Posts Tagged ‘movie sets’

Death on a Georgia Railroad Trestle Sparking Calls for Safety Reforms in Hollywood

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

If film making news isn’t on your radar, you might have missed the story about a gruesome death on a film set near near Jessup, Georgia in late February. Like many workplace deaths, it didn’t attract a lot of immediate notice beyond the local sphere and within the film industry. But the sadness and the anger at the preventable death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones has been gaining momentum and prompting calls for increased safety in the film industry.
On February 20, a film crew for Midnight Rider, a biopic about Gregg Allman, was set up on a narrow railroad trestle bridge in Georgia. A train arrived unexpectedly and crew scrabbled frantically to save themselves: 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed by the train and seven other crew members were injured. You can read about the events, including reports from other crew members, in the Hollywood Reporter’s story, A Train, a Narrow Trestle and 60 Seconds to Escape: How ‘Midnight Rider’ Victim Sarah Jones Lost Her Life.
The incident is under investigation by several parties, including OSHA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But within the industry, many are not waiting for reports to speak out:

“The exact details of what precautions were — or were not — taken on the set that day and whether the production even had permission to film on the tracks are being sorted out. But in the days following the disaster, recriminations of shockingly lax safety protocols began to emerge.

“This was no accident,” says Ray Brown, president of the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union local 479 in Atlanta and a Jones colleague, suggesting the incident was avoidable. “When I have done train work or around trains for smaller productions up to major blockbusters, there are always several railroad personnel there with their hard hats, glasses and radios, and I can’t imagine a more structured safety protocol even beyond airlines than the rail system.”

While the facts will come out, initial reports indicate that the owner of the track said it never granted permission to film, there were no railway safety personnel monitoring the set, there were no medics on scene and the crew had such trepidation about the work environment that they began the shoot with a group prayer for safety.
The film industry is rife with risks and crew safety ail too frequently given short shrift, particularly in low budget films with high-pressure deadlines. You can read some poignant thoughts about Sarah’s death and what it’s like to be on a film crew in the blog post You Think It’s About Magic But It’s Really About Money

“We have rules and we have safety meetings and we have unions to look out for us, yes. We have reps, and we have shop stewards, and we have grips who are supposed to be keeping an eye on safety on set — along with rigging and setting stands and laying track and pushing the dolly and the 30 other things that make up a grip’s job. But these folks can’t be everywhere at once, and, just like the rest of us, they can’t always stand up to the machine, especially when everyone is always in a hurry and making calls on the fly. When crews band together, we can say “no” and pull the plug at 18 hours. But nobody wants to be the first one to suggest that, because we all need to work for a living and get hired on the next job.

Since the tragic events, the film making community has been working to call attention to Sarah’s preventable death as well as to advocate for increased focus on film crew safety. Members of the film industry lobbied to have Sarah recognized during the Osacars (her name was added at the end of the In Memoriam segment) and the industry has launched a moving “Slates for Sarah” social media tribute and call to action.
If the film crews can’t effect changes, the lawyers may. BusinessWeek notes that the Accidental Death on Midnight Rider Set Enters Lawyer Phase.
This terrible incident brings to mind a prior film tragedy: the 1983 deaths of Vic Morrow, and child actors Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Le when a helicopter crashed on the set of The Twilight Zone. See Slate‘s A New Dimension of Filmmaking: How tragedy on the set of the 1983 feature-length adaptation of The Twilight Zone changed the way movies are made and the Crime Library‘s The Twilight Zone Tragedy.
Sounds like it’s time to shake up the industry again. It’s no more acceptable for the film industry to play fast and loose with worker lives than it is for coal mining, manufacturing, or any other industry.