February 15, 2016
A couple of years ago, in a studio not so far, far away.... a little known Disney subsidiary, Foodles Production (UK) Ltd, hit the headlines when a very high-profile accident occurred on their film set.
Emergency services were called in 2014 after Hollywood star Harrison Ford had been injured in an accident involving a 'garage door'. The seriously injured actor was airlifted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where he was found to have broken his leg and underwent surgery resulting in weeks off the shoot.
It transpired that the 71-year-old actor had been hit by a hydraulic metal door on the Pinewood lot in Buckinghamshire whilst filming the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The 'garage door' actually belonged to the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's transport of choice, which had been built to a life size scale for the film.
Thankfully Ford made a full recovery, however the incident received wide spread coverage in the press and with Star Wars fans alike.
A certain point of view
Last week the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced that it had brought criminal proceedings against the film company in relation to the incident. The London-based Foodles' responding saying "Cast and crew safety is a priority. We are disappointed but will co-operate fully with the investigation."
The HSE insists there was enough evidence from their perspective to bring a total of four charges of alleged breaches of health and safety law. A spokesperson for the HSE stressed that employers were legally obliged to take 'reasonable steps' to safeguard employees, whether their place of work was the set of a $2bn grossing Hollywood movie or a factory floor.
Now company representatives from Foodles Production must appear before magistrates in May (but unfortunately for Star Wars fans not on the 4th).
On the face of it I was initially surprised that this accident warranted such serious action by the HSE. It's difficult to imagine that corners would be cut with a $200 million budget, and while a broken leg is serious, it looks slightly out of place in comparison to the other HSE prosecutions in February that include asbestos in schools, a major offshore gas leak and worker fatalities.
Is the HSE just getting some easy headlines off the back of one of year's biggest films, or is this a symptom of much wider safety issues in the industry?
"I'll be careful....You'll be dead"
An accident involving such a high profile movie star was always going to make headlines. However similar film set accidents could be going unreported and movie/TV productions may be far more dangerous than you could possibly imagine.
Julia Llewellyn Smith wrote an excellent article in the Telegraph titled Hollywood's Health and Safety Nightmares that summed up the extent of the danger to cast and crew:
"Statistics are hard to collate because most health and safety executives don’t file incidents under 'film industry', but it appears that between 20 and 40 people worldwide are killed or seriously injured during a film production each year."
Proportionately that's more than in US law enforcement, road construction and mining. Then if you factor in the majority of film employees would be employed in office jobs rather than building 35 meter spaceships on a daily basis, the true hazardous nature of the industry is obvious.
Lower budget films in particular are thought to have many near misses and under-reported accidents. Smaller independent films have less resource and fewer crew members, while many of these crew members may be expected to fulfil several different roles. The HSE's specific guidelines for TV or movie sets outlines no less than 16 major hazard categories and 11 risk assessment areas, so keeping on top of all these risks would be a full time task for even the largest production.
A New Hope
Employers responsible for accidents can be fined up to £20,000 per health and safety breach and can even face jail for up to two years in the most severe of negligence cases, so the seriousness of the charges shouldn't be underestimated.
An unsafe working environment is a danger to all and if the star (and no less Captain of the Millennium Falcon) could have been be seriously injured due to negligence, then we should be concerned for the welfare of the other hundreds of cast and crew.
I await the outcome of the case with interest, and hope whatever the verdict it will have a positive impact on safety in the film industry, if only in raising awareness.
Should we see more of these high-profile prosecutions from the HSE? Do you think this action would have been taken if the injury was to an unknown member of the production crew, or on a smaller indie film?
Comment. Or comment not. There is no try.