Update: Owing to a transcription error the original version of this story suggested operators should contact the HSE instead of their licensee.
Historic theatres with suspended fibrous plaster ceilings must have had them inspected by the end of this month or face a clamp down by the Health and Safety Executive.
September 1 marks the deadline that theatre owners must have their ceilings inspected, under guidelines drawn up following the partial ceiling collapse at the West End’s Apollo Theatre in December 2013.
A subsequent investigation found that the collapse, which occurred during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and left more than 80 people injured, was caused by a deterioration of old hessian ties that supported the ceiling.
Theatres with suspended fibrous plaster ceilings were given a grace period following the incident at the Apollo to reflect the fact that inspections could be difficult and expensive.
During this time, theatres were not subject to full health and safety legislation, with enforcement measures not being taken even if ceilings were not properly inspected and maintained. This period will end on September 1, after which not completing an inspection could have implications on a building’s licensing and insurance policy renewals.
It is thought that more than 300 historic theatres are now subject to the new guidelines drawn up following the Apollo incident, with potential costs of inspecting and maintaining ceilings ranging from £5,000 to £50,000 per venue.
The Health and Safety Executive’s Melvin Sandell said the HSE was “not interested in closing theatres”, but urged those that are not going to meet the deadline to contact the relevant authorities as a matter of urgency. Theatres are being called on to contact their license – usually their local authority – the Theatres Trust or the Association of British Theatre Technicians if their theatres have suspended fibrous plaster ceilings and they have not yet been inspected.
“It’s important to contact their licensee to discuss plans to make their theatres safe and how they are going to eventually get the inspections done,” Sandell told The Stage.
He added: “There is obviously a very great risk to people should the worst happen, and if you don’t inspect a theatre, there is often no clue these things are going to come down. The need to inspect them and know what is up there [in the ceiling] is absolutely vital.”
Guidelines drawn up by a working party, led by ABTT, also recommend that plaster ceilings are regularly cleaned from both above and below, and that venues should appoint a “ceilings champion” to monitor their condition.
The Theatres Trust has previously said that it is likely that most theatres will have steel ties in place to support the existing hessian ties, but is urging theatres to be aware of the impending deadline if they have not already examined the state of their ceilings.
Theatres Trust architecture adviser Claire Appleby said: “We are pleased to see that many theatres have already carried out the necessary ceiling inspections, including theatres across the country owned by commercial operators, and also many historic West End theatres, but for those theatres who haven’t, we urge you to contact us or the ABTT for further guidance.”
She added that capital works to improve theatre ceilings may be eligible for funding from the trust’s Theatres Protection Fund, with rounds in autumn and winter this year.
Alongside the guidance produced by ABTT, an online tool has been created in collaboration to help theatre owners and operators find companies able to carry out inspections to the required standard.