Risky Business: Circus Performers at Lower Risk of Injury or Accident; but Many Companies Don’t Carry Work Comp, per Industry Expert

Liz Carey

Los Angeles, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – In the nine years that Doug Miller’s company, Zen Arts, has been in business, he’s never had one of his acrobatic performers get injured.

But unlike many other circus companies and talent agents, Miller said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com, he carries workers’ compensation for his performers.

Zen Arts hires out acrobats, aerialists and other performers to work at events like corporate parties, or circus shows, across the globe. Like many other similar companies, the performers are considered contracted workers. But, Miller said, because the company is located in Los Angeles, the performers aren’t classified as contract workers.

Many companies classify the performers as contract workers — which means the performers are responsible for their own taxes and the company is not responsible for benefits like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.

“Unlike most companies, I think, who don’t carry workers’ comp, we do,” he said. “It’s a huge cost for us. We pay about 16 percent on top of our labor. That’s a cost we pass on to our customers, but it’s necessary.”

While circus performers, aerialists and acrobats often perform “death-defying” stunts, the incidents of injury are low. But because the risk is high, so are the premiums, Miller said.

“It’s very hard to get coverage,” he said. “But the unfortunate thing is that a lot of the performers don’t even have health insurance. For us, it’s a necessity, for their sake and for ours.”

And, he said, he wonders if some performers are aware that their injuries during training or during performances can be covered by workers’ compensation.

Not all circus performances can say they’ve never had an accident however.

In March of this year, Cirque du Soleil performer Yann Arnaud fell to his death during a performance in front of a live audience in Tampa, FL. Arnaud’s hand slipped from a rope he was holding, and he fell more than 20 feet to the ground. Arnaud was taken to a hospital where he later died from his injuries.

It’s not the first time Cirque du Soleil, perhaps the most famous modern circus in the world, has seen injuries or fatalities.

In 2016, Olivier Rochette, the son of Cirque du Soleil founder Gille St-Croix, died when he was hit by a telescopic lift during the show “Luzia” in San Francisco. That accident came just days after another performer, Australian Olympic gymnast and Cirque du Soleil performer Lisa Skinner, lost her grip and fell 16 feet during an aerial hoop act. The fall left Skinner with a broken vertebrae and broken arm.

In 2013, Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell 94 feet while being hoisted of stage during the conclusion of a performance of “Ka” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

And in 2009, Oleksander Khurov died while training. The Russian gymnast fell backward off of a Russian swing that catapulted acrobats 30 feet into the air.

The Wall Street Journal, during an investigation into Cirque du Soleil, found that the circus company had 56.2 accidents/injuries per every 100 performers.

Cirque du Soleil did not respond to numerous calls and emails requesting comment by press time.

According to a story in Vanity Fair in 2013 following Guyard-Guillot’s death, accidents and injuries were so common at Cirque du Soleil — as was the compensation for those injuries — that it became fodder for dark humor. “The bad part is, you break your legs,” one performer told Vanity Fair. “The good part is, you get a Mercedes.” In 2012, the magazine reported, there were 53 Cirque performers in Las Vegas alone who were injured, missing a total of 918 workdays.

And Cirque du Soleil isn’t the only circus company at which accidents have occurred. In March 2018, just days before Arnaud’s accident, a motorcycle rider for the Shrine Circus was injured during the Motorcycle of Death act at a Hamburg, NY performance. Twenty-three-year-old Tyler Burke suffered a broken collarbone and other injuries, according to a press release from Lyons Media.

In 2017, five high wire performers at Circus Sarasota in Sarasota, FL fell while practicing a dangerous high-wire eight-person pyramid. Three other performers, including Nik Wallenda of the famous Flying Wallendas, grabbed onto the rope as the others tumbled 25 feet to the ground. The accident was blamed on one of the performers losing their balance.

During a press conference after the incident, Pedro Reis, founder and CEO of Circus Arts Conservatory which presented Circus Sarasota, said it was an unfortunate injury, but no one was seriously hurt.

“If somebody loses their balance, something can go wrong,” Reis said. “This is not the first accident, and unfortunately accidents do happen. But there were no serious injuries, thank God, and no fatalities… But as I said, the show must go on.”

And in 2014, eight women fell 20 feet from the “Human Chandelier” when a clamp holding a 350-pound harness that held performers up in the air by their hair gave way and fell to the ground below. All eight of the women survived, but some later sued the company.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the category of performing artists, of which circus performers are a part, was determined to have 54 fatalities per 100 employees. That number was up from up from 2013’s 35 per 100 workers. This category also includes athletes, artists, dancers and actors, to name a few.

But, said Michael Mucciolo, director of operations at Boston Circus Guild, LLC, another company that hires out circus performers, injuries and fatalities are rare for most circus performers.

“If something happens, it usually happens in training — a pulled muscle from pushing the body too hard, or over-exertion,” he said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com. “We’ve never had an accident. It’s terrible, but from a numbers stand point, it’s extremely rare that someone gets hurt. What we do is extremely dangerous. But we’re also trained to do it and we take safety very seriously.”

Mucciolo said his company also covers performers with workers’ compensation when they are working.

Additionally, according to Cirque du Soleil’s website, workers’ compensation, health care and emergency care are all part of the benefits provided to Cirque du Soleil performers.

But, said Zen Arts’ Miller, there’s a big difference between a performer who is hired out and one who works full-time at a place like Cirque du Soleil.

“Our performers don’t work every day,” he said. “They may work a week at a time or a month at a time. But that’s very different from doing two shows a day, five days a week for years. There’s much more strain on the body in that kind of work.”

Still, Miller said, providing his performers with workers’ compensation coverage is the right thing to do.

“I think I couldn’t run a company and take the risk of something happening to someone that was performing for me,” he said. “We take risks, that is the nature of the job, and we all accept that there are risks, but how could you not cover someone who takes that risk for you?”