A man receives cuts on his hand from a broken glass requiring stitches, a woman nearly dies from smoke inhalation, and a 71 year old senior is hospitalized for a fractured ankle caused by hydraulic equipment – all incidents taking place while on the job.
Take the names out of the equation and it’s just another couple cases of workplace injuries, add the names and you get Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Django Unchained, Jennifer Lawrence in a Hunger Games movie, and Harrison Ford’s high-profile return to Star Wars. DiCaprio would pull an Orson Welles and hide the pain to not ruin the take, Lawrence was shaken and filming stopped for the day, and Ford would later crash a plane into a golf course in an emergency landing like a boss.
Recently, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK is going after Foodles Production (UK) Ltd., the production company for The Force Awakens, for 4 breaches of the health and safety laws. Some of the infractions including not taking reasonable precautions to provide a safe work environment to employees and non-employees, failing to provide measures for preventing access to / stopping dangerous machinery before people enter a danger zone, and breaking the ankle of our childhood hero.
Each infraction carries a £20,000 penalty with “sufficient evidence to bring the case to court”. To put that in perspective, that’s less that %0.01 of what the film has made to date, or one metric drop in a bucket.
What really got me after reading this story was the quote from the spokesperson for HSE: “By law, employers must take reasonable steps to protect workers – this is as true on a film set as a factory floor”. Not since I saw the back of the Friendly Giant’s plywood castle set at the CBC Museum have I been so reminded that the film industry is just that – an industry.
The film industry is a unique one when it comes to health and safety. Even if it’s just two actors exchanging dialog, there’s tons of equipment, lots of people in close quarters, and those bright, hot, heavy lights – I’ve seen it at NORCAT right outside my department while a crew filmed a short, SHORT scene for Midnight Masquerade!
The statistics are startling– from 1982 to 1986 there were 4,998 SAG member injuries and a fatality rate of 1 in every 400 injuries (that’s more than in law enforcement, road construction or mining at the time). In the 1980’s there were 37 deaths from accidents during stunts, 24 of those involved helicopters. That’s astonishing, considering most Hollywood jobs to this day are desk jockeys like me.
Even since the 1920’s most of the injuries and fatalities are due to stunt work, and with all of the explosions, action and adventure the audience expects from films puts extra pressure on film makers to deliver. The creation of health and safety standards for the film industry came in the year following the “Great Flood” incident in 1928’s Noah’s Ark. 15,000 gallons of water wasquickly dumped on a crowd of extras, killing 3, injuring dozens, costing one extra his leg, and nearly taking out a yet-to-be-discovered John Wayne (which is why I assume he became the world’s most famous cowboy to avoid any more water stunts…).
Another incident that changed the film industry’s safety standards forever was the infamous helicopter crash in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, which killed veteran actor Vic Morrow and two child actors (who were being paid cash under the table to circumvent child labor laws so they could film at 2AM). The legal fallout and subsequent trial lead to Warner Bros.’ creation of a health and safety committee. All of the unions and guilds were represented and the creation of the Injury and Illness Prevention Program resulted, which is still the basis of health and safety in Hollywood today.
The rules would continue to evolve, including on-set ambulances becoming mandatory and risk managers brought in to assess the risks in filming a scene. Insurance companies would also start insuring pictures now that the rules were put in place and the insurance payouts wouldn’t outweigh the profits. That’s right, insurance companies at one point wouldn’t insure motion pictures because they were too dangerous.
“Hollywood-North” continues to improve the Occupation Health and Safety Act for the Canadian film and television industry, including protecting child performers and updating the definition of a worker to include unpaid interns and student work placements.
All of that “Hollywood magic” makes me forget that there’s thousands of people working to develop a product that is later sold to the masses (not to mention films literally say after the credits that it took “X-number of jobs to make this film, so don’t watch it for free…”). When I say it like that I could be talking about any industry. Just like in any film industry, companies will be fined for health and safety violations. And, as recent events show, not even one of the highest grossing blockbusters in recent history is exempt from health and safety.