Fatalities and injuries on set: what is being done about them?

This past week, the film production of the new Nicolas Cage movie, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, suffered from two car accidents, which involved a total of 11 injuries. While the second one was by a citizen who was not involved with the filming, the first was by a stuntman.

Watch news reports about The Sorcerer's Apprentice accident.

According to Rob Egan, former BC Film CEO and president, these types of accidents are preventable.

Egan moderated a panel on safety measures in the film and television industries on Tuesday (May 5) at Vancity Theatre as part of SHAPE's annual  Arts Safety Week.

NBC Universal's Paul Jordan pointed out that when he was working in the industry in the '70s and '80s, health and safety on set was something that wasn't considered until something happened. This was echoed by Brightlight Pictures' Shawn Williamson, who said that in Vancouver, there really wasn't a plan in place, but that they learnt through the example of American productions.

In fact, the Vancouver-based Safety and Health in Arts Productions and Entertainment, which is the only organization of its kind (and also presented the panel along with BC Film and the Commercial Production Association of Western Canada), didn't exist until 10 years ago.

Jordan cited the example of a Star Trek shoot during which actors mysteriously kept passing out. It turned out that the liquid nitrogen they were using to create mist was depleting the air of oxygen.

During his career, he's seen everything from finger and limb amputations to fatalities on the set. He added that the majority of injuries are caused by simple actions such as lifting, carrying, and moving objects, and that most are preventable by simple things such as enforcing seatbelt usage or forbidding horseplay.

Williamson agreed by adding that accidents tend to happen less during stunts, for which great care and preparation is taken, than ordinary events. He noted that accidents often occur when junior crew members or new hires are trying too hard to impress others.

While most people heard about Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee's son, being accidentally killed in 1993  by a gun loaded with blanks  on the set of The Crow, Williamson also spoke about the death of stunt coordinator Marc Akerstream who died here in Vancouver in 1998  during the filming of the TV series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Akerstream was accidentally killed when a piece of a battery that detonated a calculated explosion flew off and hit him in the head.

His death resulted in changes being made to prevent similar accidents from occurring.

20th Century Fox's Sion Dettra said that an accident on a set, which involved several crew members being electrocuted to death when scaffolding accidentally touched a power line, resulted in his production safety department being created.

He noted that B.C.'s film culture is markedly different than America's, and finds that the industry here is far more receptive to discussing procedures and putting programs in place, which makes his job much easier.

Williamson explained that the unions take a proactive role here, and that precautionary measures have become an inherent part of the industry.

More importantly, he pointed out that the downtime caused by accidents and injuries  far outweighs any expenses or time required for minor education. When accidents happen, productions lose days of shooting, costing both time and money, due to investigations being conducted. Panelists noted that it also has an impact on morale, if crews feel that their well-being is not being taken care of or looked out for.

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked if the increase in CGI has contribued to a reduction in the number of risks taken by film productions. Williamson acknowledged that it is helping as explosions, for example, can be made far larger with VFX and therefore don't have to be made as big in real life on shoots.

While Williamson noted that accidents will always happen, their focus now, he says, is to focus on what accidents are happening after precautionary measures have been taken, and how to prevent those ones in the future.

For film and TV industry members seeking advice or information about things such as how to take precautionary measures, online resources are available at the SHAPE Web site.