulated by (at least) 36 regulators, and three more were planned by the Government. The target-driven system had led to a number of reactions by the (regulated) hospital managers: to meet emergency admission times, injured people were kept in ambulances longer; to meet diagnosis targets, only patients who could be easily diagnosed would be invited to hospital. And, as target driven regulations proliferate, bureaucracy multiplies – there is now one manager for every bed in the NHS!

The United Kingdom’s rail infrastructure is similarly regulated and managed by administrators. But, since 1999, there have been three major rail disasters involving multiple fatalities in and around London: at Hatfield, Potters Bar, and Paddington – where 31 died. Some regard this as an appalling safety record. Further, in the United Kingdom, the primary and secondary education system, the Prison Service, and the courts – are all in danger of becoming paralysed by often well meaning, but ill-considered initiatives, regulation, change, and ever-increasing bureaucracy.

One need not go to the extreme of advocating self-regulation as such: self-regulation has its own inherent risks and drawbacks. In Britain, the status of the journalists, lawyers and politicians is arguably harmed, to a substantial degree, by self-regulation. What one could argue, is that the live event industry must involve itself in the regulatory process now, and adopt best practice and change when necessary. What the live concert industry has to be aware of is that if it doesn’t put its own house in order, then regulators in Europe, United States and elsewhere will regulate for the industry. The UK’s Pop Code was, and is, a good example of a review of industry health and safety that involves the industry, and does work.

A good example of why the live event industry needs to be involved in the regulatory framework is the new Licensing Act in the UK. This will remove liquor licensing from magistrates and give it to local authorities (against the advice of the licensed trade and the Magistrates Association). The Act will also remove exemptions for solo acts and duets from event licensing (they could previously play in pubs without the need for a licence). Pubs will face the administrative hurdles and costs of securing a licence. Even traditional sea-side Punch & Judy acts will now need a licence from the local authority. Both of these provisions faced stiff resistance from politicians of all parties, but were implemented by the Government. Whilst the effects have yet to become clear, many unnecessary costs and bureaucracy will be the first direct result of the new legislation – and it will interesting to see whether any difference is made to health and safety for patrons. The Institute of Chartered Accountants has estimated that the average UK business spends £11,000 on implementing new legislation – with over half of that burden falling on micro-businesses (those employing ten or less employees). One of the most obvious costs is the increase in employers’ liability insurance premiums, public liability insurance premiums, and products’ liability insurance premiums: the industry has to make provision to cover ever increased risk and liabilities.

The live event industry has a number of tasks ahead. Audiences are more diverse than ever – in terms of age, cultural background and size. Research is needed into audience behaviour and crown dynamics. Event organisers need to be educated and informed about relevant issues. Safety needs to be kept on the agenda and revisited regularly. It is vital that representatives from the industry meet with, and work with, legislators. Venue operators, security organisers, artists and others with a stake in the industry need to be involved. Regulation won’t work for the audience – or indeed for the industry itself – when it is imposed by those who regulate.

No one wants unworkable or counter-productive regulation. This can be self-defeating, and corners can be cut. Surely, what the industry needs to do is be pro-active: formulate workable policies; ensure the whole industry adopts basic levels of safety and welfare for all live events; ensure that staff have the right levels of training; think about health, safety and welfare when planning events and when implementing change. It can work. The Event Safety Guide published by HMSO with substantial industry input is used as a health and safety ‘Bible’ by the UK concert industry.

The Glastonbury Festival was plagued by over-attendance and safety problems towards the end of the 1990’s. The local authority that licensed the Festival was so concerned it felt it could no longer issue a public entertainment licence. In 2001, the Festival ‘took a year off’ to work on a solution to the problems. The Festival worked with a broad range of industry experts, the local authority, the police, and others, and came up with a formula that cured almost all of the initial worries, and which resulted in a good festival in 2002. Further changes in 2003 also produced a peaceful, happy and safe festival. Changes made included: a widespread multi-media campaign to stop members of the public without tickets coming to the Festival; a new and secure perimeter face; improved vehicle access to and from the site; on-site vehicle curfews at night; improved stewarding; constant liaison with the police; and a carefully structured chain of command. It was a team effort, and, overall, it seemed to work.

If the live event industry doesn’t make the necessary changes, it will have only itself to blame when governments and controlling bodies introduce waves of regulatory change – which may, or may not be, for the best. When that happens, the future of the live events business itself may be in doubt.



NHS Must Satisfy 36 Regulators The Times 15th October 2003

US Double Tragedy re-focuses Live Industry Attention on Event Safety ILMC Round The Clock News 24th February 2003

The Event Safety Guide (1999) HMSO

Mendip Say Glastonbury 2003 Was Very Successful

Transport Failing Firms Says CBI The Observer, October 25th 2003

Hill, I (2001) Contemporary Crowd Safety

With thanks to Professor Chris Kemp and Iain Hill at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, Richard Taylor of the Simkins Partnership, and Dr Jonathan Little.


Ben Challis is an entertainment lawyer in the United Kingdom and a visiting senior lecturer in law at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College He edits the ‘Law Updates’ pages and has written the Legal Aspects chapter for the soon to be published Health and Safety Aspects in the Live Entertainment Industry (ETP).

© 2003 Ben Challis


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