Behind the Scenes
An Introduction to IH and OEHS in Television and Film
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The film and television industry is weathering a tumultuous year. In May, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents thousands of writers of television shows and films, went on strike, and were joined in mid-July by about 160,000 actors, performers, and others represented by SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. These disputes mark the first time in more than 60 years that American writers and actors have walked off the job simultaneously. While issues related to compensation and artificial intelligence top the unions’ lists of concerns, safety is also a matter of contention. For example, one of SAG-AFTRA’s proposals has to do with ensuring that performers are allowed sufficient rest between workdays. As this issue of The Synergist went to press, WGA and SAG-AFTRA had yet to reach agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the trade association representing film and television studios. Though the strikes have temporarily halted the production of many films and television shows, Hollywood’s hazards and risks will remain when affected productions resume. To better understand the role of IH and OEHS in the entertainment industry, The Synergist spoke with several occupational and environmental health and safety professionals who work behind the scenes to protect cast and crew members. GRUELING SCHEDULES Part of what makes the film and television industry unique is the dynamic between process and artistry, says Justine Parker, CIH, CSP, CPH, CHMM, a principal science advisor with Stantec’s ChemRisk group in Colorado, whose experience includes supporting both news and film productions. While OEHS professionals working in industries like manufacturing can take a more process-oriented approach to addressing health and safety issues, those supporting the television and film industry must also contend with the influence of artistry, which, Parker explains, “will constantly adjust and change the situation” on set. The transient nature of the industry presents further challenges, according to Mona Shum, MSc, CIH, the principal industrial hygienist at Aura Health and Safety Corp. in Burnaby, British Columbia. The province is nicknamed “Hollywood North” because it has become one of the largest film production locations in North America. People involved with films and shorter television series may only work on productions for a short time before moving on, Shum says. The impermanence of these productions can make it tempting for those in the industry to ignore issues such as improper containment of contaminants or poor ventilation, but Shum has seen improvement in this area in recent years. Work in television and film is often characterized by long and nonstandard hours. Call times for cast and crew may be 6 a.m. on Monday, but by Friday the day is set to start at 2 p.m. due to workdays that stretched to 14 hours or more. This grueling schedule can lead to many a “Fraturday,” which occurs when a day’s work begins on Friday and extends into the early morning hours of Saturday, Shum explains. Shift work can be stressful both mentally and physically, she says, with adverse effects on workers’ sleep cycles and gastrointestinal systems. Film crews expect OEHS professionals supporting productions to keep up in the ever-changing environment on set. It’s important for health and safety professionals to be nimble enough to come up with solutions based on changes from just about any crew member—directors, cinematographers, and set designers included—and to safely manage any unacceptable risks that may arise, Parker stresses. And those in the industry “have no qualms about asking you to come and monitor ‘right now,’ at all different hours,” Shum says. “So, it’s very demanding, but [the industry offers] really interesting projects.” HAZARDS, UNIQUE AND FAMILIAR Filmmakers are sometimes drawn to locations that are tricky from an industrial hygiene perspective. They may want a horror film or teen drama series to take place in a gloomy, decrepit building, or a documentary series might involve filming in water. Shum’s team once responded to a location where a few riggers who were hanging lighting were hospitalized following an unknown exposure. The space had several inches of dust on the rafters, presenting a possible source of metals and biological hazards. Since Shum and her colleagues weren’t present during the incident and no monitoring was being done at the time, they had their detective work cut out for them. “We knew that with [effects] that acute, it had to be something that could happen fairly immediately or within a short time period,” she recounts. Shum’s approach included sampling and interviews. She and her colleagues also noted a number of forklifts and trucks being driven through the fairly enclosed space, which had bay doors but was not mechanically ventilated. After ruling out other potential contaminants and pathogens in the dust, they suspect the riggers’ adverse health effects were due to carbon monoxide exposure. Parker and her colleagues also have stories involving unusual hazards of unique filming locations. Mike Ierardi, MES, MS, CIH, a senior supervising health scientist with Stantec’s ChemRisk group in New York, dealt with wildlife exposures during the filming of two separate shows. One show focused on beekeeping, so Ierardi and his team put in place control measures around bee interactions, including potential first aid and recognition of anaphylaxis. The second show involved talent working in and near water, which presents its own hazards—but one of the cast members had a shellfish allergy, so anaphylaxis was a concern during that production as well. Taylor Tarpey, MPH, a health scientist who also works for Stantec ChemRisk in Colorado, recently joined Parker to conduct dust sampling in an inactive mine to determine whether a film cast and crew would be at risk of exposure to heavy metals, silica, or similar hazards, as the production company wanted to film actors running through the mine. After Tarpey and Parker found elevated levels of lead and arsenic, they implemented controls and educated the crew. Haze and fog are often used in the film industry. Shum first worked with fog in 2000 at an opera theater in San Francisco, where she examined the irritation effects of ethylene glycol—which is no longer used in most of the world—and mineral oils in oil mist. Years later, she found herself working with fog again in the film and television industry. Some productions, Shum explains, want effects like a rolling fog, but in recent years, people have been using haze in film to soften the image. “It’s become more of an issue over time with high-definition television and high-definition filming,” Shum says. “All that HD made certain scenes too clear, and [filmmakers] don’t want everything clear—so they use haze.” Other potential hazards can be found in props and set pieces made using spray foam. Shum recalls a set with a room full of prop weapons like medieval maces and swords—all made from polyurethane foam. Another set featured a forest of foam trees. Creating these objects involves the use of isocyanates, which necessitates proper ventilation. Off-gassing is an additional concern. Other areas one might expect to find on a film or television set include special effects, stunts, and armory and weaponry. This department-driven atmosphere can be both beneficial and challenging for OEHS professionals. “You have lots of people with different expertise managing their own little universes and their own perspectives and opinions on how things should be done,” Parker says. “These incredible experts work together, and they—in an ideal world—consult with health and safety, because our job is to help protect [everyone] working in the space.”
Filmmakers are sometimes drawn to locations that are tricky from an industrial hygiene perspective.
Some hazards found in this industry are frequent concerns in others. Traditional construction hazards related to machinery, dust, and noise are common, especially during preproduction and tear-down of sets. OEHS professionals are also helping the industry deal with heat stress and wildfire smoke. And ergonomics can be critical on set as well, adds Stantec ChemRisk’s Lauren Gloekler, a senior health scientist based in California. Lengthy shifts and heavy equipment often contribute to shoulder and other injuries.
Many of these hazards are among factors that can adversely affect the mental health of workers. Stressful working conditions can include long hours and shift work, temporary and gig work, and lengthy commutes as well as extended time away from family and friends. Some productions focus on emotional or sensitive subjects, which can also take a toll on workers’ mental health, whether the content is fictional or real. Reporters, for example, can find themselves in traumatic environments during times of war or when covering violent events like mass shootings. It’s critical to ensure that workers have access to mental health resources throughout the production process and during post-production, Ierardi stresses.
“If you have individuals who are editing really sensitive videography for hours on end, you need that kind of aftercare and support,” he says.
GETTING INTO THE INDUSTRY As with other major industries, breaking into the health and safety side of show business may be difficult at first, Shum says—but once you’ve found your way in (and shown that you are responsive and do quality work), people in the industry tend to call you back. The Synergist’s interviewees offer several ideas for getting involved in film and television.
To get a taste of the industry, Shum recommends attending conferences put on by organizations in the entertainment space. For example, the Actsafe Safety Association, a nonprofit that supports British Columbia’s arts and entertainment industries, holds events in her province. Additional opportunities to network and volunteer exist with trade associations like the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA); Shum helps to write fog and smoke standards for the industry as part of an ESTA committee. Other committees focus on safety issues that may be of interest to OEHS professionals.
Parker adds that another possible path into the industry is through positions in the risk management or loss prevention departments of larger firms and production houses. “You may not find positions that are going to be health and safety on set,” she cautions. “And you may have to dig a little deeper into those larger departments to find those homes, but they are they are there, and they are continuing to grow.”
Ierardi encourages OEHS professionals interested in working in film and television to familiarize themselves with the industry by speaking with health and safety professionals who are already supporting it. It’s important to acknowledge the work others have been doing so that OEHS professionals can work together to improve the health and safety of those on set, he stresses. Similarly, Tarpey feels that it’s time for professionals involved with the industry to connect on a greater scale.
“There are many of us in this industry who are kind of sprinkled around,” she explains. “I think it’s time to unite everybody and share our different experiences and our knowledge—and come together to be this awesome resource for the industry.”
MOVING FORWARD The increased awareness around IH and OEHS in the industry stems in part from the COVID-19 pandemic. Unions representing the industry hired public health experts and epidemiologists to help draft their COVID-19 agreements, which led to the virus being well controlled on many film and television sets, Parker says. But she would like to see the unions take a step further, pushing to have designated certified health and safety professionals on set. In June, the Directors Guild of America reached a tentative agreement with AMPTP that begins to address this issue. The tentative agreement includes safety advancements like “the first-ever pilot program to require the employment of dedicated safety supervisors.”
“If this moves ahead to a permanent agreement, we will see an increase in the need for trained and qualified safety professionals on productions,” Parker explains. “Overall, the industry is learning the value and cost-savings dedicated health and safety professionals bring to productions.”
In her work, Shum is encountering increasing interest in exposures faced by those on set. Topics related to IH are being brought up among joint health and safety committees, and it’s more common for productions to monitor exposures to atmospheric fog, for example, and to have plans in place should measurements reach certain levels. She and her team have assisted unions by building a heat stress app, helping with ventilation, and answering questions about types of spray booths.
“I’m very encouraged by the fact that people are asking these questions now,” she says. Like Parker, Ierardi, Tarpey, and Gloekler, Shum’s mission is to educate both workers and employers in film and television: “Hopefully then, together, we will change the industry and help evolve it,” she says.
KAY BECHTOLD is managing editor of The Synergist.
Editor’s note: Individuals interested in joining a working group focused on OEHS in the entertainment industry are encouraged to email Justine Parker. Parker is currently serving as a director on the AIHA Board.
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