There is the potential for danger to be lurking just over the heads of staff, volunteers, and the congregation in many of today’s houses of worship.
Most of these churches are completely unaware they potentially have issues waiting to happen. In many cases, it’s the church themselves, albeit quite unintentionally, that created these risks by improperly hanging (or, “rigging”) equipment in their auditoriums and other spaces.
“Hanging stuff over people’s heads is inherently risky, yet well-intentioned people often just ‘make it up.’ People who don’t rig for a living may be unaware of risks and of the proper ways to execute things safely,” states Jonathan Deull, an ETCP Certified Rigger and rigging trainer. “It might be the church’s handyman; it might be a contractor; it might be a volunteer. Loudspeakers are a good example. Many churches and schools wanting to hang loudspeakers in their spaces choose to do it themselves with equipment that was not designed to be hung. The lack of skills and equipment knowledge has resulted in unnecessary accidents and injuries.”
All churches want to be good stewards of their financial resources, but many times this has led to churches choosing to tackle rigging jobs using church staff and volunteers who are simply not aware of the extent of their lack of knowledge.
“One of the biggest concerns I have with people in the church,” says Greg Persinger, owner of Vivid Illumination, “is that they do production work in their church for a few years and believe that makes them professional production people. Unfortunately, they have so little breadth and depth of experience because they don't do anything beyond what that church does, and often they are learning from people who don’t have any significant professional experience. They also have little exposure to the production industry rigging and safety standards that, for example, a professional touring production person would have.”
This leads church staff and volunteers to unknowingly take on rigging tasks they are not equipped to handle properly, exposing the congregation to physical—even potentially fatal—risks.
Before we dive into some specific examples of what is frequently done incorrectly in churches, lets explain further what rigging is.
Just what is rigging?
“If you are creating the support structure,” defines Persinger, “that is rigging. Hanging a light fixture on a pre-existing light pipe is not rigging, because the light pipe is the support structure, and is already in place and it designed to support lighting fixtures. Hanging a loudspeaker, however, involves forming the aircraft cable that will supporting the speaker, sometimes attaching eye bolts to the speaker, and usually attaching that aircraft cable to part of the building’s structure. This would be considered rigging as you are forming and/or installing part of the support structure.” Hanging a lighting fixture on a part of the building’s structure that was not designed for supporting lighting fixtures would also be considered rigging.
Common types of rigging found in houses of worship include the hanging of loudspeakers, video projectors, projector screens, LED video walls, TV monitors on walls or from ceilings, truss and lighting pipes, and scenic design elements.
What is so complicated about rigging?
First, hardware and equipment that is appropriate for rigging will be rated by the manufacturer with a known breaking strength and working load limit. If an item you’re looking at doesn’t state a working load limit, then it’s not appropriate for use in overhead rigging. This would include most, if not all the hardware found at your local hardware store.
For example, “Most hardware designed to be used in rigging is manufactured through being forged, not bent,” explains Persinger. “Forged material is needed because forged items are cast into shape and made from metals not easily bent. Hardware that is not forged is made from softer metal that is bent into its final shape. Things that are built by bending can also be un-bent.” This includes typical hardware store items like eye bolts and S hooks.
“At your big-box home improvement stores you can buy things that look like they will do the job, but aren't intended to do that job,” Deull adds. Again, look for that working load rating. If there isn’t one, don’t hang it over someone’s head.
Also, certain hardware items meant for rigging are designed to be installed in a certain direction. If they are installed backwards, they won’t support their rated load.
“I see a lot of cable clips installed backwards,” comments Persinger. “I also see cable clips that haven’t been properly maintained. Cable clips need to be applied with a specific torque on the nuts, and then inspected and re-torqued every year. This rarely happens, and I have encountered installed cable clamps where I could turn the nuts with my fingers. This is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Persinger also suggests (due to churches not generally being good about regular maintenance) options other than cable clips be considered, such as a wire rope swages, because they require no maintenance.
Other issues that Persinger has witnessed in churches include pipes that are mounted to sheetrock walls via pipe flanges.
Pipe flanges are not rated, and sheetrock is definitely not the right mounting surface and not rated for loads. Dog chain has been used for hanging speakers—also not rated for loads and will likely eventually break.
Even hardware rated for loads can be installed improperly and cause injury.
Load ratings indicate what that hardware can support when used perfectly vertically. If you are angling the hanging hardware and cable, the maximum load you can use it for decreases.
“A lot of rigging is about math,” states John Weygandt, lighting designer at Cherry Hills Community Church in Denver, Colorado. “Knowing how to calculate loads and distribution of loads so that something isn't going to break--or fall--is what a lot of rigging is about.”
And this extends beyond the actual rigging hardware.
What you plan on attaching your rigging to also matters. “Truss joists that are in the ceiling of many facilities are designed to support weight at the top of the truss,” states Persinger. “If you hang weight from the bottom of the truss joist, you can compromise the truss and literally pull your building apart.”
“You need to understand how strong that beam or truss is,” adds Deull. “How strong is that structure? The qualified person you need for that is a structural engineer.”
You cannot assume that just because a beam is part of your building it’s capable of supporting additional weight. If the architect and engineers involved in designing your building were not told that a beam needed to support a speaker cluster, there’s probably a good chance that it was not designed to handle that additional weight. You certainly should not assume that it can.
One thing that’s not obvious about rigging is that improper rigging is unlikely to fail right away—it may be a few years down the road before the links in that unrated chain you hung the loudspeaker will open up enough to drop a speaker on the heads of your congregation. So, doing it yourself on a Monday and checking Tuesday to see if all looks OK isn’t even remotely a valid test that your rigging will hold. A church in western North Carolina once hung a retractable video projection screen themselves. 15 years later one end failed while the room was in use, and the swinging screen struck a congregation member in the head, causing serious injury.
Another aspect of rigging is the personal safety of those performing the task. “More people get hurt falling than any other workplace mishap,” states Deull. “Climbing to hang something is a big part of that. It is the responsibility of the employer, which means the church, to provide a safe working environment, including training, fall protection, and proper personal protective equipment. That’s not just a good idea. It’s the law, and it saves lives.”
So how do you know if someone is qualified to do rigging?
“As a general thing,” states Weygandt, “know your own limitations. I know a little bit about rigging—enough to know that it should be done by professionals. The risks are literally life and death. That's why I take it so seriously. You need to know enough to ask for help.”
“There are ANSI standards that apply to rigging, covering in great depth the how and why,” says Deull. “It is also important to make risk assessment a part of the planning and rigging process. Hopefully, nothing will ever go wrong with something rigged in your church. But if you ‘do it yourself’ and someone gets hurt as a result, you are opening yourself up to tremendous moral and legal liability that can change the course of life—for the victim, for the person who did the rigging, and for the entire congregation. Before rigging something ourselves to save a little time and money we should ask – is it worth the risk?”
Persinger’s opinion on churches doing their own rigging is clear: “Just don’t do it! If you have to ask how to properly rig something, you don't know enough to be doing it at all. Contract a rigging firm to limit your liability. Would your insurance even cover you if something goes wrong? And insurance won't cover your reputation. How effective will your ministry be if you become known as the church who injured or even killed someone because they were trying to save money?”
“Churches need to plan for the rigging they want to do and build it into their budget,” says Weygandt. “We do a little bit of rigging work here at Cherry Hill, but typically hire it out to a qualified rigging company. Do it properly because of the consequences. Build relationships with good riggers—just like any vendor, it's important to build relationships. If you can't afford to do it correctly then don't do it.”