What I Learned Working Safety For A Major Motion Picture

Movie equipment

By Phil La Duke

Two days ago, feeling depressed and frustrated by the number of “safety people” who insulted and threatened me the week of July 4th simply because I said it was wrong to plagiarize, steal, and commit fraud. One particularly dim bulb said, “the internet makes plagiarism irrelevant” while another said “my friends and customers don’t care that I steal”.  It weighed on me.  Last year at this time I was working as a Production Safety Consultant on a big budget, star-studded Hollywood action film, and for the first time in my tenure as a safety professional I met people who thought my job was cool, sexy even.  The truth of the matter is that while the movie business isn’t that much different from other industries in terms of risks (most of the injuries are the same kinds of things that happen on any construction or demolition job) I learned a LOT about safety.  Having worked in the safety business in one capacity or another for over 20 years, like most of you, I thought that if I didn’t know everything I knew an awful lot.  But there’s a big difference between KNOWING something and truly UNDERSTANDING something, and it was this understanding that was made so much deeper and it changed me forever. I realize that only a handful will ever read this—it seems these days that people only come to my speeches and read my work so that they can be offended and hold me in contempt. But I also know that there are a core view of you who truly are interested in my meager wisdom and advice.

Time Really Is Money

I have preached this and preached this and it largely falls on deaf ears of the safety crusaders and zealots who honestly believe that God put them on this earth to keep people safe. When an injury shuts down production it costs tens of thousands of dollars a minute and even in big budget films delays are a big source of attention.  I remember on one shoot that the Assistant Director pointed to a cloud in the sky and said, “when that cloud there move to over there we need to be shooting so everyone pay attention and be ready to move when we need to.” Now suppose someone got injured just as the cloud gets into position; the shot is delayed and potentially ruined. Lesson: Safety is most important when it is enabling production not impeding it.

Take “Can’t” Out Of Your Vocabulary

In most people’s safety job we have to say, “I’m sorry, you can’t do it that way” all that does is delay the activity until you are out of the area at which time they resume doing it the way you just told them they couldn’t. Instead of “You can’t…” I learned that I was better served asking what they hoped to accomplish, and then saying, “let’s see if we can brainstorm a safer way of doing this.” The reaction was incredible; within a week I had special effects and pyrotechnic guys calling me over to discuss the day’s activities. They would explain what they wanted to do, list their safety concerns and ask me what I thought. They actually wanted to discuss safety before starting the job and they wanted to draw on my expertise. Lesson: When Safety becomes an ally safety becomes a resource.

Safety Isn’t About Saving Lives or Even About Enforcing Rules

The first day on site, as the crews from four different Unions were preparing to begin work I introduced myself to the top management guy. He was in charge of everything related to constructing sets on the site. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to in anyway correct his people for any safety violation.  I was to tell him and he would correct them.  Of course, he qualified that with “except where you see eminent danger of the loss of life”.  I had no problem with not correcting his people, because it wasn’t my job.  Now some safety professionals will bristle at that.  But the reality is this: there are strict rules in many labor agreements about to whom a worker answers and typically that means one and only one boss (co-supervision is a grievance).  I’m not their mother, I’m not their guardian angel, and I certainly have no “or else” power to hold over the people who don’t comply. When I would introduce myself to the crew I would say, “I’m a different kind of safety guy than you might be used to; I have your back I’m not on your back.”  They appreciated that I was looking out for them in an intrinsically dangerous workplace and would often come to me with questions and concerns. Lesson: We are not in the enforcement business.

Some people hate the safety guy because they hate authority figures

Every day I arrived at the set I would be greeted by a loud exaggerated voice of one of the few asshats I met on the production. Everybody has the guy who is passively aggressive attacking the safety guy because the safety guy is “the man”.  He would shout, “hey everybody, here comes the safety guy make sure your all wearing your safety glasses” and then look around wearing a dopey open mouthed grin scanning the crowd for support or a laugh and finding none.  His shtick got old fast, and one day I just wasn’t in the mood for it.  As I was walking away from a crew who had just alerted me of a safety concern he approached and sarcastically asked me “is everyone following the rules, Mr. Safety?” and I told him that I didn’t care if they were.  I told him that my job is to be sure that people have all the information that they need to make safer decisions and choices about the work they were doing.  I told him that if HE in particular chose to ignore those rules out of some sort of misguided outlaw rebellion and ended up dead I wouldn’t care, because a) I did my job in giving him the best advice I could and b) I barely knew him, and what I did know of him I didn’t particularly like. I told him that I hoped he was an organ donor because from what I could see he would contribute more to society in parts.  It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but it got the message across in terms he could finally understand.  After that he apologized for giving me such a hard time and we actually became friends. Lesson: We don’t save lives, the best we can hope for is to be trusted advisors who help people to make sound decisions and safer decisions so that they can save their OWN lives

Production Safety Isn’t About Meeting Celebrities

One of the first questions I am always asked when people find out that I work with the movie business is did you get to meet Star X, followed by did you get to talk to Star X? I am a movie fan, but that is a leisure activity not a job. If you are easily star struck don’t try to get into this business; it’s just not for you.  On rare the rare occasions that I did talk to the talent I talked about safety.  In fact, I didn’t see where their lives and wellbeing were any more important than the interns. As corny as it sounds they are all stars in my book and deserved equal treatment. Besides what are you going to say to a star that they want to hear? “I’m a big fan of your work?” They don’t say that to me so why should I say it to them? Lesson: In the eyes of safety all lives are of equal value.

Understanding What Someone Does Is Key

The first thing I would ask someone when I met them is what they do. Not what their position was but what they actually did (check out the excellent text book that references one of my articles,  The Complete Guide To Film and Digital Production: The People And The Process Third Edition by Lorene M. Wales for a complete view of how nebulous a title can be on a movie production).  I found that people LOVE to explain exactly what their jobs are and in knowing what they do I can find better ways to advise them on safety.  Each day I would approach the crew—from carpenters, to painters, to pyrotechnic technicians, to grips, to gaffers and everywhere in between and ask them what they would be working on that particular day.  If I didn’t know what something meant I would ask about it. It was easier to gain their trust and therefore easier to do my job, by taking a genuine interest in what they did. Lesson: You can’t advise someone about safety if you don’t understand their job and what they are up against, and genuinely caring about the things on which they are working makes a big difference.