Balcony Railings – Not the place to be fooling-around

A man was sprawled across three entire seats in a theatre.  When the usher came by and noticed this, he whispered to the man, “I’m sorry sir, but you're only allowed one seat.”

The man groaned but didn't budge one inch.  The usher became impatient.  “Sir,” the usher announced, “If you don't get up from there, I'm going to have to call the manager.”

Again, the man just groaned which, in turn, infuriated the usher who spun on his heel and marched briskly back up the aisle in search of his manager.  In a few moments, both the usher and the manager returned and stood over the man.  Together the two of them tried repeatedly to move him, but with no success.  Finally, they summoned the police.  The cop surveyed the situation briefly.

“All right, now.  What's your name?”

“Chris” the man said softly.

“And where you from, Chris?” the cop barked.

“Balcony.”

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Falls over railings in entertainment and sport venues occur for a variety of reasons, and the common thread is that most people don’t perceive the area as life threatening, until it’s too late.  We misjudge our ability to stay balanced, our ability to ‘grab a hold of something’ quickly and firmly, and we almost always misjudge the effects that alcohol has on our reaction time and coordination.

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On January 2, 2013, a 22-year-old exotic dancer sustained massive head injuries after tumbling over a second-floor railing and falling 15 feet to the floor while working at a strip club in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was rushed to Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center and listed in critical condition. On January 9th, her family announced that she had died.

How did this happen?  According to the police report, Block was giving a lap dance to a New Jersey man when the accident happened.  "He stated that she grabbed the rail, as he was facing away from the balcony, and she tried to complete some sort of jump/dance move, and accidentally went head-first over the rail."  The police and OSHA have ruled the incident accidental.

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On July 7th, 2011, a baseball fan at Ranger Stadium in Arlington, Texas, reached-out to snag a foul ball and fell 20 feet over the railing.  Witnesses said it appeared the unexpected force of the ball striking his hand flipped him over the edge and he landed on his head.  A man seated next to him tried to reach-out and grab the victim as he went over the railing, but could not respond quickly enough.

The victim, Shannon Stone, was treated by Rangers medical personnel before being taken to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where he later died.

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As a precursor to this, on July 6, 2010, a fan fell 30 feet from an upper seating deck, again, while trying to catch a foul ball.  25-year-old Tyler Morris, landed on several people below, suffering a fractured skull and a sprained ankle.  He survived the fall.

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16 years earlier, a similar fate came to 26-year-old Holly Minter who fell 35 feet from the upper deck during the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.  Minter was sitting on the railing posing for a photograph when she lost her balance and fell.  She suffered fractured vertebrae, broken ribs and teeth, and shoulder and leg injuries.

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September 1, 2012, a 20 year old football fan, Isaac Grubb, fell over the railing after what a witness described as “It looked like [he] was doing a fist pump, and then he was gone, over the top.”  This occurred at the Georgia Dome Football Stadium.  He died of blunt force trauma to the head.

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Although building codes allow railings to be low along the front of balconies in accommodation of sight lines to the stage, it does not mean that these areas are totally safe.  It is a compromise between the needs of the audience and the hope that they will comprehend the danger and stay clear of the railing.

Where a theatre may have a lighting rail mounted on the front face of the balcony, it is incumbent upon the building owner to provide fall protection for those that may be intentionally leaning over the railing to work on the lights.  See that there are engineered fall protection anchor points that are properly secured to the structure (no, tying a rope to the seats doesn’t count!), usually under the first few rows of seats, and that a fall protection lanyard or fall restraint lanyard is employed by those performing the work.  The rule is simple:  No Harness.  No work.

Also take precautions to clear the seats below the work area in case a tool, light, or person falls.  It is much easier to fix the upholstery on a seat than it is to clean-up the blood from someone that falls.

Safety along the balcony railing also involves training your house staff.  Ushers and cleaning people must be warned about the dangers, and taught to keep an eye out for unruly or (Oh, go ahead and say it: ) stupid people.

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Tags: Balcony, death, fall, protection, restraint

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Comment by Michael Powers on April 8, 2013 at 7:39am

Erich,

Very good article.  Railings, or their lack, in stepped aisles, along side walls and at balcony aisle ends are one of my real sore points when doing safety inspections.  I maintain that grandfathered or not, they need to budget for plant to have them installed.

More articles like this and in greater depth would be a benefit to the theatre community, keep it up.

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