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Three ways sound engineering could literally kill you

Sound engineering is not generally known as a dangerous occupation. But there are hazards that need careful management to reduce risk to life and limb.

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You would never see sound engineering or recording on a list of dangerous occupations. But there are certain hazards that need careful management so that you don't put yourself, your work colleagues, your clients or the public at risk.

First of these is electrical safety. Three points are well known to be hazards...

  • Damaged equipment and cables.
  • Removing earth connections to cure hum loops.
  • Faulty electrical installation, particularly in live venues.

Equipment should always be inspected visually. A cut or worn mains cable is a hazard. Equipment that shows signs of liquid infiltration is a hazard too.

In years gone by it was common practice to cure hum loops by disconnecting the earth on certain pieces of equipment. This practice is now strongly deprecated. There are safe ways of curing hum loops that should be employed instead.

It should go without saying that electrical installation should be done by a qualified electrician. This is the responsibility of the venue management. Users of a venue should be on the lookout for anything that implies poor installation and maintenance - cracked electrical sockets, anything patched with insulating tape, for example.

It is worth also noting that the voltage that comes out of a power amplifier is potentially lethal. Treat this with as much respect as you pay to mains electricity.

The second major hazard of sound engineering is the physical installation, particularly in live sound. Loudspeakers are large and heavy and are frequently moved, and therefore represent a hazard. The same applies to mixing consoles and amplifier racks. Loudspeakers that are flown clearly present a greater hazard than loudspeakers that stand at stage level.

The third hazard is perhaps surprising, but it is real and frequently presents a risk to people working in and around sound engineering.

And that hazard is alcohol and drugs. It's no secret that car insurance companies charge higher premiums to people who work in the entertainment industry. They know from their actuarial records that people who perform 'late night' work are more accident-prone than people who work 9 to 5 in an office. And you don't have to be an alcohol user yourself to die in a drink-related car crash.

You might wonder about the difference in meaning between the words 'hazard' and 'risk'...

A hazard is something intrinsic. A kitchen knife is a hazard because it has a sharp blade. It is always a hazard.

Risk varies according to how the hazard is managed. If the person who is cooking always keeps their fingers behind the blade, for example, then the risk from the knife is reduced.

In general, the risks posed by a hazard can be reduced in five ways...

  • Remove the hazard.
  • Replace the hazard with something less hazardous.
  • Guard the hazard.
  • Provide personal protective equipment.
  • Provide training in safe operation.

We would love to hear your comments and advice on health and safety in connection with sound engineering. In particular, any real-life stories would be very welcome.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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