Ottawa Stage Collapse Ministry of Labor Incident Report

I wrote back in 2011 about the horrendous weather-caused collapse of the stage roof at the Ottawa Blues Fest, where Cheap Trick was performing. Back in July of this year, I wrote about reports that blamed the whole incident on "freak" weather. I said in 2011 and again in July that this was hardly "freak" weather--it was a strong thunderstorm in a part of the world where these things are not at all uncommon. Recently, in advance of the release of the Ontario Ministry of Labor's report on the incident, reporter Chris Cobb wrote a great article for the Ottawa Citizen with a minute by minute account of the collapse from the crew's perspective, and some of it is terrifying.  You should read the whole thing here.

The report was released last week (another excellent Ottawa Citizen article on the report here), and I made a text-searchable PDF version, which I uploaded here. There is also an engineering report  referenced in some of the news reports, but I have not yet been able to find that online (if you know where I can get a copy, please let me know).

Some key points from the labor report's conclusions (remember this was written from an occupational perspective, so the failings documented here are failings in protecting employees):

Mega Stage/Groupe Berger failed as an employer to provide a copy of the Operations Management Plan specific to the stage and set-up used at Ottawa Bluesfest as ordered by an inspector under section 54(1 )(c) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The Operations Management Plan is a critical document which should include a plan of action for various site conditions, such as approaching severe weather.  It's a key part of the Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA)'s ANSI E1.21 - 2006, "Temporary Ground-Supported Overhead Structures Used To Cover Stage Areas and Support Equipment in the Production of Outdoor Entertainment Events" standard. While E1.21 is an American National Standard, the engineering report apparently made many references to it, so it seems the Canadians are using this as an guideline for this investigation. I can't imagine a good reason why Groupe Berger would not provide this document, unless it didn't exist, or it outlined poor procedures.  

Another key point:

As per the design documents for the stage, when weather has the potential to exceed the designed capabilities of the Mark III Stage with the "wind walls" in place the walls should be released to allow the wind to pass through. This precaution increases the designed capabilities of the stage. At 18:12hrs Environment Canada forecasted thunderstorms with damaging winds, Groupe Berger failed as an employer to take the reasonable precaution of releasing the wind walls despite being aware of the forecast for damaging winds, therefore failing to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker, contrary to section 25(2)(h) of the Act. 

I've worked on a lot of these structures, and many are designed with these "wind walls" that are designed to be released quickly (typically less than five minutes) on the approach of a storm.  It's like releasing the sails on a sailboat.  There was apparently another problem with the wind walls, though: 

On the evening of July 8, 2011 [when a previous concert by the Black Keys was taking place] during adverse weather conditions the wind walls were released on the stage. When the walls were secured after this event, they were secured using a different method including the use of cable ties (as opposed to the usual "zip-ties" or bungee straps). This caused a change in the procedure for release of the wind walls (no longer able to cut with knives). Witness statements indicate that many "wind walls" were unable to be released as the stage hands were unable to cut or release the cable ties. Groupe Berger failed to notify stage hands of the change in the procedure therefore failing as an employer to provide information and instruction to a worker as required by section 25(2)(a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and contrary to section 25(2)(h) of the Act.

It does sound like some shortcuts were taken in restoring the wind walls, which made it difficult to expeditiously free the wind walls.  But the report says that the forecast for strong storms was given at about 6:12pm, and the stage didn't go down until around 7:30, so there was plenty of time to take action. So, as I've been saying all along, the critical point for me is this:

At 18:12hrs on July 17, 2011 Environment Canada forecasted thunderstorms with damaging winds for the Ottawa Area, Stephane Berger failed as a Supervisor to take the reasonable precaution of advising workers of the possible adverse weather despite being aware of the forecast for damaging winds, therefore failing to advise a worker of the existence of any potential danger to the health or safety of the worker, contrary to section 27(2)(a) of the Act.

The report details the forecast a bit further:

At 15:30hrs Environment Canada issued a local forecast (Appendix# 17) for Ottawa indicating a "Risk of a Thunderstorm" for the evening. At 18: 12hrs Environment Canada issued a severe thunderstorm watch (Appendix# 18) for the Ottawa area, this watch warned of damaging winds and was later upgraded to a severe thunderstorm warning (Appendix# 19) at 18:35hrs, the thunderstorm warning indicated that winds may reach speeds of 140km/h [87 mph]. At 19:25hrs, Environment Canada issued an update to the severe thunderstorm warning (Appendix# 20), this update indicated that severe thunderstorms were imminent and moving quickly into the Ottawa area.

I agree wholeheartedly with this finding of the report--in this day and age, there's no excuse for not knowing about approaching weather hazards. In fact, I wrote an entire article on the topic: Weather Resources for Show Crews; you can download a copy here. The report and press accounts document that an employee of Groupe Berger was on the show site with the express purpose of monitoring the weather and overseeing the operations of the stage. I've worked a lot on stages provided by a Mega-Stage competitor and they always provide a similar technician, so in my experience this is a common practice.

This incident was the first of a series of collapses leading up to the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair (there were so many of these tragedies that I now have a blog category just covering these incidents), so I guess it wasn't in the collective consciousness of all involved that something like the stage roof collapsing was possible.  But it probably should have been, especially when you see something like this approaching on the radar (from Jesse Ferrell's excellent Weathermatrix blog):


Even a non meteorologist storm chaser like me knows this radar signature--a classic "bow echo", meaning that high winds and a strong storm are on the way. If I were in charge, seeing that on the radar, I sure as hell would not have sent the band to the stage to start the show, and I would have gotten all the techs down from all the rigging.

The report's best estimate of the winds from this storm, recorded by a Davis Vantage Vue weather station (the same kind I have mounted on my roof) buried in the collapse, was 117 kilometers/hour, or about 73 miles/hour. If that doesn't sound like a lot, think about standing on the roof of a car driving 73mph.  Chasing, I've been out a lot in these kind of winds, and it's hard to keep your balance in much above 40mph, and the forces involved are just mind-boggling. So what was this stage roof rated for?  The labor report doesn't state the ratings, and Groupe Berger has apparently retired the "Mark III" stage design that was used at BluesFest so there's no specs online.  But if you click on the website for the Mark IV, you actually still see the Mark III still in the title bar:


So the new version of the stage has stated ratings of steady winds of 120km/h with gusts to 160km/h, and it's likely that the old stage was something in this range as well:


In severe thunderstorms, it's certainly possible to have gusts over 100mph, and tornadoes can far exceed that.  So to me, this was above all an operational failure (and I say the same thing about the Indiana tragedy, in my blog titled "Indiana State Fair Collapse--State Fair Management Has Blood on Its Hands").  Even if the stage withstood all the wind it was designed for, mother nature could always deliver more on short notice.   And while "the show must go on" is in our blood, do you really want to be putting on a show in conditions like this?  

This is a video from DelFest in 2009 (I have a whole write up with more photos on this storm here) with winds in the range of what was experienced at Bluesfest. Can't you just hold the show for half an hour, get everyone off the stage and clear out the audience?  

The owner of the stage has fired back at the inspectors in another excellent Ottawa Citizen article  here, where he makes this stunning  statement, "Why isn't there any blame about anybody else but us?”.  Hmm, given that you provided the stage, the stage installation was overseen by your employees, and you had an employee onsite specifically to monitor and react to the weather, who else should be blamed?

The most encouraging part of the whole thing, from the first Ottawa Citizen article I linked above, is this quote:

A rash of recent stage collapses has changed the industry and improved standards, says Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan. He introduced several new safety measures this year, including the hiring of an independent engineer and a private weather service.

It's about time, Let's hope that management and stage providers start taking the weather seriously, so I can stop writing about these horrible incidents soon!