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Orchestral Work During the Coronavirus Outbreak

COVID-19 health and safety advice for orchestral players

From early summer 2020 and as soon as orchestras started to be able to contemplate emerging out of lockdown and back into the workplace; the MU Orchestral department in conjunction with the MU’s Health and Safety advisor have been vetting COVID-19 risk assessments. The MU have worked very productively and positively with numerous orchestra managements across the UK, to get our members back to work. We have also been part of the BBC performing groups’ Return to Work group which met almost weekly in the earlier months of the pandemic and now at least monthly. The BBC’s Guidance document is the best practice version the union has seen so far and there are links to the key sections of the BBC document set out below:

The union has been really reassured to hear reports from our Health and Safety reps and other members in orchestras on the ground, how safe they feel in the environment provided. We acknowledge the enormous efforts managements and venues have had to go to, in this unchartered territory and also how members have so resiliently adapted to playing to the highest standards in this strange, distanced environment.

Remember that it is the responsibility of the employer or engager to provide you with a safe environment when you work in their orchestra. Our advice is for general guidance only and does not represent any instruction, encouragement or advice to return to or begin work. We can accept no liability for the consequences of your decision including any illness or other adverse impact.

The employer or engager must consult with the MU Safety reps

The H&S reps in the orchestra should be involved from the outset of the risk assessment process and it should be a dynamic process. If you wish to raise a query or issue about your work in an orchestra and you don’t know who the MU Health and Safety (H&S) rep is contact your regional office in the first instance.

Workplace Risk Assessments must currently be COVID-19 specific

This includes workplace stress risk assessments, ventilation risk assessments. The key elements of this are distancing (including at your work station, access around building, breakout areas), the cleaning regime for the venue, handling of equipment and music, and finally ventilation which is a key in dictating how many people can be in the same room, for how long, how frequent air changes need to be etc. This should encompass many details including the cubic capacity of the areas being used and the specific ventilation being used, flow rates, renewal rates etc. This critical factor requires a complete technical report signed off by a qualified person. There needs to an integrated mitigation approach which requires balance between different measures (e.g. ventilation and distancing). The DCMS have acknowledged that as a major part of the risk management process. We have seen a number of Risk Assessments that use a Risk Matrix. This is not useful in dealing with Covid and is an unreliable set of arbitrary figures which give a spurious exactitude to the situation. At this point with Covid it is necessary to apply all mitigating measures as far as possible and not have any assumptions about the behaviour of Covid, except where backed up by established scientific research.

COVID-19 BBC Orchestras and Choirs Guidance

The following sections from the COVID-19 BBC Orchestras and Choirs Guidance (last published 13 October 2020) may mainly be valuable for our Health and Safety reps but we hope it will provide useful insight to any interested orchestral musicians who don’t know quite what to expect when they go to work or where to go if there’s a problem. Anyone working as an Extra or Dep should be provided with health and safety guidance when accepting work.

This document is specific to the BBC and is a guidance for their managers, however it can provide useful insight into the standards expected to be worked to during the pandemic.

Social distancing (work patterns and two meter separation)

  • COVID-19 is only transmitted through mucous membranes i.e. eyes, mouth, respiratory tract. It appears not to be blood borne and therefore would not lead to infection through the skin or a cut. It is not transmitted by sweat.
  • An aerosol is air containing droplets or particles that are so small they can remain floating in the air. In the breath you blow out there are both large and small droplets.  The droplets that are larger than about 0.01mm fall on the ground, and therefore do not transmit the virus if you are far enough away from each other.  But smaller droplets continue to float in the air and that is what is called aerosol.  This is particularly important to take into account for musicians and singers because deep breathing / inhalation and concentrated time spent together create a unique environment. 
  • Key control measures unique to orchestras and choirs that need to be considered include:
    • limiting the number of performers as far as possible
    • the distance between musicians and singers
    • the position of the musicians / singers in relation to each other (i.e. side-by-side, back-to-back, face-to-face, face-to-back)
    • the length of time spent together in sessions / rehearsals / performances
    • the ventilation of the spaces / studios / rooms. 

Stage plans

Stage layout plans should be devised and circulated in advance to ensure all seating positions are strictly measured out to follow the appropriate social distancing particular to each instrument / singer. The Government DCMS Guidance for people who work in performing arts specifies keeping people two meters apart.

  • The BBC Orchestras & Choirs approach to social distancing measurements for stage layouts are calculated as follows:
    • The two meter distance must be calculated from the edge of the musician’s or singer’s chair to the edge of the neighbouring musician’s or singer’s chair to allow for varying body shapes and movement which need to be factored in to the distancing area (e.g. turning pages, leading). This effectively always ensures at least two and a half meter distance ‘nose-to-nose’ which is over and above the minimum distancing outlined in the DCMS guidance.
    • On the occasion that musicians and singers are not seated, distancing measurements must be calculated to include this additional 0.5m to account for varying body shapes and movement. This effectively always ensures at least two and a half meter distance ‘nose-to-nose’.
    • Distance around each musician and singer must be measured as a full radius around the entire area of a seated person, depending on the positions of the musicians or singers in relation to each other (i.e. side-by-side, back-to-back, face-to-face, face-to-back).
    • Floors will be indicated (e.g. tape, chalk) to show each position’s chair position and distancing limits and zone parameters will be clearly marked for brass and wind musicians to keep spit or reed pots within.
  • Wherever possible, wind and brass musicians and singers will not be positioned face-to-face. The traditional orchestral layouts usually require these musicians and singers to be side-by-side.  If they are positioned side-by-side then two and a half meter ‘nose-to-nose’ must be maintained.
  • Need to consider the distance from instruments as well as their player (e.g. piano, harp, percussion, timpani) with regards to the output of neighbouring musician’s instruments, especially when moving after a session.
  • Advise musicians and singers that it may be necessary to pass within two meters of someone else on occasions when walking to or leaving their seat, but the duration of walking past a chair position is very short (approx. 2-3 seconds). All personnel should face away from others, and not stop or talk to anyone.
  • Reduce turn-around time and restrict the number of stage moves or changes within each rehearsal / session / day. A stage manager who needs to attend to equipment in the stage area whilst musicians and singers are present must do this promptly and if the change cannot be affected within 5 minutes, they will abandon the task until the next break.  Hand hygiene should be followed before and after handling equipment. Record all arrangements made and mitigations in place for making changes to the stage set up the production Risk Assessment.
  • Artistic ensemble and sight lines should be taken into account providing the distance around each musician or singer is not breached.
  • Brass and woodwind should not be asked to play with ‘bells in the air’ (turning / lifting the instrument with the bell pointing upward).
  • Ensure clear access and egress routes on and off stage for conductors and soloists are clearly marked and indicated by stage management staff.
  • Allow at least 2m in front of Conductors (from the edge of podium to edge of the closest chair). This effectively always ensures at least two and a half meter distance ‘nose-to-nose’.
  • Allow appropriate distancing for Soloists / Guest Artists depending on what instrument they play or if they are a singer.
  • Need to consider providing a microphone and PA for the Conductor to address the musicians and singers to prevent the need to raise their voice. Ask Conductors not to raise their voice or sing and introduce extended distance from the edge of the closest chair if they do not adhere to this request.
  • Consider the need for screens (e.g. behind soloists) to separate people where reasonably practical.  A screen can provide a false sense of safety and it must be used in conjunction with other measures. Ensure the use of screens does not conflict with any other applicable requirements, for example the fire regulations where they must not impede an exit route, or with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 where the noise level could be unacceptably increased.

Production and scheduling

  • The Producers and sound crews should take into account the planned repertoire and engage at the planning stage to help make sure the recording schedule is achievable. Plan the schedule in conjunction with the production Risk Assessment for the performance space in order to keep the activity time involved as short as possible and that as fewer people are present as possible. Factor in extra time and social distancing restrictions such as:
    • reduced crew numbers
    • staggered access
    • more time for set up and de rig
    • shorter sessions
    • more frequent breaks
    • reduced stage changes
    • rehearsal orders to ensure adequate time is allocated per piece
  • Must limit ensemble sizes of musicians and singers, and need to consider personnel always work as a group and keep groups separate, but members of such working groups observe all social distancing measures (not as Close Contact Cohorts or ‘bubbles’).
  • Minimal people in the edit suite / control booth to maintain two meter separation and arrangements to prevent other people entering.
  • Limit the movement of the sound and production teams to reduce the need to enter studios / performance spaces and for musicians to enter edit suites / control booths. Entry to an area where musicians are present should only occur if the session can no longer continue without an intervention.
  • Sound crew may adjust mics during sessions. If possible they will make adjustments during breaks when the studio contains fewer players and full distancing is possible. If adjustments are necessary while players and singers are in situ, they will:
    • inform players and singers (over Talkback) what is about to happen and the route that will be taken across the studio to allow players to turn away
    • ask players and singers near the mic to move away from that position to allow everyone to maintain appropriate distance while an adjustment is made
    • wear a face covering in case of proximity to players for the duration of a short adjustment
    • make sure this activity is done in collaboration with the Studio Producer or BBC Covid-19 Officer (for OBs)
  • Hand hygiene should be followed before and after handling equipment.
  • Rules on when musicians can leave the studio to take toilet breaks should be relaxed to avoid everyone going at the same time. Breaks for more than 1 person at a time should be planned in advance according to the risk assessment and scheduled (e.g. by instrument / voice type).

Ventilation

Current guidance is the virus should not spread over distances greater than 2m as the water borne droplets will drop to a surface. As such the virus is unlikely to reach the extract grilles and, if it did, it's highly unlikely to pass through the ventilation system back to the air handling unit. Focus should be on how to increase ventilation and air flow. The HSE/CIBSE (Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers) COVID-19 recommendations are 10 Lt/sec for normal activity and 20 Lt/sec for physical activity.

The BBC Orchestras & Choirs should, record data regarding the ventilation systems of studio spaces on the production Risk Assessment (e.g. air speed in vs air speed out vs studio sizes vs number of people). For venues that do not have mechanical ventilation systems (e.g. churches) record all arrangements made for the provision of fresh air on the production Risk Assessment.

  • Aim to use large open spaces with good fresh air ventilation e.g. open windows / large dock / stage type doors. Must consider how propping doors open may adversely affect security.
  • Ensure that a fresh air supply is consistently flowing through studios / performance spaces.  Fresh ventilation systems can operate as normal but recirculating air systems may require adjustments to increase fresh air flow. 
  • Must consider the air change rates per hour for studios / performance spaces in relation to their size and the number of people in occupation.
  • Must consider air flow direction of travel through studios / performance spaces in relation to where musicians and singers are sitting for the duration of the activity.
  • Check that systems and filters are clean and are working as they were designed to be.
  • Need to consider if the Air flow rate may need to be turned down during recordings to prevent noise interference and allow adequate breaks to turn it up to increase the fresh air flow between sessions.
  • Must take humidity requirements for instruments into consideration e.g. strings, woodwind. Systems should be set to between 40-60% humidity.
  • Encourage staff to open windows in communal areas and corridors and if it is safe to do so.

Hygiene and cleaning

  • Seek assurance in advance that suitable cleaning arrangements have been made in terms of COVID-19, before crew, staff and musicians arrive on site.
  • Ensure thorough professional cleaning of studios is carried out between rehearsals / sessions if and when there is a change of personnel. Check the cleaning regime is working properly during working periods.
  • Must consider the need to provide specialist cleaning products and regime for use on instruments to prevent damage (e.g. piano, celeste, percussion, timpani heads). Musicians will be responsible for the wiping of shared instruments where they have been touched (e.g. keys, handles) with the appropriate products provided before and after each use.
  • Other than piano, celeste and percussion (including sticks) musicians use their own instruments and using hired instruments should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Musicians will be responsible for the thorough cleaning of their own instruments, preferably at home after use, with extra cleaning of mouthpieces observed.
  • Brass and wind musicians will be responsible for the initial wiping of their floor zone at the end of each session, to remove visible moisture off the floor with absorbent materials and sanitizing wipes. Wipes with an alcohol content of 60% or more must be provided for this purpose. The floor areas will be cleaned by professional cleaning staff if and when there is a change of personnel.

Workstations

  • Musicians and singers should be allocated their workstation and equipment for the duration of an activity.  Workstations will only be occupied by the person allocated to it for that activity and they will be the only person to touch equipment within that area during the activity.
  • Work station positions should be clearly indicated so that they can be easily identified.
  • Need to consider setting out empty workstations to be in position for any changes of personnel (e.g. different members of an instrument family) if the same personnel cannot be used for every piece in a programme.
  • Musicians and singers should keep all accessories, equipment, personal belongings together at their seat / place on stage and in a bag until they are required.  No sharing of instruments or accessories, for example, mutes, valve oil, rosin, pencils, mallets.
  • Musicians should limit openly ‘blowing out’ parts of instruments or fingerholes or draw cloth cleaners through instruments in shared spaces.
  • Musicians and singers should only warm up in their workstation (incl. buzzing mouthpieces, reed testing, vocal exercises etc.) and not in corridors, backstage areas or dressing rooms.
  • As often as possible, equipment (e.g. chairs, music stands, sheet music and pads) should be left unused following an activity for a total of 72 hours (as the virus is unlikely to persist on a surface for any longer than this). Where it is not possible to leave equipment unused, a stage manager should wipe equipment with sanitizing wipes provided. Hand hygiene should be followed before and after handling equipment.
  • Design and implement procedure for musicians and singers entering and exiting stage to ensure social distancing is maintained at all times.
  • Must consider increased potential for trip hazards with instrument cases and personal belongings on stage.
  • Zone parameters will be clearly marked on the floor with tape for brass and wind musicians to keep spit or reed pots within. Encourage use of plastic pots or own cloth / towel / tissue paper to collect any moisture from emptying tubing / water keys, which should only be handled by the individual, removed and cleaned or disposed after every use. 
  • Brass and wind musicians will be responsible for the initial wiping of their floor zone at the end of each session, to remove visible moisture off the floor with absorbent materials and sanitizing wipes. Wipes with an alcohol content of 60% or more must be provided for this purpose. The floor areas will be cleaned by professional cleaning staff if and when there is a change of personnel.
  • All musicians and singers should remove and take home with them all personal belongings, and dispose of any rubbish and used wipes, before leaving each day. 

Equipment, technical kit and vehicles

  • Encourage musicians to bring instruments and equipment (e.g. mutes) to and from home or leave positioned in their workstation if safe to do so, avoiding the use and access of store rooms. 
  • Store rooms designated for specific instruments must only be accessed once deemed safe to do so and only by personnel responsible for those instruments.
  • Any non-essential items should be removed to allow for access and cleaning.
  • Large instruments (e.g. percussion, timpani) will be moved to the studio / stage and covers removed whilst adhering to social distancing measures, and left in situ for the entire duration of the activity. If Stage Managers and crew remove covers / flight cases they will be responsible for wiping these down, as well as any part of the instruments they may have touched, with the appropriate products provided. If musicians remove their own covers / cases (e.g. harp, cello, double bass) they should be placed in a designated area. Hand hygiene should be followed before and after handling equipment.
  • Consider the need to provide specialist stands / trays to keep instruments and equipment within zone parameters (e.g. brass mutes).

Face coverings

There are some places where you must wear a face covering by law.  The Government DCMS Guidance for people who work in performing arts includes the requirement to wear face coverings in entertainment venues, including theatres and concert halls.  Other restrictions may apply in Scotland and Wales, or any country outside the UK (those working in these areas make sure to check the specific guidance or local restrictions).

Two meter social distancing in addition to cleaning and maintaining hygiene are the recommended control measures for BBC staff.  The BBC recommends staff wear face coverings when moving around areas which are shared with non-BBC staff. 

  • Assess which, if any, tasks may need to be undertaken by stage management and sound crew for which it would be marginally beneficial to wear a face covering as a precautionary measure.
  • The BBC supports staff and contractors who chose to wear a face covering and encourage and advise their safe use.  Musicians will not be prevented from wearing a face covering during rehearsals and performances providing it does not impair their ability to play / sing.  For televised performances musicians are requested to choose an appropriate colour suitable for the dress code (e.g. plain black).
  • BBC staff may be asked to wear face coverings whilst working in non-BBC venues, including theatres and concert halls, and any areas shared with non-BBC staff where social distancing could be compromised. Where a BBC Studio is under full BBC control (i.e. all visitors must comply with BBC policy of health declaration and temperature testing on entry) wearing a face covering remains optional. 

Changing rooms, rest and eating areas

  • Need to consider asking musicians and administrative staff not to change on site and relax concert / broadcast dress codes.
  • Circulate the BBC Guidance on Showering at Work to all personnel. Need to consider reserving the use of showers exclusively to those who walk, cycle or jog to work.
  • Check cleaning regime of venue toilets and ensure plan is implemented and communicated for use of these e.g. single use / ensure social distancing maintained. The office risk assessment on myRisks (Safety Hub: RIS-3191) includes a list of suggested controls for toilets.
  • Need to request paper towels and bins in toilets and for hand dryers to be designated as out of use.
  • Must consider if social distancing can be maintained when accessing lockers and take out of use if necessary.
  • Include changing rooms toilets and showers in any cleaning regime.  Social distancing must be maintained and maximum capacities will be set for each room and signage outlining maximum numbers and protocol for use clearly shown on doors.
  • Avoid storage of belongings and advise all musicians and administration staff to bring one small bag and keep it with them or store at feet at all times.  Do not hang coats / jackets on rails or hooks; place them on the backs of chairs.
  • Guest artists should be allocated to a dressing room for the period of engagement which is included in any cleaning regime. Advise guests artists to bring anything they require and take it with them e.g. bottled water, towels.
  • Shared tea points will only be available where social distancing can be achieved and included in any cleaning regime.  No communal tea towels; use paper only.
  • Microwaves may be used if deemed safe to do so (i.e. if social distancing can be maintained) with provision for clean as you go, and hand wash stations.  Encourage musicians and staff to bring own food / hot drinks flasks from home.
  • Must consider reduction or bar use of furniture with clear signage and prevented / restricted access in areas that would encourage conflict with distancing rules e.g. sofas and only use if areas are included in any cleaning regime.
  • Encourage taking of breaks in outside spaces / fresh air, but consideration should be made to not over burden building entrance / exit procedures.

Music library

  • Librarians must wash / sanitise their hands before handling music parts / pads / plastic wallets and regularly more often than usual whilst working.
  • Music parts and scores must be delivered to Librarians in time to allow at least 72 hours prior to their preparation (as the virus is unlikely to persist on a surface for any longer than this). Must consider lead times when repertoire is programmed and / or commissioned. Ensure plenty of spare parts are ordered (i.e. 1 part per player, anticipate sickness cover).
  • Library spaces / desks should be kept clear and included in any cleaning regime.
  • Parts should be prepared and laid out on a cleaned surface ready for collection in the venue minimum 72 hours in advance of the first rehearsal, wherever possible.
  • Where it is not possible to lay out music in advance (i.e.  no access to the venue at that time, freelance players are booked to cover sickness) parts should be placed in a cleanable / wipeable wallet, which can then be wiped with sanitizing wipes provided.
  • Where music / parts are handled within 72 hours Librarians must wear face coverings.
  • Limit the number of Librarians working on each set of parts.
  • Musicians and singers should be advised that hand hygiene should be followed before and after handling music parts / pads / wipeable wallets, and reminded to avoid licking their fingers before page turns.
  • Musicians and singers should be the only person touch their music during the activity and have full responsibility for it for entire duration of the activity.
  • Musicians and singers should communicate remotely with librarians and make repairs or alterations to their own parts. Tape and repair equipment will be made available and sanitised after each use.
  • At the end of the activity, musicians and singers should drop parts and scores into a designated Library box which should be left untouched for a total of 72 hours.
  • Conductors / Soloists / Composers / Guest Artists will be required to bring and handle their own scores and parts for any activity. Librarians will not be required to put scores on Conductor stands for performances.
  • Advance copies for private practice or bowings cannot be collected in person unless parts have been laid out on a cleaned surface ready for collection in the venue minimum 72 hours in advance, or placed in a cleanable / wipeable wallet or scanned and provided via email or Dropbox.

Workplace stress

The current situation has potentially created a number of stressors or may exacerbate existing ones. Musicians may experience anxiety on returning to work, including performance stress and the stress of dealing with social distancing in a musical ensemble. Workplace stress will be monitored and all arrangements for the alleviation of stress will be recorded on the production Risk Assessment. In some cases Mental Health issues will also be monitored and processes followed where required, including possible referral to occupational health. Employees should be able to approach their Manager with any concerns and reference wellbeing support, including Employee Assistance Programme available 24 hours a day, all year round.