Worker deaths prompt call for better safety standards in unscripted TV sector

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Photo: flickr/OiMax

Sarah Jones, a young camera assistant, died on the film set of "Midnight Ryder" in Georgia this year. My brother, John Driftmier, died while filming the Discovery Channel show "Dangerous Flights: Season 2" in February 2013. Two weeks before his death, a cast member, a cameraman and a pilot all died in a helicopter crash while filming an unnamed production for Discovery Channel in Acton, California.

Following Jones' recent death, a groundswell of activity has taken place to mourn, express solidarity and call for greater safety in film workplaces. Scripted sets, like the one Jones worked on, have a history of union activity. Production union locals and people working on film sets have been writing messages of mourning on their production slates, as part of a solidarity campaign called Slates for Sarah. An online pledge has been circulating among film and TV industry workers to encourage them to be vigilant about safety on the job. The Directors Guild of Canada has issued statements to challenge widely held notions about worker safety in the industry, saying "cinematic immunity does not exist."

Factual television is much newer and many of the established safety protocols for scripted sets have not yet been established for unscripted productions. Union activity is rare in this growing part of the industry. Crews can be much smaller, and safety concerns can be completely unique to an individual production. However, workers have begun speaking up, although only with guarantees of confidentiality.

Anna*, a line producer, is the person directly entrusted with the crew, the budget and safety. She gets stuck between a production company and the crew's safety concerns too often for her own comfort.

"There hasn't been a show yet that I've been on in the last three years where there hasn't been an accident [during commutes after long days]." Anna has been working in the factual television industry for three years. Even with injuries resulting from the collisions, she has witnessed production companies respond: "It's up to you. You could've chosen to not drive."

The Discovery Channel deaths of 2013 are the tip of a safety iceberg. The safety issues Anna routinely hears about in her job are beneath the surface, and often much more mundane, and insidious.

"When you work a 15 hour day, or a 16 hour day, you're not coherent at the end … to drive home. And you're not coherent to drive others home." She has often asked companies for extra hands on deck to shorten everyone's workday, or for hotels so that workers do not need to commute, her requests have rarely been granted.

In situations where her crew has come to her with safety concerns, the protocol, for her, is to take those concerns to the production company, requesting permission to implement changes that would improve worker safety.

"What happens sometimes is the company says: we hear you, we acknowledge this, but we need to hear it from the crew as well. And then the crew is absolutely not going to say anything because they fear being blacklisted, they fear being labeled as troublemakers, they fear the company firing them down the road."

And in an industry which hires for short contracts and freelance work, the companies don't even need to go through the red tape of firing someone who speaks up in this way; they are simply not hired back. Contractor-staffed, rather than employee-staffed, production companies are able to avoid many provincial Employment Standards and labour laws, such as surrounding severance.

Samantha*, an assistant director, reports: "I started saying no in the field after [the February 2013 deaths]. Then [the production company] stopped calling me after three straight years working for them."

"In the span of six weeks I tended to snake bites -- we were in cottonmouth country without a snakebite kit, performed first aid after my director of photography collapsed and … went into anaphylactic shock and had the nerves in my hand severed in an accident on [a heavy-industry location]. All of it was avoidable had we been properly equipped under acceptable conditions, or better yet, with a set medic like they do on union shoots." Only after her own injury was she made aware that the production company used her in it's own safety paperwork as an on location safety officer.

"I absolutely love what I do, but I shouldn't have knots of fear in my stomach when I leave my daughter for a shoot."

Director of photography/shooter Khalila* reports safety-briefings from the production company can often be only colloquial reminders to "be safe out there." Like many workers in factual TV, she never received training for safety regarding show-specific issues, like safety on construction sites.

Stories from individual workers are supported by the limited documentation on conditions in factual TV. The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) carried out a recent survey of 328 working on such productions. The survey came back with some striking results. Thirty one per cent reported working in situations that were unsafe for them; 37 per cent witnessed situations that were unsafe for others.

For the workers who worked on location, rather than an office or editing suite, the numbers are much more stark. Fifty four per cent reported working in situations that were unsafe for them; 59 per cent witnessed situations that were unsafe for others.

Karen Wirsig is an organizer with the CMG, and was involved in the survey. She has been meeting with grassroots groups of factual TV workers to support the development of solutions to the problems they face when it comes to working conditions.

"The key thing about accidents anywhere is that they're tragic when they happen -- and they shouldn't happen in the first place -- but when they do, we should learn from them and make sure they don't happen again."

Peter Driftmier is a freelance journalist and food industry worker living in Calgary, Alberta. He is the proud and loving brother of the late Director, John Driftmier.

*The factual TV workers quoted in this article are fictitiously named, and production company names avoided so as to protect workers' confidentiality.

The Canadian Media Guild is collecting reports of safety incidents in factual TV in order to get a fuller picture of the situation across Canada with a view to improving safety. The Guild will keep the names and identities of the people reporting the incidents confidential. To share your story, please write in confidence to Karen Wirsig at [email protected].

Photo: flickr/OiMax

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