Assistant Editor, SHP & IFSEC Global

November 3, 2021

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Film set safety

Film set safety – what needs to be done?

Following the recent death of Director of Photography, Halyna Hutchins, who was accidentally shot dead by a prop gun on a film set in Santa Fe, N.M., filmmakers are being urged to re-evaluate their approach to adopting current on-set health and safety guidance.

clapperboardFilm and television sets are often described as hectic and fast-paced, but would you ever consider them dangerous, potentially life-threatening working environments?

Fatal accidents like that which occurred on the set of ‘Rust’ on October 21, 2021, are described as being ‘incredibly rare’. However, that doesn’t deter from the fact that, according to research by the Associated Press, more than 150 people have been left with life-altering injuries from accidents occurring on US film sets since 1990.

On both film and television sets, prop weapons are monitored by the art department’s ‘Prop Master’. The Prop Masters and their assistants handle, clean, monitor and inspect all stunt weapons used on set before allowing them to be handled by actors.

If monitoring the use of a prop gun, the Prop Master will inspect the object before and after use. After each take is complete, the Assistant Director, along with the Props Master, will re-verify that the magazine is empty and removed. Prop Masters are also in charge of checking the barrel after every take, cleaning out any dust and debris that could project and cause injury if left inside once the trigger is pulled.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires all employers to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of all employees and anyone who may be affected by their work, regardless of the sector.

The HSE’s advice on the management of firearms and weapons in UK film and television production, states that those in control of production should ensure they are utilising trained individuals who are competent in all aspects of their provision.

Those working with weapons must continually assess the effectiveness of any controls they have in place and ensure that any changes in location should not affect their safety use. They also have the authority to stop work if a risk to life becomes apparent and should ensure the Producer is aware of any changes to ensure safe practice.

The producers of the film Rust, who’s cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was accidentally shot dead on set by actor Alec Baldwin, have been hit with the maximum $136,793 (£105,000) fine, after they were found to have ‘demonstrated plain indifference to employee safety’.

Following the incident, crew members denied reports that the set of Rust was unsafe. Costume designer Terese Magpale Davis wrote, in a lengthy Instagram post shared by Alec Baldwin, that “the story being spun of us being overworked and surrounded by unsafe, chaotic conditions” was untrue.

Potential on-set hazards relating to the use of firearms and/or weapons

  • Flying objects, e.g., projectiles (arrows, bolts etc) and incidental flying objects such as spent cases ejected from automatic and semi-automatic firearms – spent cases may be hot and can travel several metres
  • Blast and impact injury caused by projectiles, burning gases, unburned propellant, wadding, and debris discharged from weapons – all these hazards apply to live and blank ammunition
  • unintentional discharge of weapons
  • Noise levels from discharging ammunition – both blank and live is often more than 100 dB(A)
  • Smoke
  • Laser light from weapon sights
  • Sharp edges/splinters created during the intended destruction of wooden weapon handles during combat scenes
  • Contact injury or wounding from weapons such as swords and lances caused, for example, by inexperienced users (artistes, extras etc)
  • Fatigue
  • Ill-fitting costumes and helmets that may restrict movement or visibility
  • Use in difficult circumstances, i.e., when negotiating thick ground cover or when subject to awkward and restrictive movement such as in buildings.

Other, more generalised, film production risks include tripping hazards, injuries from pyrotechnic effects, vehicle crashes, and electrocution hazards.

Managing the risk

When deciding on risk controls, those in charge of the production should, with the armourer/weapons expert/competent person, consider the following:

  • Ensure people in charge of firearms and weapons have the appropriate levels of training and competence required to ensure safe use
  • Regular inspection of firearms/weapons during the production to make sure they remain in safe condition
  • Put in place procedures to withdraw and make safe misfired firearms.
  • Are any extra controls needed if firearms are to be discharged towards people?
  • Ensure all involved in the production have received adequate briefing about the use of and risks from firearms and weapons.
  • Restrict the number of people on set during the use of the firearm or weapon and define and police exclusion areas – use remote cameras where possible, especially when these may be in a danger area
  • Use filming techniques, camera angles, long lenses, and camera heights to reduce the risks to artistes and camera crews
  • Protect camera crews and, where possible, artistes and other exposed members of the production crew with screens/buffers etc where they cannot be remote from the action
  • Set up good sightlines for those supervising the use of the firearms/weapons to ensure their safe use
  • Provide adequate time and resources for rehearsals, safety briefings and reappraisal of controls – this is especially important if the people handling weapons are inexperienced
  • Provide adequate emergency cover to cope with foreseeable events, e.g., first aid
  • Choose the least hazardous firearm/weapon suitable for the shot, e.g., use a replica rather than a real firearm, blunted rather than sharp edged blades etc.
  • Control noise and reduce the numbers of people exposed to it
  • Provide secure storage arrangements for firearms, ammunition, and weapons during transit and when not in use
  • Secure storage for ammunition, separate from the firearms – live and blank ammunition should never be mixed and should be stored in separate containers
  • Ensure appropriate weapons are used and that the risks from them are minimised: bladed weapons are blunted unless needed to cut something in shot; soft-tipped weapons are preferable to wooden or plastic alternatives; weapon blades must be of the same material in fight scenes, e.g., steel with steel.

Concerns over on-set safety are certainly not un-heard of in the industry.

On February 20, 2014, Sarah Elizabeth Jones was tragically killed by a train while filming ‘Midnight Rider’, and several others were also injured.

Sarah’s death spurred film crew members throughout the entertainment industry to voice their already present fears about the lack of implementation regarding on-set safety.

The events which occurred on October 21, will no doubt spur on the already present fight for greater implementation of on-set safety regulations.

To read the HSE’s advice on ‘Managing Firearms and Weapons in Film and TV Production’ in full, click here.

Read: The weird and wonderful jobs of OSH: Film safety

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David Liddell
David Liddell
2 years ago

Are we comparing apples and pears here? “…more than 150 people have been left with life-altering injuries from accidents occurring on US film sets since 1990.“. Yes, but this is the UK. Now I’m not saying that people don’t get injured and become ill on UK film sets. They do. But the safety record in comparison with many other industries is staggeringly lower. Especially given the high risks and unique circumstances being operated in. Would this same incident occur in the UK? Very, very highly unlikely. In the majority of circumstances, it is the role of the Armourer, not necessarily… Read more »