Health And Safety Behind The Scenes

With the latest high budget Marvel blockbuster hitting cinemas lets take a look at health and safety in the film industry.

In the movies, many stories would not be possible without disregard for serious health and safety issues in the workplace. Where would the superhero genre be without villains falling from height into a vat of chemicals, and heroes being bitten by an escaped genetically altered spider or exposed to radiation? On screen, a hero can wear a cape without any risk, but in the real world, filming is often inherently dangerous.

The Risks

Even if a scene only involves someone walking across a set, there will be potential for accidents. High electrical voltages, hot lights, power tools for building scenery, ladders with people working at height, heavy suspended equipment, and trip hazards like cabling and camera tracks are some of the potential dangers.

If a scene is more complex or action-packed, there could also be weapons, explosives, loud noises, cranes, and fast moving vehicles like bikes, cars, and helicopters to provide the excitement or capture the action. Underlying all of these potential risks there is also the fact that everything is being run to a tight budget and a demanding schedule by a group of mostly freelance people.

Health and Safety Progress

It is estimated that between 1925 and 1930, nearly 11,000 people were injured and there were 55 fatalities during California based film productions. In the 1930s the first film safety laws were passed, but accidents still happened. While filming 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the actress playing the Wicked Witch of the West was badly burnt during a scene where she ‘vanishes’ in a burst of flame and smoke, when the trap door designed to remove her from the explosion opened too late.

Health and safety in the movie industry remained much the same until a fatal helicopter crash in 1982 that occurred while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. Actor Vic Morrow and two children died when the helicopter was struck by flying pyrotechnic debris from an explosion that damaged the vehicle’s rotor and sent it spinning out of control. Investigators found there had been thirty-six safety violations, and the two child actors, aged six and seven, had been paid in cash to circumvent laws that banned children from working at night.

New safety codes were implemented, but there have still been accidents.

Today it is estimated that between 20 and 40 people are killed or seriously injured worldwide each year while working on film production. Most accidents involve falls, fight sequences, trips and slips. Even the increasing use of CGI has not spared stunt men and women from injury. Some accidents and injuries befall the often underpaid and overworked people behind the scenes, often when working at heights or with chemicals. However, the most dangerous work still involves helicopters, with crashes having killed nearly one US film or television worker per year over the last four decades (British figures are not available).

High Profile Accidents

Most accidents in the industry happen to those behind the camera, but some high profile stars have also suffered avoidable mishaps.

In 1984 Michael Jackson’s hair was set alight by faulty pyrotechnics while he filmed a commercial for Pepsi. The second and third-degree burns to his scalp eventually lead to him becoming addicted to painkillers, a condition which contributed to his death over twenty years later.

In Die Hard Bruce Willis suffered permanent hearing damage after firing a gun beneath a table while not wearing earplugs, and during the filming of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence is reported to have nearly choked to death in a tunnel scene when a faulty fog machine produced dense smoke.

Who is Responsible for Health and Safety in the Film Industry?

The responsibility for health and safety ultimately rests with the employer and cannot be delegated to a consultant or anyone else. However, in an industry that uses many independent companies and freelancers it is sometimes difficult to identify who the employer is. In most cases, the employer will be the producer or production company.

The employer is responsible for ensuring appropriate health and safety standards are achieved and maintained throughout the production process. They should put health and safety on an equal footing with editorial and dramatic considerations and establish appropriate procedures to control risk. There should also be proper planning, communication, co-operation and co-ordination by and between all the parties involved in a production.

What Must Be Done

The overall approach to health and safety in the film industry should be the same as for any other industry. Responsibilities and duties should be clearly defined and allocated to appropriate people, and there should be a system for managing health and safety which enables risks to be assessed and managed.

A risk assessment process should ensure hazards are recognised at all stages of the production, assess the risk of people’s exposure to these hazards, and find ways to either eliminate or control the hazards.

As work progresses, the risk assessments and the controls put in place must be reviewed and updated to ensure they are still working. A review of all health and safety measures should occur after the production is completed to determine whether there are useful lessons for future productions.

In the film industry, there is perhaps more pressure to complete a project than in other sectors. However, it is far cheaper to follow health and safety procedures than to risk multimillion-dollar fines, lawsuits or an increase in insurance premiums. The most recent high profile injury sustained in a studio occurred when Harrison Ford broke his leg after a door mechanism was unexpectedly live during rehearsal. This incident was a perfect example of what can happen when simple health and safety measures are not followed, including the scheduling and financial pressures that can fall upon a production if an accident occurs, and the financial consequences of an accident to a production company. The production company in charge of filming the Star Wars franchise in Britain was fined £1.6 million under Health and Safety law for failing to manage the risk and ensure good communication.

New broom Training

New Broom Training offer Consultancy services. We are qualified and experienced in a wide range of industry types as far as Health & Safety is concerned and can offer effective advice and solutions in all areas. Contact us to discuss your needs or to ask for advice.