Nov. 2008 issue of Risk & Insurance magazine.

Safety on the Set

Some production companies in Hollywood appear to finally be getting the message about safety on the set. Yet far too many unnecessary injuries, some of them catastrophic, occur when producers run up against time, money and power.

By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor

Don't ever do it. Don't visit the set of your favorite television show. The spell is broken as soon as you set foot on a Hollywood production.

Take the five-year hit, Boston Legal, soon to be relegated to the realm of syndicated-only shows. One of its most enduring scenes is the closing one when star lawyers Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) share scotches, cigars and snappy observations about all that just transpired between commercials. They sit on what look like plush chairs on an altitudinous balcony in the chill of the New England night overlooking the skyline like the princes of Beantown.

But in reality, they are sitting in one of the massive warehouse-like buildings at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where the air outside is clean and the sea close, unlike the stickiness of Hollywood, let alone the dirty frost of Boston in fall. Those plush chairs? They're really made of some diabolical plastic composite and as comfortable as concrete. The skyline? A painted, fire-resistant screen. Perhaps, hopefully, the scotch is real.

The same goes for all Boston Legal scenes. The sun-drenched courtroom where archliberal and smoothly eccentric Shore sermonizes? The office where Crane squats surrounded by self-portraits and unloads one conservative and/or misogynistic snip after another? All are designed with more detail than an IKEA showroom.

In the glare of the Southern California sun, it's easy to see what these production sets really are--worksites. Acting is a job after all, and Boston Legal is produced with far more workers than just Captain Kirk and Spader--grips, electricians, extras, catering--workers who are doing difficult, time-consuming, important and, yes, dangerous work: In other words, workers who can get injured.

It becomes more disillusioning to hear that workers do get injured, regularly. Not necessarily at Boston Legal, which according to experts is one of safest sets you can find in Hollywood. But elsewhere and for many reasons.

Take the case of a young woman who probably didn't think twice about being an extra on the set of a music video. Yet when she was run over by a truck during production and left partially paralyzed and permanently disabled, it turned out that the responsible production company had no safety documentation, no records of meetings to discuss safety procedures on set. The reason the accident happened was that somebody on set decided to rush through the cut because the sun was getting too close to the horizon.

Here's another example: the special-effects man who lost his life on the set of a major motion picture. He asked production for scaffolding to help him do his job correctly and safely but instead got a forklift. It ended up tipping over, causing fatal head trauma. OSHA levied heavy fines against the prominent L.A.-based studio because it never recorded the employee's complaints.

"It's not new. These stories are amazingly hard stories to listen to," says Angela Plasschaert of Plasschaert & Associates, an entertainment risk specialist with background in film production, stunts and special effects. Plasschaert estimates nearly 70 percent of all injuries are preventable.

Talking fast enough that her British accent has trouble finding its way through the words, Plasschaert lists the three things that most often lead to these preventable injuries: "Money, time and no respect for safety," she says.

Add the godlike 'tude sported by many producers. The 16-hour-a-day production schedules that leave workers with as little sleep as resident M.D.s, and that's talking a well-run union outfit. Commercials, music videos and straight-to-DVD movies can be run like sweatshops.

Production companies can also enjoy the notion that the long arm of safety law won't find them.

"OSHA visits so infrequently, production may think they're somewhat insulated, but they are not," says Donna Garceau, employer rep and risk specialist in the Work Comp & Disability Department of Media Services, the payroll services company on set.


Today, walking on the set of Boston Legal with Garceau and Plasschaert, we might get disillusioned by all the plastic behind the wizard's curtain. But we are also learning about positive steps Hollywood is taking to become safer.

"This studio is a great example of how things should be done," Plasschaert says as she strides through Raleigh Studios. David E. Kelley Productions films at this location and once had three shows going on simultaneously here.

On one set, Plasschaert points to the ceiling. Hanging in what seems like precarious suspended animation, are the massive lights that turn a dim warehouse into a stage. Standing below the lights, though, is not precarious. As the safety specialist points out, they are attached to the ceiling by both wires and ropes. The wires are state-of-the-art technology meant to survive the shocks of an earthquake, with the rope there to catch the equipment should the wires fail. On the main sound stage, Plasschaert points out that the lighting has a triple safety system.

She stops in the set that is Crane, Poole & Schmidt's opening reception area, which when not shooting is dark like a museum after closing. She points to the floor, which in the glare of show time beams with the sheen of just-waxed marble.

"They want these shiny floors." She waves her hand over them, then adds that every floor on the sound stage, despite appearances, actually has rubberized grip to prevent falls.

Slips and falls would be worse from eight feet off that floor. That is why David E. Kelley Productions invested in a system of cat-walk like metal platforms--"inner platforms" Plasschaert calls them--that allow the grips and electricians to do their business much safer than if scaffolding were employed.

In the corners and back alleys of the studio buildings, the reality of the worksite hits you in the face. Parallel to the bare wooden studded walls are yellow and red painted lines on the concrete floor, designated OSHA-mandated fire lanes that always must be clear of clutter. OSHA safety guidance even extends to the food. For even its handling is imbued with safety in mind, with tongs and any cooking done off premises.

To think that Denny Crane can't just reach into the bowl of chips with his hand and take which ones he wants, when he wants! Or that he doesn't get steak tartar off camera.

Then there are the medics and their golf carts on premises, the defibrillators made available after David E. Kelley's grandmother had a heart attack; the safety protocols in the mill; and the heavy machinery training for the grips and electricians. All these safety measures don't come together on their own.

Veronica Wilson, general counsel for David E. Kelley Productions, is also responsible for safety. Veronica meets with Plasschaert at least three or four times a year.

Then there's Garceau of Media Services, a grandmother who will not hesitate to investigate all incidents reported to her by production. Take the one she recounts about the craft services worker who got into a car crash while on the job.

It turned out that the injured woman never was on payroll and thus wasn't the responsibility of Media Services or its workers' comp. Through investigation, Garceau discovered the production company had arrived at the hospital right after the accident with a pay slip for the woman to sign post-facto.

We said before that Media Services was the producer's "payroll services" company?

You see, in the land where there is always more than meets the eye, Media Services is the employer of record for its client production companies. That means that technically all paid production-related employees on shows are theirs, which means they must carry the workers' comp for the payrolled employees.

We're talking safety for the likes of 60,000 to 80,000 employees annually, Garceau estimates. Ultimately, as we have seen, the actual responsibility for safety on the set rests with the production company.

But Garceau provides Plasschaert's services to aid in this area. It's in Garceau's stead that Plasschaert fashions for clients the Injury and Illness Prevention Program as mandated by OSHA, offers them assistance with implementing the program, conducts safety meetings and inspections on site, and reviews risk issues to mitigate exposures.

"Production companies in general care for safety but don't see the need for a strong program until something bad happens. Offering the level of support we provide to productions through a tailored Injury Illness Prevention Program is what Donna and I strive to achieve for all our clients," says Plasschaert.

Media Services and Plasschaert also help handle the situation when incidents happen, which according to Garceau is at a rate of about 100 per month. Some incidents can be serious enough that OSHA appears on the scene. Garceau cites the story of a worker in a production company's mill losing his thumb. Or of another where a stuntman fell to the floor when his rip ties broke, leaving him with a fractured spine. OSHA came in and levied fines against production in both cases. Stiff fines.

"Clients quickly learn the importance of safety and OSHA compliance when it hits their wallet," says Garceau.

Because the production companies had Garceau and Media Services, who involved Plasschaert, who helped the producers put all their "ducks in order," the fines were dropped. "OSHA comes in with huge fines up front, but they will work with you," says Garceau.


Some production companies don't have the resources to bring in a large payroll company like Media Services with its additional safety consulting. Some might not want to. Just as some payroll service providers can't, or don't, provide safety services.

Some payroll companies might just get the cheapest workers' comp price from whatever carrier is offering it this year, according to Andy Lewis, a principal at the Conshohocken, Pa.-based Keystone Risk Partners LLC. Lewis helped Media Services put together its program this past year and concedes he hasn't dealt with many other payroll companies.

Stephen H. Cotnoir, senior vice president, national account casualty, Arch Insurance Group, who in 2008 began to write Media Service's workers' comp coverage, suggested other payroll companies might look into implementing and monitoring the safety programs that the production company successfully put into place in the past yielding favorable loss cost reductions, in addition to their own programs.

In situations where there is not a clear and effective safety and claims management program in place, an Arch would hesitate to underwrite such a partner unless the payroll company would implement safety programs from the insurer.

Where does this leave those producers, those gods of Hollywood? Doing what they do best: suspending disbelief. "But they are always open to having another set of eyes and ears to come in," Cotnoir says.

Sometimes those eyes and ears belong to the likes of Garceau and Plasschaert. Basking in the sunlight at Raleigh Studios, Plasschaert comments that a decade spent driving home safety to Hollywood's producers is starting to raise awareness levels.

"I've seen improvement over the years as to how they view their role in regard to safety, but there is a learning curve. The more we make safety and accident prevention visible to them, the more serious it's taken," says Garceau.

Crane and Shore? They'll shortly be facing the final curtain. When will Garceau and Plasschaert star together on their own balcony?

November 1, 2008

Copyright 2008 LRP Publications on the set