What Making Movies Taught Me About Safety

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By Phil La Duke

Last year at this time I was sweating sweltering heat in a pile of rubble I was assured too many times wasn’t asbestos, cadmium, and any number of other toxins known and unknown.  I was helping a location manager determine the exact kind of garbage tree that had to be removed for a shot and the owner, a…what’s crazier than an eccentric? Oh yeah lunatic insisted be replaced.  He had big plans to make an outdoor beer garden directly adjacent to one of the dirtiest, most polluted areas on earth.

This was part of my daily routine as a Production Safety Consultant for a major blockbuster about to be unleashed on the public this week. It should be good, at least for those of you who love action films.  I learned a lot from this gig—not about making movies, I have worked in the entertainment business long enough to know the monotony punctuated by sheer terror that is making a movie. No, the important lessons I learned were more about safety overall.  I should note that it takes a special breed of safety practitioner to work in this business; that’s not me bragging, I have seen many production safety people burn out, freak out, and generally leave the field screaming in fright.  Production safety is a bit like waiting tables—everyone THINKS they can do it until they try.  So without further ado is what I learned about safety from the set of a movie:

  1. Forget glitz and glamour. Working safety for a movie is mostly about building sets and tearing them down. Workers can labor for months to build a set that is used for 30 seconds in a film. So in this way, working production safety is a lot like working on a construction site. Just like working on a construction site you have all the same hazards and all the same attitudes you have on a construction site, both good and bad.
  2. You need to part of the solution not the problem. Imagine a world where traditional safety just doesn’t exist. Case in point, imagine workers installing a window frame in a building so old that LITERALLY the concrete isn’t failing; it’s ceasing to be concrete. That’s right the cement and gravel are so old that they are separating. Now, the average safety guy (a gender neutral term by the way) will look for something form which the team can tie off. Lacking that the next best solution is to drill anchors into the pillars and ceiling and provide tie off points there. But given that if one drilled anchor pins into this building and fell the result would be a worker falling to his death and half a ton of concrete would fall on top of things. Too many safety guys would just shrug and say, “the law says…” and “I don’t care HOW you do it but you can’t do it that way”. Just like construction, this approach leads to driving unsafe practices underground. The job has to get done and the workers are on a deadline so the safety guy and his or her opinion mean less than nothing.
  3. Safety is about problem solving not preaching. So many times I had to intervene and suggest a safer way of doing something. I never used the words “you can’t” rather I would help the crew work through the risks and potential consequences and help them make informed decisions about their safety. I had one obnoxious ass who every time he saw me felt the need to work out some deep seated hatred of authority figures. When I would arrive he would yell with the obnoxious overly dramatic tone that “the safety guy is here you all better have your safety gear on”. At one point this jerk saw me and asked in a mocking tone, “hey Mr. Safety, is everyone following the rules?” I told him that it wasn’t my job to make sure people follow the rules, and that frankly, since I’m neither his boss nor his mother I couldn’t care less whether or not he followed the rules. I went on to tell him that if he deliberately acted recklessly and ended up dead, after I had carefully articulated the risk I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep, I went on to say that I am a resource for people who care about their safety and the safety of those around them, and furthermore I neither knew nor particularly liked him so his death wouldn’t have the slightest effect on me. This startled him. It was obvious that nobody, at least not a safety practitioner, had ever laid things out for him in such harsh and stark terms. After that the loud obnoxious announcements and snide comments stopped, and he eventually approached me a bit sheepishly and apologized for giving me a hard time. He then told me that I was like no other safety guy he had ever worked with (noting, among other things, that I wore full safety gear even in the miserable 100 degree heat) and that he got a sense that I was looking at the big picture because the crew tended to be task oriented and might miss some things. And then he did something that most safety people will never experience; he thanked me.
  4. Safety has to have the workers’ backs not be on them. From day one I approached each worker and introduced myself. I told them that I had their backs and wouldn’t be on their backs. I always made it a point to tell them that my job was to help them make informed decisions about their safety. I believed that, and after a short time they believed it too. It wasn’t long before I would arrive on set (I travelled to 20 odd sets in a week depending on what was going on and how risky an activity might be) and walk the perimeter completing the required paperwork. Eventually people would come up to me and ask me to be part of the planning process. They would say things like, “I’m not sure this is safe enough, can you think of anything we can do to make it safer?” For me that is the greatest thing a safety practitioner can experience, I wasn’t their enemy, I wasn’t a cop, I wasn’t even a neutral nuisance. I was an integral part of the crew; someone who had their backs and a fresh set of eyes that might pick up a life threatening hazard and maybe help them to save they’re own lives.
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