IATSE’s Battle to Protect Members Pays Off With Passage of Landmark Set Safety Law

July 19, 2023
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Two years ago, when the senseless and preventable death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust exposed the disturbing lack of safety monitoring and enforcement procedures for television and film production crews, Local 600 doubled down on its campaign to ensure its members would never again be placed at such unacceptable risk.

That persistence and commitment paid off this month when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the Safety on Productions Pilot Program – groundbreaking legislation that establishes an unprecedented host of new safety rules that will significantly strengthen protections for production crews in California and could serve as a national model.

“This is a huge victory for Local 600 and all labor in this industry,” said Alex Tonisson, Local 600’s National Executive Director. “Anyone who works on set is going to feel the positive effects of this legislation.”

Foremost among these new protections is the requirement that any production receiving a tax credit in California must hire an independent safety supervisor to be on set every day and be integrated into every facet of pre-production – from set building to conducting a risk assessment of every script to identify and address any safety issues – before filming begins.

“Now, we’re going to have a dedicated safety supervisor who is going to look at the plans for the production, identify what the risk assessments are and give recommendations to production on how best to handle them,” Tonisson said. “What “Rust” demonstrated was that even if you have agreed-upon industry standards, if a production chooses not to follow them, it results in tragedy.”

Other key safety protections include requiring safety supervisors to conduct daily safety meetings and deliver post-production safety evaluation reports to the Industry Wide Labor Management Safety Committee – composed of union, guild, and employer representatives – that establishes safety guidelines for Hollywood.

Six Years of Fighting and Uniting

Local 600’s campaign to spotlight the urgent need for immediate action to increase safety enforcement on set started six years ago. Members spent these years dedicating hundreds of hours lobbying lawmakers, drafting initial legislation language, rallying union allies, and educating the public – and remaining resolute in the face of sustained industry opposition and repeated legislative days.

These efforts intensified over the last two years as Local 600 ramped up pressure on lawmakers working side-by-side with union kin from the Directors Guild of America, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, SAG-AFTRA, LiUNA! Local 724, and other IATSE locals spending months testifying before, and guiding this legislation through, dozens of state Assembly and Senate committees and subcommittees.

“[The Safety on Productions Pilot Program] takes a major and unprecedented step forward in protecting the working men and women in film, television, and streaming production in California,” said DGA Western Executive Director Rebecca Rhine. “The Safety Supervisor will work collaboratively with subject-matter experts to provide an added layer of protection and ensure their voices are heard. This is particularly important in an industry where all jobs are freelance, based on relationships, and where speaking out may hurt your chances of a future job.”

This new law also for the first time sets mandatory guidelines around the use of firearms and ammunition, establishes training requirements and safety standards for prop masters and armorers, and prohibits the use of live ammunition except in limited circumstances.

“We’ve been working to improve set safety for years and, unfortunately, it took a tragedy like Rust, where a member was shot and killed on set, to serve as the impetus to spur legislative action on these changes,” Tonisson said. “We want to honor Halyna Hutchins, Sarah Jones and Brent Hirschman’s legacies by making a significant change in the industry.”

From Exhaustion to Heavy Lifting

Behind the headline safety measures taken to monitor and control the use of firearms and ammunition, the Pilot Program addresses a host of additional, and more common, on-set safety risks crews face every day – from exhaustion from long hours and moving heavy equipment to working in excessive heat and rigging electrical gear above a car chase.

“Production sets are unlike any other work environment because you can be exposed to multiple potential safety hazards – a car stunt, filming in a helicopter or underwater, controlled explosions – all happening at the same time side by side on one set,” Local 600 Political Advisor Kathy Garmezy said. “The experts like the armorers and stunt coordinators all have had to focus on their specific action. Now, there’s one person who has to focus on everything.”

“This is about increasing protections for any safety situation that happens on set – that’s the key,” Tonisson added.

One key political ally who stepped up early to push this bill into law was California Senator Dave Cortese.

“We owe a lot to Senator Cortese, because we explained that this set safety issue was more than just a firearms issue – that there are many more on-set safety issues crews face every day where there are enforcement rules on paper but there aren’t people there enforcing them,” Garmezy said. “He understood that and broadened the legislation.”

“While our discussions with film studios and their unions followed a heartbreaking death on a movie set, this legislation evolved into a greater effort to protect television and film workers from serious injury and death,” Sen. Cortese said. “It will bring great uniformity to film and television sets by reducing threats and keeping workers safe.”

California Can Set the National Model

The fact that it took a high-profile death to spur action and the reality that these measures only apply in California – although IATSE, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, Teamsters and national IATSE locals are pressing other states to follow California’s lead – were solemn reminders of how much work is ahead and how far the United States lags other countries.

In Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada, film and television studios have had stronger safety protections in place for years, including mandating a safety supervisor on set.

“There’s no reason American workers shouldn’t have some of these same safety protections, and under this pilot program they will,” Rhine said.

The momentum has already begun to shift, with the DGA securing similar safety requirements to those in California with productions in New York and Georgia.

“We already see this spreading to other states, and we’re confident that these California standards will become the national safety standards in a few years,” Tonisson said.

Ramping up for 2025

The Pilot Program does not take effect until July 2025, but Tonisson says that is vital time unions and studios need to first set up the processes to ensure effective implementation and then identify and train qualified safety supervisors.

“Working out all of these details ahead of time and making sure we have the right people on site who are properly trained to be safety supervisors is critical,” Tonisson said. “We need to make sure this is implemented in the best way possible to protect our members.”

Despite the long road ahead, these unions are taking a moment to celebrate this hard-fought victory.

“It’s a wonderful feeling, and if we weren’t all so exhausted we’d be throwing confetti,” Garmezy said. “But the exhaustion of this small group of us working for the past six years to get this legislation passed is nothing compared to the exhaustion of people working on sets and putting in long hours and putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations every day. We feel like we’ve created something for the people who really need and deserve it.”

“This is a victory that wouldn’t have happened without Local 600, it wouldn’t have happened without the IATSE, and it wouldn’t have happened without the support of other unions and elected officials,” Tonisson said. “Our members should be proud.”

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