Our industry is great at compartmentalization. We have departments for everything. Granted, it’s necessary for efficiency when dealing with large, unwieldy, organizational dilemmas that are part and parcel of the filmmaking juggernaut. Without a regimented approach to the complexities and specialties of the tasks of filmmaking, you quickly end up with chaos. And chaos makes really bad films. And can be dangerous.
This brings us to a department rarely given a second glance but highly critical to a safe and secure environment on every set – health and safety. The considerations that fall under the health and safety banner aren’t the most glamorous, nor the most creative, or even seem the most efficient financially, but they are essential to the successful completion of a project with the barest minimum risk of life, limb, and dollars in the long run. Especially in times like these, considerations of keeping a film environment as healthy and safe as possible is paramount. And how do you as the writer fit in? It depends...
A writer’s responsibilities in health and safety
Why should writers care? Well, in a very real sense, you are determining the level of risk when choosing settings and scenes. Where you choose to place your characters and what they are supposed to be doing can greatly affect the inherent dangers that need to be mitigated. A heated discussion on the floor of a working steel mill puts everyone – cast and crew alike – in a seriously dangerous environment. A quiet conversation on the balcony of a penthouse apartment, if shot on location, means someone is likely hanging lights in precarious positions outside that building in order for the camera to get a good image. And every car chase and shoot out in a script has to be translated into a mitigation of risk while acknowledging you can’t eliminate all potential dangers. You are literally placing people in harms way when you write a scene that involves a dangerous scenario whether intended or not.
When a producer reads a script to ready it for production, one important calculation is how to address the dangers required to get what’s on the page into the can in the most cost-effective and safe way. When it involves stunts or dangerous locations there are certain risk calculations that have to be done as to what can be managed and what can’t when assessing every scene. Planning and extra costs for safety are calculated accordingly. Unavoidable risks have to be recognized and made as safe as possible. A slight alteration in a script can mean the difference between a simple shooting day and weeks of planning and expense and putting the health and lives on the line of those who have to pull the performances off.
Even in the best scenarios, things can go awry. A stunt performer can err on even the most practiced sequence of moves causing harm to themselves or others. A squib (explosive pack placed on a body or surface to simulate gunshots) can leave a bruise or send particles in unanticipated directions causing damage or injury. The more complex the set up the more things that could go wrong and the more attention to details need to be paid to and planning needs to be meticulous to keep all from harms way. But accidents can happen or neglect can creep in when least expected. If you wrote the scene in a certain way, you’ve elevated the risk to those required to perform it.
‘Health’ means much more than you realize
Let’s look at the two constituent parts of “Health and Safety” separately, starting with health. Now a writer might think that they’d be less responsible for the health concerns of a production, but, even there, choices made on the page can greatly impact the exposures to risk on set. For example, a film set in the desert has to accommodate heat exposure and dehydration considerations as well as allot for the cost of emergency transportation if something goes awry. Same with other remote or potentially toxic locations.
And as I write this (and probably for years to come) every production has to accommodate pandemic protocols and procedures meant to mitigate significant risks. The larger the production, the bigger the cast and crew, the higher the cost in potential health exposure and profit hits being risked. Even regular sickness needs to be accounted for in a production dynamic. And accidents and injury are much more a potential on a busy and bustling set than in most other workplaces.
Film sets are dangerous, unsafe places
It is fitting that film is called an “industry” because the environment the bulk of the work takes place in is as or more dangerous than any traditional manufacturing floor. The excessive amount of electrical current needed to create filmed entertainment is shocking. A studio electrical grid runs on par with any other industrial complex. All that electricity runs through snakes of temporary cabling out to dozens of multi-thousand watt light fixtures and electronics. The risk of shock causing death is high.
Then there are the physical sets that are often only facades of buildings, with none of the support structures that a real building would have to keep them in place. If great care is not taken, a prop wall could collapse, unexpectedly and the results would likely not be as injury free as a carefully planned Buster Keaton silent movie gag. And given the fact that there are heavy lights and equipment either suspended above or precariously mounted on poles (C-stands in industry parlance) dangerously close to where people are moving around concentrating on other things, great care must be taken to ensure things don’t crash down and cost delay, money and most importantly injury to those on set.
Even if you can avoid electrocution and bludgeoning events on a set there are other inherent dangers that come from combinations of these hazards. One common concern that could arise is the threat of uncontrolled fire. This particular danger I have first hand experience with. While working on a live news broadcast I looked up to see billowing smoke coming from behind the set and our crew sprang into action. We were lucky. We were able to fight the fire and remove the danger without having to evacuate the set or even stop the news broadcast. We were able to do this because we had safety measures in place and had cool heads to handle the unexpected and scary event to prevent it from causing major damage or risking lives.
But a well prepared or empowered crew isn’t always the case. Unsafe practices or purposefully ignoring the safety protocols and requirements for any reason can lead – and unfortunately have led – to severe consequences and death. Even in the most innocuous situations, like driving a car or crossing a street, when done making a movie there are compounding issues and distractions that make a keen eye on safety a vital requirement. Long hours, distracted colleagues, and brazen, unthinking people in charge have lead to horrible results. That’s why the rules of health and safety are important. They are there to make the film set as safe as humanly possible within the confines of our inherently dangerous profession.
Unions to the rescue
One of the best areas where unions and guilds shine is in looking out for the individuals on a set. Because of the collective bargaining clout unions and guilds have, they are often able to make great strides in demanding adherence to one of their major tenets for worker rights, on the job safety. Reasonable working hours with overtime disincentives for overwork, requirements to adhere to strict safety guidelines when exposing workers to known, dangerous conditions and insurance and workers compensation in line with the higher risks required in performing stunts and jobs within the inherent hazards on a working set are just some of the ways unions and guilds keep the powers that be focused on a safe and secure work environment.
If you analyze the basic union negotiated contract language you’ll find a large majority of the clauses are dealing with health and safety concerns, how they should be handled or avoided, or outright forbidden. They truly are advocates of keeping the best interests of their members protected on union controlled sets. Studios are highly incentivized to maintain safe environments in order to keep the multitude of productions under union and guild supervision flowing.
Non-union and independent shoots require more self-protection. Without the unions and guilds backing the workers, some non-union and independent producers attempt to push the boundaries of acceptability in risky situations. This should not be tolerated. You should never be asked to put your own life and health at risk for any job and walking away should always be an option when the risks are too great to consider. Even risks within the bounds of contractual or union rules may be too great for individual, specific situations. In the end, the individual worker must be watching out for their own skin.
The company may attempt to intimidate you by claiming it’ll hurt your career, but, there will be no career if you get severely injured or killed. And any employer that wouldn’t respect your choice not to risk your life isn’t an employer you need to be working for in the long run.
Insurance’s role in health and safety
Nothing is ever completely guaranteed safe. Even in the safest of settings, with all protections in place accidents can still happen, people can still get hurt. Accounting for these unfortunate possibilities is important for both the worker and production. Every responsible production company will secure insurance for as much protection as is feasible. Typical insurance company coverage handles some – but not all- of the potential issues. There’s a risk versus benefit analysis weighed as to what’s “enough” insurance. Among those balancing points are two important aspects of sufficient insurance coverage:
Insurance for the production. – Production insurance should have provisions that ensure that the overall production will have the best chance to be completed. Ideally, these provisions allow for compensation when necessary to continue filming after the triggering events. But they should also provide incentives to make sure things are safe. These could include requirements of sufficient safety protocols in place before coverage is validated.
In some cases that can involve extra steps, like passing medical examinations prior to coverage, to ensure the continued health of parties considered providing unique services. “Unique services” is a legal concept that is a contractual recognition of those people who cannot be readily replaced and would have a devastating or delaying impact on a production timeline if they became unavailable. These are often defined in the contract as those services that are “special, unique, unusual, extraordinary and of an intellectual character giving them a peculiar value.” Because of their importance to the production, their health at the start and during the production is paramount and therefore, fodder for insurance interests.
Insurance for the individual. – But the other side of the insurance coin is making sure that the individuals involved in the production are as protected as the production itself. This concern is a major tenet of the unions and guilds parameters for health coverage and worker’s comp as employees or independent contractors. There should also be coverage for the potentials of hospital and recovery costs involved in high-risk ventures during filming such as stunt work or dangerous environments. A production should be covered well enough so that those injured on set are compensated for their losses since the production was the direct creator of the circumstances that led to the harm.
But no production can ever hope to be completely covered for all potentialities. Some protections are too cost-prohibitive to find insurance to cover (e.g. taking a film crew up to the top of K2 for a week of shooting. The cost, if you can find any insurance company willing to consider covering that, would be astronomical.) Other issues are just not insurable at the moment. For example, I am not aware of any insurer who is willing to cover the full potential costs of impacts of the current pandemic in future film sets. This is a key issue of getting productions funded at the moment. For all uninsurable issues, more of the budget must be set aside to cover the costs that cannot be insured.
Your number one health and safety advocate is YOU.
No matter what safety parameters are in place, how carefully productions choose the paths to get things done or how many protections and safety nets are ready for the unthinkable, there is still the most important factor in health and safety in our industry. Regardless of what you are asked to do, you must look out for your own interests. Even if it is claimed that you are contractually obligated to comply with a demand you feel is not safe, you can choose to suffer the consequences of breaking the contract instead of breaking your leg (or much worse) by doing something you don’t feel adequately considers safety. Too many people on film sets have given their lives to “get the shot” instead of heeding their own conscience about the safety of what they’ve been asked to do.
Even on the safest set taking all the most prudent precautions, there can be accidents. No one can be expected to predict everything. But as long as you can feel confident that everyone is doing their best to make sure it is as safe as can be, and everyone is looking out for each other, we can work on these projects safely, together. It depends. On all of us.