Party and event
Chad Struthers, vice-president of Warner Shelter Systems, has been in the tent business for 17 years. He started out as an installer, but was quickly promoted to supervisor then head of Warner’s rental and construction business. He started spending more time on operations in 2002, but moved into sales a year later.
By Patrick Flannery
Chad Struthers, vice-president of Warner Shelter Systems, has been in the tent business for 17 years. He started out as an installer, but was quickly promoted to supervisor then head of Warner’s rental and construction business. He started spending more time on operations in 2002, but moved into sales a year later. It is safe to say he has seen most of what the tent business has to offer, and he has formed some clear ideas on how to put up and take down tents safely.
|Putting up tents can be a risky business. Proper training and safety gear is not optional. Photo: Warner Shelter Systems.|
A lot of Struthers’ safety thinking comes from his experiences in the Alberta oil patch. Contractors working there have to meet standards of training, documentation and procedure that are probably higher than anywhere else in the country. One thing Struthers has learned is that safety is not free. “You get some fly-by-night companies with the guys still running around in t-shirts, shorts and sneakers quoting a job for some very low price,” he says. “But we are coming out fully engineered, site inspected, following all the laws of health and safety and using the proper equipment. I want more money for that.” Grabbing business with low rates might seem like smart strategy in the short term, but you need only ask an event rental owner who has lost an employee in an accident to find out whether safety risks are ultimately worth it.
“Safety should start at the phone call,” Struthers says. He stresses that rental operators should never just focus on providing a tent. The conversation should start with what kind of event the customer is planning and follow from there. This is a familiar principle to most rental operators – good customer service always starts with asking about what the customer is going to do with the equipment. But Struthers says many of the safety risks associated with tents start when people try to use the wrong tent for a particular situation. For instance, vehicle access to a site can be a concern that doesn’t become evident until the crew shows up. Struthers points out that this can mean the difference between dropping the material out of a truck or hand bombing it into an area, with the associated risks to staff that come from lugging heavy gear by hand. Many municipalities have rules governing occupancy allowed in a given square footage when serving alcohol. Violating these rules can be dangerous, and can land the customer in hot water. If you do not ask the questions up front, the crew could show up and find out the tent is going on paving stone but they did not bring any ballast. Maybe the customer will accept a delay in this situation, or maybe someone will be asked to jury-rig a solution that is not safe. Planning and being prepared is one of the most effective ways to avoid putting anyone in an unsafe situation.
Standing at a counter and asking all the right questions and getting all the right answers is rare. Struthers believes strongly in site visits prior to renting anything. The major advantage to a site visit is it creates an opportunity to check for overhead power lines and locate underground services such as gas and electrical lines. Asking a customer about these aspects of a site without standing right there is a recipe for trouble. Many customers and rental operators are too focused on whether the tent will fit in the space available, Struthers says. Just as important is whether it can be moved into place and put together without running into any hazards. Most people are poor at visualizing whether a certain geometric shape will fit into a certain three-dimensional area. Depending on the customer to accurately describe at a rental counter (or worse, via e-mail) what your tent crew will face at the site is fraught with risk. That is why Struthers recommends having trained and experienced sales staff who do not mind taking a drive before taking an order.
Another skill sales staff need to have is the ability to say “No,” and the empowerment from management to do so. Some of the accidents he has seen involved tents going into areas where they never should have been in the first place. Very few residential yards with overhead power lines will accommodate a tent of any significant size because there is not room for the 20-foot clearance everything should have. Sometimes the only way to prevent tragedy is to refuse to take the work if the plan is wrong.
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Aside from touching overhead lines, grounding electrical equipment in water can pose another electrocution hazard for tent installers and customers. The distribution panel and any extension cords need to be properly grounded and cables bundled and protected against people tripping over them. Again, the site visit becomes critical to identify whether the site is graded and drains well, or whether standing water is going to be a problem if it rains.
Be aware of your local jurisdiction’s fire regulations. Struthers says Calgary requires anything over 600 square feet to get a building and development permit, complete with a sign-off from the fire marshal. That means egress routes with fire doors with panic bars, fire extinguishers and emergency exit signs. As far as strictness of regulations goes, Struthers says Ontario is the strictest with Alberta and B.C. following. Saskatchewan and Manitoba “essentially have almost nothing,” he says.
Tents sold in North America are supposed to be fire resistant, but Struthers says to check the label on imported products. There are two standards that most Canadian authorities recognize: the U.S. National Fire Prevention Act standard NFPA-701 and the Canadian Underwriters Laboratories standard CAN/ULC-S109-M. Products not stamped with one of those certifications could expose you to liability should the tent catch fire due to inadequate fireproofing treatment.
Struthers is impatient with tent rental operators who send staff out without the proper equipment. Steel toes, coveralls, hard hats, hearing protection, safety glasses and gloves are all part of the kit for Warner’s people. He also says proper tickets and certification for forklift operators is a must. When it comes to training employees to erect tents safely, “Common sense is the biggest thing, but you can’t teach that,” Struthers says. New hires and summer employees should always be accompanied by at least one experienced installer.
When it comes to the safety and durability of the tent after it is put up, Struthers cautions that an engineered product is not the same as an engineer-approved installation. “Everybody says ‘Our tent is engineered and our tent has a stamped drawing,’ ” he says. “If the tent is not put up properly, that stamp means nothing.” Struthers says large installations should be properly inspected and signed off because site conditions can alter how a tent should be anchored. An exposed site on top of a parking garage, for instance, has much different requirements than one on a ground floor lot with tall buildings all around.
The good news is there is help available. “I don’t know of one reputable tent company that won’t go out when a customer gets a new product and show them how to use it the first time,” Struthers says. He himself teaches classes in major areas where event rental operators can come and learn about aspects of tenting and planning events.
Finally, Struthers stresses the importance of knowing your tent product and choosing one that is going to withstand the rigours of rental. “Just because it is cheap on the internet doesn’t mean it is the best to have in your inventory,” Struthers says. “Know your product. The name of this game is wear and tear. Tents go up, tents go down. They get moved from one site to the next and then, in your summer months, they get used a lot. So just because it is cheap out of the gate doesn’t mean it’s going to last.” Tents with worn down parts and fabric can have hidden weaknesses that do not reveal themselves until they fail, possibly with catastrophic consequences.
Tent safety goes beyond putting the shelter up correctly. Knowing the application, being willing to walk away from dangerous situations, choosing a rental-ready product, conducting a site visit and understanding your local regulations are all part of keeping your staff and customers safe.