Safety on Set – Revisited

As featured in the May 2024 issue of ICG Magazine

May 7, 2024
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In 2019, ICG Magazine opened the door to one of the most important issues ICG members face daily – safety on set. We came at it from the individual’s point of view, highlighting some of the many “safety heroes” committed to protecting their fellow union members. Tragically, as five years passed, the industry suffered through some unforgettable (and egregious) incidents, leading to a more comprehensive and groundbreaking approach to the IATSE’s long-standing sentiment of “We take care of our own.” ICG National Executive Director Alex Tonisson says ICG is laser-focused in providing “ongoing leadership in the area of on-set safety. We’ve been historically at the forefront of many issues,” he adds. “But none so important as where we are now [with safety].”

Given the urgency around safety issues, we thought it time to provide an update to that 2019 article [ICG Magazine May 2019], with the focus now on key gains made by Local 600 in the ensuing years, along with existing initiatives that have gotten a key refresh. Topping that list is how, in June 2025, the face of production in California will change forever thanks to the recently passed California Senate Bill SB132, which establishes the Safety on Productions Pilot Program. This California-based program (July 1, 2025 to June 30, 2030, unless extended by the Legislature) requires an employer for a motion picture production – who receives a motion picture tax credit for that motion picture production – to hire or assign a qualified safety advisor.

The bill requires a dedicated safety advisor on every production in the pilot program who is assigned exclusively to that project, starting in preproduction. That person will be responsible for developing both general and specific script-based risk assessments for various activities contained within the bill. Safety advisors will have access to updated scripts, locations, and relevant facilities; oversee daily safety meetings; and work collaboratively with department heads and others to mitigate expected and unexpected risks on production. The bill includes more than ten pages of micro-type that, if you have the patience to read it, is logical, smart and well thought out.

“Why didn’t anybody think of this before?” one might ask.

They have. But, when you work in a bubble like the U.S. movie industry, it takes a broad vision to see beyond our shores for examples. That vision came in 2021 when former Local 600 National President John Lindley, ASC, shot a pilot with former DGA President Tommy Schlamme in Australia. “They had a safety advisor,” Lindley recalls, still slightly amazed. “Sure, there were many days when we were in a cow pasture. But also a few when a wagon went over into a river, and there was a rescue, which all made sense. We had a safety advisor on set daily and in meetings before the shooting began.” Lindley realized the approach was different – not just because it was in another country – but because Production was proactive in taking care of their people.

Back in L.A., he and Schlamme started having conversations with other guilds about trying to replicate the model in Australia, where a safety advisor is required. With the 2014 passing of Production Assistant Sarah Jones still etched in recent memory, railroad safety was also a big concern. And after the death of Local 600 Director of Photography Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico film set in October 2021, the push for improved gun safety came to the forefront.

“We began to bang the drum with a larger view,” Lindley recalls. Once former ICG National Executive Director Rebecca Rhine (now at the DGA) and Political Advisor Kathy Garmezy were pulled into the mix, the focus shifted. The idea was to combine all the safety concerns and, instead of writing them into a stand-alone bill, attach them to a January 2023 California Film Incentives bill, which the employers were committed to passing.

“After Rust,” Rhine explains, “Senator Dave Cortese stepped in with a gun safety bill. And he was also open to looking at safety on productions as a much broader challenge than just dealing with guns. “It took hundreds of hours of discussion and careful building of a labor coalition, including support from unions outside our industry who understood that elevating safety for workers served our collective interest, and that employers receiving funding from the state should be held to the highest standard of worker safety.”

In a slam-dunk victory for California labor, SB132 passed in July 2023, with the DGA later negotiating the bill’s application to a limited number of projects in New York and Georgia.

“The bill does require more work on our end,” Rhine adds. “We have to hammer out the elements of safety advisor training through the joint Labor/Management Safety Committee. If we are looking for a culture change that will last, this has to be implemented successfully.”

Photo by Scott Everett White

Of course, as Local 600 President Baird Steptoe describes, “Safety is not just on a set with stunts and the dangerous things we do. Individuals have to take personal responsibility for working long, unsafe hours. Take the ride [and hotel room] our contracts provide.”

Under the Basic, Low Budget, AICP, Videotape, Pay TV, and Area Standards agreements, rooms or rides are mandatory if the hours worked are unsafe. Productions must provide a room or a ride (round-trip if necessary). Steptoe points out that when Production refuses to provide support for excessive hours on the set, shorter turnarounds, and way too many miles to get home to sleep and regenerate before another long day, the Rides and Rooms Initiative kicks in. “Report it to the local. See if someone is tired – suggest it to them,” the career camera technician adds. “We know that we often don’t want to be the only person. But it starts with one person. We have to look out for each other – side by side. It’s a film. It’s a movie. It’s our lives.”

Members need to be aware that this program exists for their benefit. That’s why the Guild has become more proactive: Local 600 will reimburse members who pay for a ride (round trip if necessary) or a room when they are too tired to drive home safely. For rides, UBER, Lyft, a taxi or car service, or a designated driver service that will drive your car to your home are acceptable, and two-way transportation is eligible. If a hotel is required, the costs should not exceed $200 (per night) with proper documentation. The program has a fund to reimburse a qualified member for the money laid out – and Local 600 will pursue the Production for reimbursement.

Although implementation has been slower than hoped, Rides and Rooms is making a difference. Second AC Nicola Caruso was working on the final few days of an HBO project, recalling how “we were shooting at a recording studio in Hollywood, with a morning call time. It was a 14.3-hour workday involving over a hundred camera setups, which was mentally exhausting,” he recounts. “The next two days were scheduled to be night shoots at a remote mansion in Simi Valley, with no cell reception. This was a large shift change.”

Caruso knew his body…and he felt himself drifting off. “I was mad at myself for thinking I could drive home,” he admits.

The next day, Caruso approached his 1st AC about the drive. “We both agreed that it wouldn’t be wise to make the same drive at the end of another similar workday, so we informed Production that we requested a nearby hotel room after wrapping for safety reasons. The production team refused to book a room by saying that no hotels nearby could accommodate all 150 cast and crew members, even though we were only requesting one room.”

After another long workday, Caruso drove straight to the nearest hotel and paid for a room out of pocket. He sent the receipt to Production, but they refused to reimburse the expense, citing that the workday had only been 13.7 hours, less than the 14 hours under which they are contractually required to provide a ride or room. Frustrating? To say the least.

But Caruso didn’t just let it go. “I reported the issue to Local 600 and filled out a short online form to get reimbursed from our union for the room,” he explains. “I sent them the hotel receipt, and they quickly mailed me a check for the full amount. Alex Tonisson reached out personally for details on the incident and gave me regular updates on the case status with Production. Clearly, Local 600 cared more about my safety than the studio.”

Months later, HBO reimbursed the hotel expense. “There are strategies you can use,” describes Western Region Business Representative Kali Harrison to members reluctant to use the program. “Talk to your business rep. Talk to the AD right after lunch. He/she should know what the rest of the day will be like. Start having the conversation earlier. If you think something is up, you can bet others feel the same, so talk to your brothers and sisters, and take action.”

Harrison adds, “If you’re refused, don’t let it go. It only takes a few minutes to make arrangements for the end of the day when you are reasonably fresh. Find a hotel. Book a ride to pick you up. You’ll feel a lot better during that long day if you know you’re taken care of when you get to the point where everything hurts from exhaustion.”

“If you see something, say something” cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to safety on set. However, as Tonisson notes, “Of course, there are potential and multiple dangers on every set. But due to the recent tragedy on Rust, guns are at the top of everyone’s mind. I’m encouraged to say we are taking major steps to make sure the right procedures are followed.”

“Hands off, that’s not your department!” is what NEB Safety Committee Member and 1st AC Tony Rivetti Sr. often shouts when he sees someone go near a gun on set. “I’ve worked a lot of years on a lot of films with armory,” Rivetti shares. “It’s always been the prop master/armorer who runs the show and the first AD who controls the set. Many of those projects have been done by one of the most dynamic teams in the business: Clint Eastwood and Director of Photography Jack Green, ASC. There is a reason Clint brings his own team with him – trust.”

Rivetti says the first time he understood not every set was safe was while shooting White Hunter, Black Heart. “We didn’t have our own prop master,” he recounts. “Early into the project, Jack immediately picked up on something – things were different. I felt it, too. So Jack went to Clint as he’d seen this other prop master at work. ‘He’s going to use a full load,’ he told Clint. That ended up not being safe. Clint went to the prop master and made him show everyone every cartridge that went with every gun.”

Gun safety may well be the most critical issue young filmmakers building their careers (and those who have been around for a while) should embrace. For Local 600, that means continuing to do everything within the union’s power to help create an industry standard for which there is a safety coordinator and a trained licensed armorer on every set. A short and to-the-point video the Guild produced clearly lays out what’s at stake. In the video, licensed armorer Larry Zanoff (and his trusty mini flashlight, meant to check clear passages in every type of firearm), walks everyone through the proper lock box, the chain of custody, one that is open, the multitude of checkpoints, and the apparent differences between dummy bullets and a fully loaded weapon.

“Everything has to be in state-approved lock boxes,” Zanoff explains. “You need to begin with a dry run to show the first AD the gun is in a cold condition and dummy rounds can’t go bang.” Zanoff says every cast and crew member should know the difference between a blank, with pellets inside and the case crimped down, to a bullet with powder and a projectile.

“When we’re ready to bring a loaded gun onto the set,” he continues, “we repeat over the radio, even to crew on distant locations, ‘hot gun on set.’ I’ll often rattle the cartridge in my ear to ensure it is a dummy. We’ll also work with the actor and first AC to point the gun in the direction needed for the shot and decide if extra protection, like plexiglass, is needed. After ‘cut’ is called, the armorer – and the bigger the production, the more armorers are needed – must take the gun immediately from the actor, cleared and announced over the radio. It then goes back into the box – out of reach of anyone ready to work or just curious, until the next time the extensive checklist is followed again.”

For Zanoff, more eyes means a better chance that all safety protocols will be adhered to. He puts his own spin on the safety catchphrase: “If you don’t see this – you should ask a question.”

Another issue that continues to threaten Guild members, specifically camera operators, is long, successive takes, which are notoriously used to excess in the unscripted genre.

“They are becoming an even larger issue as technology changes,” reveals NEB Safety Committee Member and longtime unscripted Operator Mande Whitaker, SOC [ICG Magazine November 2023]. “Historically,” she adds, “handheld doc shows have used ergonomically built balanced cameras. But now they’ve moved to more cinematic modular builds, which are more physically stressful for the operator, even under the best circumstances. Many things must be improved to make handheld operating safer. First, we must change the culture on set. The macho ‘fight through the pain’ of handheld has to stop if we want to prevent injuries, some of which are career-ending. We need protection, which we gained under [Safety Bulletin number 45].”

The road to changing the culture around long takes began in 2018 with an injury survey conducted by Local 600. The results were so alarming that in 2019, the Guild, in conjunction with the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF), conducted an ergonomics study. The ergonomics expert visited various sets in varying genres to observe the crew during long and successive takes. Based on this expert’s findings, along with the survey data, it was clear that there was a dire need to improve safety for these crews. For many, primarily those whose careers are in unscripted, it was a cause to advocate.

Hours of handheld operating and abuse in the reality world were causing preventable injuries. The first line of defense is the proper support gear, i.e., tools such as the Ergo Rig and Easyrig, which must now be provided if requested. Also, the DP and director must consider whether the shot needs to be handheld to begin with, or whether it can be achieved with sticks, sliders, PED’s, etc. Next is proper staffing to allow for breaks and rotations. The greatest ally in this push for safer sets, aside from guild directors of photography, are our DGA colleagues. They are the ones who can implement best practices, such as breaks/rotations in unscripted, and can help to bring safety into the preproduction process.

ICG’s Safety Committee has also been working non-stop to give members an immediate, real-time connection to the potential hazards on every set. “The thought in the first iteration of ICG’s Safety App (created right after the death of Sarah Jones on the indie feature Midnight Rider) was “a need for our members to reach out and report hazards and to get help dealing with unsafe situations without the production knowing which crew member reported it,” explains NEB Safety Committee Co-chair Larry Nielsen. “The report would go to an ICG business rep, and they would either call the production or the studio to inform them of an unsafe environment on set.”

Nielsen says that early iteration served its purpose, introducing an all-important way for crews to report issues anonymously and learn about a minimal amount of hazards everyone should be aware of. “But,” he continues, “it’s become outdated and is not user-friendly.” It was also difficult to navigate, and if you were in a remote area offline and filed a report, your report may not have been sent at all until the member could receive cell reception.

“The Safety Committee has been involved from day one of building out a new version of this app with the developer, Goji-Labs,” Nielsen describes. “We would meet with Goji on Mondays and Fridays, and recap and add what we felt was needed to the app, allowing our IT department to control the whole Goji relationship. We then considered the back end of the app and how the ICG business reps would use it. We brought in a rep from each region to get their input and learn what their needs would be from the app. CSATF then invited us to review the new online Firearms Safety Course, which our members will be required to take. We added our input on specific areas, including a more focused definition of what a blank would look like compared to a dummy and what a dummy round must contain and look like.”

And that’s only scratching the surface of ICG’s updated Safety App, which launched on April 8, 2024. “We’re extremely proud of where we’ve come with this,” Tonisson shares. “There are a couple of essential new elements. We now can list safety hazards and keep them updated and accurate [in real time]. A page exists listing contact information that staff can now update themselves – for example, if there is a staff change. Before, the information would take something like six months to get posted.”

Local 600’s IT department updates in-house for a faster, more accessible app to navigate – one that’s more robust and user-friendly. Nielsen says, “It will tell you if you’re offline and will send your hazard report the minute you get back to cell service, and it will inform you that it has sent your report. It also keeps track of the hazards you’ve filed and provides status updates. It has a back-end interface that allows the business reps to update the hazard, edit the hazard, and track all reported hazards. Each hazard is searchable and stored within the app.”

NEB Safety Committee Co-chair Alfeo Dixon, who was deeply involved in the app’s development, says that previously he would “address safety concerns head-on with an AD, key grip, or producer, and rarely open the ICG Safety App unless I needed to look-up something. And even then, I would take the privilege of calling our CR director directly. But now that I’ve become more familiar with its workability, and having a part in its rebuild and re-design, I feel the ICG Safety App is far more advanced. What I am most excited about is that one now has direct feedback on the status of their report and holds far more accountability on the staff side for addressing safety in a timely manner.”

Sadly, safety on set can never reach its full potential if union members are fearful of reprisals from those who hire them, or of not having the support of their department. But if we flip this idea of fear around to register something more like concern, safety gains on set are more likely to happen. It’s important in this union of brothers and sisters, for whom the watchwords are “We take care of our own,” to know they never have to go it alone. Often one turns into five, and five into ten – there is power and safety in numbers.

Tonisson says Local 600’s Safety Bill of Rights embodies those principles.

“It’s a must-read for everyone in this union [and every other union],” he emphasizes. “We worked hard on this step-by-step guide to educate each of our members on handling safety on the set.” The Bill of Rights covers everything from “Can I stop working if asked to do something unsafe?” The short answer is yes if all of the conditions are met, you genuinely believe there is an imminent danger, and a reasonable person would agree there is a real danger of death or severe injury. Clearly state your concerns with a production representative. Assure Production you are ready, willing and able to resume work once the safety concerns are addressed. And make sure to submit a report via the Safety App and contact an ICG business rep.

State and Federal laws give workers the right to raise health and safety issues, the right to refuse to work, and the right to be protected from retaliation. Being fired for refusing to work in an unsafe environment is a violation of the law (and the contract under which members work).

Still, many members may wonder: “What if I am retaliated against for raising safety issues?” The answer is simple: weigh the risk or perceived retaliation against the very real possibility of you or another crew member being injured or killed. It’s important to document everything and call for a safety meeting if you see something of concern on the call sheet. The earlier a potential “glitch” is addressed, the safer a shoot will be.

As Steptoe adds about the Guild’s upcoming safety efforts, “We have an orientation and shop steward training in the process. The goal is to have one on every production, from television to features to reality.” Harrison, who is involved with everything from the updated Safety App to Rides and Rooms, says there is another safety issue that’s key to worker safety: CPR classes for union members.

“We’re currently reaching out to the IA training trust fund to provide this class to our members no matter their region or where they live,” Harrison explains. “Our union has lost several members in the past due to cardiac arrest, and not just on a film set. Some members off-site, while prepping, have been having issues. So, we feel very strongly that this is a class our membership should have.”

As Tonisson concludes: “I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made and the safety milestones we’ve hit in my first year as ICG’s national executive director. I’m pleased with the cooperation between members and staff and their dedication to keeping everyone safe on set. Rides and Rooms. Gun Safety. Long Takes. The new user-friendly app. These are there for everyone. But the clock is ticking. [The safety advisor pilot program in] SB132 and implementing everything it embodies is just over a year away – launching in June 2025 – and we all need to be ready.”

Read the May 2024 issue of ICG Magazine here.

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