How Health And Safety In Film And TV Can Improve

How Health And Safety In Film And TV Can Improve

Accidents involving movie stars on film sets are often headline news. Harrison Ford broke his leg shooting ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’! Tom Cruise broke his ankle jumping across rooftops in ‘Mission Impossible 7’. How cool is that!?

Well, it sounds cool when every Late-Night talk show host and entertainment magazine is clamouring about it.

But what if Harrison Ford had never walked again?

What if Tom Cruise had fallen off that rooftop?

Accidents happen, sure, but a lack of protocols for health and safety in film and TV leads to negligence and life-altering injuries or fatalities. We can’t just look at the camera, shrug and say that’s showbiz! Film sets are workplaces, too. And like any workplace, safety protocols and procedures must be in place by law.

Health and Safety Courses

Our Health and Safety training courses help trainees explore common workplace hazards that might become fatal if ignored. Understanding the nature of the problem can help control and manage the issue before it gets worse.

Clear and Present Danger

Film and television shows are known for their death-defying heroes, epic action scenes and explosive drama. It takes a village to produce magic on the screen, but the village is at risk. The lack of health and safety awareness on sets is a widespread concern in the UK film and television industry.

Let’s look at some incidents that have sparked this cause for concern over the years.

1956 The Conqueror – Some 91 cast and crew of the film ‘The Conqueror’ developed cancer and more than half died from it. This was linked to the shoot location being in an area of Nevada where nuclear testing had taken place three years prior.

1989 The Sword of the Tipu Sultan – A fire broke out in the studio where a television drama ‘The Sword of the Tipu Sultan’ was filmed in India. Tragically, some 62 cast and crew were killed.

1993 The Crow – Actor Brandon Lee was fatally shot in the abdomen by an improperly loaded prop gun on the set of ‘The Crow’. An investigation found the tragedy resulted from negligence by multiple people on set.

2006 Top Gear – Presenter Richard Hammond sustained severe head injuries while filming the TV show ‘Top Gear’. He crashed a jet-powered dragster at nearly 320mph. This is an extreme example, but just one of the many other injuries and accidents involving the show’s presenters.

2009 Deathly Hallows – Stunt performer David Holmes suffered a fractured neck on the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows set. He sustained it performing a stunt involving a cable that propelled him through the air and into a wall with too much force. The injury left Holmes with lifelong paralysis.

2014 Midnight Rider – Camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed by a locomotive train that ran through the set of ‘Midnight Rider’. A few years later, a jury found that Jones’ death was the direct result of negligence.

2017 Black Earth Rising – Camera operator Mark Milsome was killed during a car stunt on the set of the drama ‘Black Earth Rising’ in Ghana. Several things led to this tragic accident. We will discuss this more shortly.

2021 Rust – Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed after actor Alec Baldwin accidentally shot her with a prop gun while filming ‘Rust’. Information has revealed unsafe working conditions on set, that the person in charge of the weapons was inexperienced and that the assistant director had a history of on-set injuries in previous productions.

What Causes Such Risky Business?

Negligence plays a large part in causing such injuries and fatalities.

Let’s consider one investigation into how such incidents occur.

A coroner inquest into Mark Milsome’s death revealed:

“The risk of Mr Milsome being harmed or fatally injured was not effectively recognised, assessed, communicated or managed.”

The plan for the stunt was for a car to go over a ramp and topple over.

Here’s a breakdown of the improper assessment of risks before the incident occurred:

  • The speedometer of the car used in the stunt was not working
  • The car’s driver had concerns about the brakes
  • The stunt coordinator at the time of the incident was a replacement and did not communicate with their predecessor before the stunt
  • The stunt coordinator told Mark that the camera in front of the speeding car was the safest one for him to operate
  • The stunt coordinator had no way of testing the ramp to see what it could achieve, as they only had one car
  • There was no overall safety briefing for everyone on the crew before the stunt

The result? The car went too fast over the ramp, did not topple over as planned and careened to where Mark was standing. Mark lost his life and another crew member was injured.

So, clearly, there’s an issue. And big names are speaking out about it.

“The Name’s Safety…Health and Safety…”

Rory Kinnear, who played one of James Bond’s MI6 colleagues in ‘Skyfall’, has called for better health and safety on sets. In 1988, Kinnear’s father, also an actor, was killed after being thrown from a horse while filming ‘The Return of the Musketeers’.

Kinnear says nothing’s changed. He has concerns for all young people wanting to enter a financially and physically perilous industry.

Film and television sets, especially those that are producing ambitious and action-orientated sequences, can look similar to construction sites. There’s a lot of rigging, towers, scaffolding, cranes, large and heavy camera equipment. Not to mention the added dangers of controlled explosives or the use of prop weapons.

So, what can be done to mitigate the risks posed by these dangers?

Law & Order: Responsibilities on Set

Like any workplace, Film and Television sets should be safe. In fact, it’s a legal duty for organisations to have risk assessments and safe systems of work in place. But whose job is it to implement these systems?

Legal Responsibilities

Production companies are organisations that develop and organise projects in the film and television industry. As such, they are responsible for the initial health and safety policies and provisions that will keep the production of their project safe.

The employer (whoever heads the production company) is known as the ‘Responsible Person’. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), they must protect the health, safety and welfare of employees and others affected by their business.

A production company must:

  • Produce a health and safety policy
  • Ensure cooperation, coordination and communication of the policy
  • Make health and safety arrangements
  • Allocate adequate resources to health and safety matters
  • Select and appoint competent crew
    • A competent person is someone with the relevant training, skills, experience, knowledge and the ability to apply them to perform a task safely
  • Allocate responsibilities for health and safety throughout production to competent individuals.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, failure to adhere to responsibilities could result in fines and imprisonment. In the case of gross negligence manslaughter, the fines could be unlimited and imprisonment could be for life.

Risk Assessment

Remember what that coroner said about Mr Milsome’s death? It was not “effectively recognised, assessed, communicated or managed.” Well recognising, assessing, communicating and managing risks can be done with a risk assessment.

We won’t discuss how risk assessments work in this blog, but feel free to read all about it here.

There are different risk assessments for different work environments. If you’re in charge of health and safety on your film set and need to know more, you can check out some training courses.

Better Safe Than Sorry

What does health and safety actually look like on set?

Activities that can be undertaken regarding health and safety include:

  • Risk assessments and control measures to eliminate or reduce risks
  • Consultation and involvement of employees
  • Insurance
  • Emergency arrangements
  • Training
  • Safe systems of work

A complete breakdown of who is responsible and for what, can be found in this Health and Safety Executive PDF, along with general health and safety guidance for productions.

Conclusion

To save time on set, cast and crew can undertake online health and safety training before production starts to help them understand risks and hazards and how to manage them in the workplace.

As with any organisation, effective health and safety policies and culture start at the top. So, if you’re organising a film or television production, it begins with you.

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