An important victory for workplace safety was recently won in San Francisco, where chorister Pamela Dale won a grievance filed against the San Francisco Opera Company. Dale became unable to sing in productions using theatrical smoke and fog, and the company responded to her complaints over the use of these effects by effectively terminating her employment.
Dale and the American Guild of Musical Artist (AGMA), which represents members of the SFO, took the case to arbitration. The arbitrator returned Dale to her job, and awarded her an undisclosed financial settlement. “If the SFO is a safer place – and we at AGMA believe it is – we all owe Pamela a debt of gratitude,” said Mark Mitchell, AGMA’s Western Executive Director.
A LONGSTANDING PROBLEM
“Like Local 802 we have been dealing with this issue for a number of years,” Mitchell said, speaking with Allegro from AGMA’s West Coast office. He noted that another, broader grievance on the smoke and fog issue that AGMA brought against the SFO was also recently settled. As part of that settlement, the SFO has agreed to limit the use of smoke and fog effects to two shows in the upcoming season. “While we didn’t get them to stop using it completely, we did limit its use and we will be monitoring that use closely,” Mitchell said.
Dale’s problems began after a dress rehearsal for the opera Norma in 1998, when she became physically ill from a combination of glycol fog and fumes from propane torches. Dale filed complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency, which resulted in a number of citations. The SFO dropped the use of glycol-based fogs and began using mineral oil-based fogs. But the problems Dale and other singers were experiencing did not go away.
Dale complained that the mineral oil was just as irritating. She and two other choristers filed worker compensation claims and continued trying to get the SFO to eliminate the use of fogs. Dale’s doctor eventually diagnosed her condition as reactive airway disease, a condition in which an individual’s throat and lungs become hyper-sensitized to glycol or mineral oil, making it impossible to sing when exposed to the effects. In addition to the three people who developed asthma from the fogs, another 27 chorus members found they were unable to work around the stage effects.
“Part of the problem is that OSHA is not regulating these materials,” said Local 802 President Bill Moriarity. “Instead of the employers having to prove that these substances are safe, our members have to get sick and then prove it was caused specifically by these fogs.
“All of us in this business should appreciate the courage of Pamela Dale and what she has done,” Moriarity said. “I hope this case will help employers see the wisdom of halting the use of these products completely.”
Mitchell agreed that OSHA has been of limited assistance. He said that while Cal OSHA has tried to be helpful, at this point they lack the epidemiological information needed to regulate use of the substances. California is one of the few states to establish its own Occupational Safety and Health Agency, independent of the national agency.
SUCCESS AT OTHER OPERA COMPANIES
Mitchell told Allegro that AGMA has succeeded in stopping or limiting the use of glycol- and mineral oil-based fogs at three other opera companies around the country. The Washington, D.C., Opera has eliminated it completely, and the Portland and Seattle opera companies have agreed not to use the fogs if anyone in the company is sensitive to them.
According to Eleni Kallas, an AGMA representative in Washington, D.C., the problem with fogs used by the Washington Opera began ten years ago. Kallas told Allegro that singers repeatedly complained about mineral oil- and glycol-based fogs. At one point featured performer Placido Domingo complained of difficulty working in the fog.
The performers’ long battle to stop their use finally succeeded. A provision in the most recent AGMA/Washington Opera contract states, “There shall be no smoke or fog effects utilized except for those generated by water vapor or dry ice or other harmless technology yet to be developed, the harmlessness of which shall be evidenced to AGMA.”