It’s been a little more than a year since camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and eight others injured trying to avoid an oncoming train on the set of “Midnight Rider” near Jessup, Ga. (A candlelight vigil for Jones is pictured above.) There have been Osha citations for the production and criminal charges against the film’s director Randall Miller and several of its producers.
But some of the residual effects of the tragedy have been less visible.
“It used to be that a railroad protective insurance policy application was two pages, if that,” says railroad expert Arthur J. Miller, a three-decade industry veteran who heads Rail Transportation Management Specialists, which consults on safety with producers and film commissions.
“We now see insurance underwriters starting to ask much more specific questions about train control, crew training and railway worker protection, as well as the condition of the track,” says Miller, a speaker at this week’s AFCI Locations Show.
Railroads are just one of many hazardous environments film and TV crews routinely work in — from mountaintops and factories to insert cars. But something as insignificant as an improperly secured cable can turn even the most benign locale into an accident waiting to happen.
“You’re working with heavy equipment, difficult and violent situations, and everybody has to be aware,” says Steven Poster, president of Jones’ union, the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600. “I always say, ‘If you see something unsafe, say something.’”
Local 600 is doing its part to make it easier with its free ICG Safety app, released last fall, which features a list of the anonymous tip lines for studios and the guild, along with safety bulletins covering areas like stunts, blank ammunition and power lines.
Poster didn’t need a hotline tip to find out about a crew member working on NBC series “Revolution” who accidentally drove his car into a bus stop after a long day on the set. “I heard about it on Facebook and immediately called my executive director,” he recalls. “By next morning, we had people on the set addressing the issue.”
But long work hours are so embedded in the culture and economics of production in the U.S. that it’s hard to make changes. In the late 1990s, there was a movement to establish “Brent’s Rule,” in honor of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman, who was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel after a 19-hour workday on the film “Pleasantville.” The proposal would have limited crew members to 14-hour workdays, but studios and filmmakers were reluctant to put a legally actionable time cap on their shooting schedules.
Poster thinks that the biggest enemy of set safety isn’t the lack of rules but the refusal to follow them.
“People have this attitude of immunity, that nothing’s going to happen to them because they can get away with it,” he says. “That’s when you get into trouble.”