Study: ‘Stunning’ Number Of Head Injuries, Possible Concussions In Theater Industry

ATHENS, Ohio — Could acting or working on a stage be as hazardous as playing professional football? Researchers at Ohio University found a rising occurrence of head injuries and symptoms from potential concussions in theater crew members and others involved in performance arts.

The authors say that not only have a “stunning” number of workers reported getting hurt during a performance, but many continue to carry on with their job without receiving treatment or reporting the injury.

According to their survey, two-thirds of theater workers have suffered head injuries, with an overwhelming majority (77%) suffering three or more such injuries in their careers. About four in ten say they’ve been dealt at least five head injuries. And even though seven in ten injured actors or worker felt concussion-like symptoms, they still kept working.

Why such disregard for an injury that’s received so much attention the sports world in recent years?

“There are probably several reasons for non-reporting,” says lead author Jeff Russell, assistant professor in Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and director of the Clinic for Science and Health in Artistic Performance, in a university release. “In this particular industry, they don’t recognize how serious the injury is and they’re not accustomed to having healthcare close by like a sports team would. Some will keep going because if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Some don’t want to be seen as not tough enough, particularly in the stunt industry.”

Russell says that concussions and other serious head injuries simply aren’t on the back of theater workers’ minds when they’re on the stage. That mindset must change, he urges, starting at the top with theater leadership and directors of each performance.

“You don’t think of performing artists the same way you do sports athletes. Football is about collision. You don’t think about that in performing arts. They’re doing their work where they’re building things, moving equipment and often working backstage where it’s dark,” he explains. “There are a variety of ‘booby traps’ in the arts world where an injury is likely to occur.”

Yet a  251-page guide regarding health and safety in the theater only devotes about two-thirds of a page to head protection, says Russell. He emphasizes the need for theater workers at Ohio to wear head protection, as Ohio production students are required to do so.

“It has to be made OK that if you have a head injury it’ll be taken care of properly. That has to be OK with everybody,” he says. “Severe consequences can occur when concussions are not managed correctly. The brain is more important than a production or a performance.”

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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