Integrating OEHS Into TV, Film, and Media Productions
This blog post is based on a presentation by Laura H. Allen, Taylor Tarpey, A. Michael Ierardi, and Corey Boles at AIHce EXP 2022. An expanded version was published in AIHA's 2022 ebook, The Essentials of OEHS Communication.
Workers within the TV, film, and media (TFM) industry, also referred to as the entertainment industry, have historically received little attention from the OEHS profession, although the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased OEHS support.
Scientists with Stantec's ChemRisk group, Laura H. Allen, MS, CIH; Taylor Tarpey, MPH; A. Michael Ierardi, MES, MS; and Corey Boles, PhD, have all worked with the TFM industry. At AIHce EXP 2022, they discussed their experiences in the presentation "The Role of the OHS Professional in TV, Film, and News Productions."
TFM Industry Overview
After Allen briefly introduced the session by outlining risk assessment for the entertainment industry, Tarpey contributed more specific information on the workforces and work environments within the TFM industry. OEHS teams' risk assessment approaches depend on the type of production. For example, a scripted TV or film series allows for many months of planning, but news coverage may be filmed in public locations with unpredictable elements, and theatrical productions may take place in historic venues. The workplace and the types of work being performed may even change significantly over the course of a single production.
Furthermore, the TFM industry workforce is diverse in many senses. In addition to actors, other talent, and production team members working behind the scenes, a production might include workers representing several skill sets and trades who may or may not be affiliated with unions. News media includes reporters who work out in the field. Theater productions may bring on dancers, musicians, and other performers as well as actors. Production members can be temporary workers, gig workers, contractors, or volunteers; gig workers, in particular, face unique OEHS challenges, as they lack formalized, structured employment, supervision, and training.
All these workers and demographics are complexly, dynamically connected, and united by a common goal—a successful production. But the hierarchical structure of many productions can make communication difficult across roles or departments, especially for OEHS professionals who often aren't affiliated with familiar authority figures. Tarpey explained that each person often reports to their department head, who they trust the most and from whom they take most of their instruction, without communicating much with workers in other departments.
Additionally, production members may work long hours under tight budget restrictions or deadlines. "We want them to successfully achieve their goal," Tarpey said, "but we also want them to safely achieve their goal."
Case Study: Marine Science Documentary
Tarpey described how the team provided OEHS support to a documentary series that shot an episode on marine scientists in Brooklyn, New York, in November 2021. This episode would involve marine scientists and the series' host entering the water to remove rebar cages of oysters, identify fish species, and discuss the scientists' work.
Before the shoot, the OEHS team communicated with the cast and crew about what they would need to execute filming safely. Among the most significant things they learned at this stage was that the series' primary host was allergic to shellfish. In addition, cast and crew members would be working in cold water for up to a few hours at a time. The OEHS team had to plan to keep people warm and out of the water as much as possible and ensure that equipment was protected. Since the series' host was a high-profile public figure and filming would occur in a public place, the team had to consider the host's safety and that of other cast and crew members. Finally, precautions had to be taken to prevent COVID-19 transmission when the host and other talent worked together unmasked.
The OEHS team began implementing controls by performing a location scout, assessing the lay of the land and the site's nearness to emergency services. Understanding that most of the employees working on the production would focus on their own roles, the OEHS team brought on outside professionals to assist with health and safety measures. These included a water safety professional, a COVID-19 compliance officer, and a medic who carried EpiPens in case of allergic reactions.
Before filming, the OEHS team met with cast and crew members to teach them how to spot hazards, including symptoms of allergic reactions. Care was taken during the shoot to limit the host's contact with shellfish. Cast and crew who entered the water followed work-rest schedules to avoid being in the water for extended durations.
Tarpey described the shoot as a success. The fact that it went smoothly spoke to the importance of pre-planning, communication, hazard identification, and risk assessment.
Case Study: Honeybee Extractions
In the summer of 2021, a TV series filmed the extraction and relocation of honeybees that had infested homes and businesses near Austin, Texas. Ierardi explained that the production faced risks that included a hot, humid environment, bee stings and the potential for severe allergic reactions, and COVID-19 infection. Filming took place in a location far from emergency services.
The OEHS team emphasized planning and communication in the controls they implemented. Before the shoot, training for the cast and crew focused on COVID-19 protocols, but they requested additional training on heat stress and beekeeping. A team member with beekeeping experience provided additional insights. Cast and crew received safety "one sheets," documents communicating hazard information in clear language, that they could take to set.
During shooting, the cast and crew followed work-rest cycles that allowed them to take breaks and remove personal protective equipment (PPE) to acclimate to the heat. As in the marine science documentary scenario, COVID-19 protocols were implemented on set, and a medic was on site with EpiPens.
Some production team members were stung by bees and treated on set, but no incidents of anaphylaxis took place. Ierardi attributed the success to extensive planning and frequent communication. He encouraged OEHS professionals to ask probing questions; like workers in other industries, TV production crew members may not think about how health and safety protocols will interact with other elements of the workplace. However, the OEHS professional's role is to learn as much as possible about the potential health risks and hazards on set.
Ierardi also touched on the importance of leadership involvement. Production leaders may need to be convinced of the importance of health and safety concerns and the necessity to allow extra time to correctly follow necessary protocols, such as work-rest cycles.
Case Study: Theater Production
Allen returned to share a third case study featuring a theater group that hosts productions in a former blast furnace on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every summer, the theater group invites the community to attend performances of King Lear, during which the performers and audience move from one space to another within the former industrial site.
Several health and safety issues were associated with the historic setting, such as the possible presence of heavy metals and asbestos. A structural engineering firm visited annually to make sure the site was structurally sound. The blast furnace's remoteness presented challenges if medical emergencies were to arise, perhaps due to allergic reactions or heat stress. And if extreme weather developed, there was no way to move all participants inside quickly.
To ensure safe performance for the cast, crew, and audience members, the OEHS team performed lead, mold, and asbestos assessments and remediated areas where visitors would be. Safe areas and pathways were clearly marked. The engineering firm's assessment covered stages and lighting fixtures, as many catastrophes in theater history have resulted from historic structures being unable to support modern equipment. Cooling areas were created to prevent heat stroke among the cast, crew, and audience members.
For this production, Allen noted that the OEHS team's responsibility extended beyond protecting employees to protecting audience members. Health and safety controls could impact the audience's experience.
Case Study: Situational Awareness Training
"As I'm sure everyone is well aware, we all practice, fundamentally, some level of situational awareness in our daily lives and work lives, and it's effective for workers as well," said Boles. "In fact, OSHA clearly states that workers should be well aware of their surroundings at the work site or the job site and have abilities to identify, process, respond to, and comprehend any actions of harm or any situations where harmful exposures may occur."
This guidance particularly applied to the situation described in the final case study. In August 2020, the OEHS team provided situational awareness support for a documentary crew covering the U.S. presidential election across several of the nation's cities. As tensions ran high, some protests turned into riots, so the documentary crew faced risks of violence.
Assuming a high risk for the production overall, the OEHS team divided the risks into subcategories and assessed each subcategory individually. Technical risks included the issues of equipment portability or replaceability in case it was damaged or abandoned. A crew member could have to carry a camera for many miles in hot, humid weather or drop their equipment and leave the scene as quickly as possible if the situation became dangerous. Physical and safety risks included COVID-19, vehicular accidents, injury or death from projectiles, the burden of PPE, confined movement, dehydration, overexertion, and tear gas. Psychological risks related to the possibility of crew members witnessing traumatic events.
Before filming, the OEHS team communicated with the documentary team to assess crew members' physical, mental, and medical risks, but crew members were still permitted to go into the field if they wished. Boles explained that crew members' belief in the importance of their job contributed to their willingness to risk their health and safety to an extent. "At the end of the day," he said, "we know that this production crew is going to go out. This is their job. They are capturing important historical information for our country and all across the globe."
"That limits the available controls that we can put in place, to a certain extent," he continued. "We can't just say, 'Don't go out there.' They've dedicated their lives to doing something, and we respect that, so we want to protect them as much as possible."
Every crew member underwent mandatory comprehensive situational awareness training, regardless of title or role. The OEHS team helped the crew develop emergency action and escape plans and walked them through communication methods. The production learned the importance of primary and backup communication methods, power sources, and transportation sources. They identified rally points at different locations within the city depending on security, available medical support, and where the protest was planned to take place.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant the production needed testing and face coverings. However, commercially available face masks did not provide adequate protection against tear gas, which was a possible exposure in the field. The OEHS team worked to get the crew fit-tested for full-face respirators and taught them how to choose which kind of PPE to use in each circumstance, as well as how to maintain it.
Boles remarked that the presenters "could give an entire presentation on lessons learned from just this one experience." These lessons included the need to plan for things to go wrong and for the production to encounter the worst-case scenario. Communication was crucial; the OEHS team needed to ask questions in advance and help the crew feel safe enough to ask questions so that nothing was left unknown. Finally, since the documentary filmed dangerous events, the OEHS teams needed to plan for mental health support during and after the work.
Allen, Laura H.; Tarpey, Taylor; Ierardi, A. Michael; and Boles, Corey. "The Role of the OHS Professional in TV, Film, and News Productions." AIHce EXP, AIHA, May 24, 2022, virtual. Conference Presentation.