Safety and Sanity
By Leonard Klady
There’s a commonly held myth within the film community that making movies is a safe, non-polluting industry. Yet year after year there are several dozen industrial deaths that occur on the job. I suppose film crew are less likely to get killed or incapacitated while performing their daily tasks than, say, electrical linemen or circus performers. Set accountants rarely keel over when confronted with a budget spiraling out of control. However, when you’re working on a set or location, the perils escalate.
The highest-risk positions involve stunt performers, and that should come as no surprise. Despite routinely rigorous safety standards, a slightly misjudged fall can have a crippling effect. However, this sort of freak accident only accounts for a couple of the annual fatalities, and they’re more apt to be reported in the press.
The majority of critical injuries are the result of negligence in one form or another. Someone falls victim to an improperly wired device or a scaffold is poorly constructed or a crew member wasn’t informed where not to be standing when action is called.
Any one of these regrettable occurrences could likely have been avoided. And far too many are the result of exhaustion either on the part of the person that contributed to an unsafe situation or the victim whose senses were dulled and responded just a bit too slowly when placed in danger.
The late French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once likened a film shoot to a stagecoach ride. He talked of the excitement involved with buying a ticket and arriving at the depot and departing at a gallop. However, he noted that as the journey progresses the romance begins to fade. There’s the bumpy ride, the sub-standard food, hundreds of miles without water, lousy accommodations, Indian attacks and the like. At a certain point the dream evaporates and all one wants to do is get to their destination intact.
Of course, Truffaut was speaking from the vantage point of someone working outside the American system. In France, there are labor laws and traditions that do not allow for 18-hour working days, less than double-digit turnarounds and filming into the meal break. I’ve been told by people who have worked in France or England or Canada that any one or all of these infractions occur—but not with the egregious regularity one finds in the U.S.
I’m also told, particularly by American producers, that no sane or experienced person would schedule the sort of back-breaking work schedule described above. They are the result of incompetence and poor planning. You cannot get optimum results from a cast and crew that are sleep-deprived. Simple things take longer to do and you either extend your shooting schedule or wind up not getting the footage you need.
It’s not good business to work people to death and one has to ask why the head of a studio would allow an environment of this nature even in exceptional circumstances. A one-time senior exec at one of the majors told me that he would not be privy to the working hours or conditions on a particular set unless catastrophe struck. By implication he made it clear it was an aspect of production he preferred that others monitor.
Also, by implication, it allowed him or his brethren to dismiss better defined, enforced and penalized conditions in regard to a standardized workday during union negotiations. It should also be understood that the union reps are under a fair amount of pressure from members who view overtime as the equalizer for wages that haven’t increased comparably to the growth in the standard of living index.
The sad fact is that the sector, particularly among below-the-liners, that would prefer more regulated and humane working conditions is a minority voice. Few in the community have ever heard of a movement called 12on/12off, whose mission statement includes bringing home “the importance of health, safety and family in an industry that often seems to completely take over our lives.” To date, they’ve conducted a stealth campaign to change attitudes that even includes T-Shirts and baseball caps with its logo, and if you dig a little further there’s a 12on12off.com with articles, testimonials and scientific studies that outline the perils of long hours combined with insufficient rest.
It would be nice to think that sane heads will ultimately prevail in the workplace. There’s no question that the competition for crew positions and the paranoia over lost opportunities to so-called “runaway” productions is exacerbating the situation. Things will change if the cost attached to industrial accidents becomes dire but does anyone really want to become one of those statistics that contributes to the turnaround?
Safety and Sanity