It's Time to Get Serious About Film Crew Safety in the Wake of the Sarah Jones Tragedy
People may refer to the "film community" when speaking about the industry, and while on the surface it might be easily dismissed as a vague term to describe working professionals, those involved in making TV or movies in any capacity, and on any budget level, are truly a tight-knit group of like-minded people who see fellow crew members as family. Back on February 20th, one of our own, Sarah Jones, tragically lost her life doing what she loved. The film community has come out in full force, not only honoring her on film slates, but introducing a petition to have her added to the 'In Memorium' tribute during Sunday's Academy Awards [See the update below in the Petition section]. While we can do everything we can to make sure she is remembered, are we doing everything we can to prevent more accidents on and off set?
February 20th, 2014
If you aren't familiar with the incident, crew members for the film Midnight Rider were set up on a railroad trestle near Jessup, Georgia when a train arrived unexpectedly, crossing the bridge. In addition to the loss of 27-year-old Union 2nd AC Sarah Jones, seven other crew members were injured, some seriously. More and more details have surfaced in the last week, which seem to indicate that the those in charge of production did not have the proper permits to be on the tracks when they asked the crew to set up there.
It also looks like no representatives were present from CSX, the railroad company who operates on the tracks, which would be another lapse in safety for the crew shooting the film.
Shooting for Midnight Rider has been suspended indefinitely, but support for Sarah and crew safety is only getting stronger.
After the accident, a Twitter account and many hashtags have emerged (including #SlatesForSarah, #RIPSarahJones, #SafetyFirst, #SafetyForSarah, #ribbonforsarah, #sarahjonesisallofus), and a Facebook group and Instagram account were created to show the outpouring of support, with countless productions writing her name on their slates as a sign of solidarity -- from the smallest indies all the way to big Hollywood blockbusters.
Academy Awards Petition for Sarah
The Academy Awards honors those in the community who have past in the last year, and a petition was created in the hopes that the Academy will add Sarah to their 'In Memoriam' section during Sunday's event:
Sarah Elizabeth Jones was a West Columbia native who died last week while filming a movie in South Georgia.
Only 27 years old, Sarah's promising life was cut short when she was struck by a train while working on a dangerous set. Crew members are the unsung heroes of film and television production who work long hours and sometimes very dangerous conditions for the love of filmmaking. Sarah Elizabeth Jones was one of us.
We ask for Sarah Elizabeth Jones' love and passion for filmmaking be acknowledged on the grandest stage of all, The Academy Awards.
UPDATE: This petition will be submitted for consideration by The Academy on Sunday. Signatures on this petition are going through electronically to the Oscars. Thank you for supporting one of our own.
#SafetyForSarah #SlatesforSarah #RIPSarahJones
Here is an update on the situation from Variety:
Industry insiders expressed doubt that Jones would be included. The Academy is sticking with its policy of not commenting on who will or won’t be included on the televised “In Memoriam.” She will almost certainly be included in the more extensive list of deaths that runs on Oscars.com, but that is unlikely to mollify the nearly 57,000 people who have signed the online petition to have Jones included in the television segment.
On social media, a push has been launched for stars attending the Oscars on Sunday to wear a small black ribbon. “We ask that the celebrities that we all work so tirelessly to make look great be our voice this Sunday,” says the “Wear a Ribbon to the Oscars for Sarah” Facebook page. “Wear a ribbon, and when you are asked why, tell them about Sarah.” The hashtag on Twitter for the push is #ribbonforsarah.
I encourage all No Film School readers and anyone else you may know to sign the petition and let the Academy know that we care for all of our crew members, and her preventable death deserves recognition on the stage in front of the entire world.
Haskell Wexler & Unions
Many have spoken out after Sarah's death, including well-respected members of the community like Haskell Wexler, ASC. He has long argued for better working conditions for crew members, and recently commented about the accident in Georgia:
“It’s a tragedy,” he told Variety. “She should not have died. It upsets me.”
Wexler, who won Oscars for “Bound for Glory” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” said that proper safety rules being in place could have prevented the accident.
“People can learn from this terrible injury,” he added.
Wexler also released an open letter Wednesday to “fellow workers” which said that he’s part of a group asking that Jones’ name be included in the Academy’s “In Memoriam” section this Sunday.
“Sarah and the three injured crew members were not victims of an ‘accident’ but of criminal negligence. Something that would not have happened if proper safety rules were in place,” the letter said.
This, and many other tragedies related to filmmaking are preventable, and while the death of Sarah Jones was not due to long hours, he has fought for 12 hours on and 12 hours off for crew, even making a film about it called Who Needs Sleep?. At an IATSE Union Convention over the summer, the Long Hours Resolution was passed:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the IATSE continue to communicate these
concerns to labor-management safety committees and make efforts to increase
awareness that long hours of work cause injuries, illnesses and
deterioration in job performance, as part of the IATSE Entertainment and
Exhibition Industries Training Trust and CSATF Safety Pass Programs, and
THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that efforts be made to require all
signatory companies to recognize fatigue as a health and safety hazard in
their safety guidelines.
While this is a good sentiment, it doesn't go nearly far enough to prevent accidents from happening during shooting and after the day is over when the crew is heading home after a long day.
There are some elements in place, but it's time to crack down on unnecessarily long hours. This is a uniquely American problem that other countries don't seem to face, so if they can work reasonable hours, why can't we in the U.S.?
We need the unions to step up for real and finally institute proper working hours that treat crews as human beings -- which means not working insane overtime day after day and ensuring that when overtime does happen, proper turnaround times are observed (at least 12 hours).
Crew Safety Regardless of Budget
It's also time that we all take a step back and recognize what we're doing on our productions, and if we're doing it in the safest possible way. Much of the No Film School readership are working on low and no budget productions, but I think it's important to remember that the safety of your actors and your crew should be the priority regardless of budget. Plenty of sets have the correct safety measures in place and take care of their people, but too many of us are guilty of doing stupid things just to get a shot. We need to remember that these are just films. We all do this because we love it, but it's not worth losing a life over.
There may be certain risks involved in shooting news or documentaries in dangerous regions (and plenty of steps can still be taken to ensure safety even in those situations), but there is no reason to ever put people in danger when you are in control of your surroundings.
It may not be easy, but if a situation is becoming unsafe, we all need to speak up for each other. Whether you are in charge of production or a member of the crew, think about what you're doing the next time you shoot, and if it's being done in the safest manner possible. This goes not just for working conditions on set, but also working hours. Fatigue can very easily prove fatal if crew are constantly working 16, 17, or more hours each day for days on end. This is common practice in many places, but it's rare that crew are still productive in these later hours. If you're in charge of a union (or non-union) production, rethink this practice. It's going to make things safer for everyone in the long run.
It's time for everyone to make safety the priority. It's that important, and it's going to go a long way towards preventing future incidents.
Thoughts from Around the Web
You can feel free to disregard anything that's said here, but a few have written very powerful words about the tragedy and about crew safety. Read some of their posts here:
There are certainly many more from around the web, so feel free to add them in links below.
If you are going to share your thoughts or feelings in the comments, I ask that you please remain respectful to the situation and to others in the comments. Let's act like the community that we are.
- Petition To Add Sarah Elizabeth Jones To The Academy Awards Memoriam Tribute
- Slates for Sarah -- Facebook
- Slates for Sarah -- Twitter
- ‘Midnight Rider’ Death: Sarah Jones Becomes a Symbol As Bizzers’ Emotions Surge -- Variety
- New details surface on fatal train case with film crew -- WTOC
- ‘Midnight Rider’ Homicide Probe Focusing on Who Put Crew on Bridge -- Variety
- Haskell Wexler -- Midnight Rider -- Variety
- Sheriff’s Report: ‘Midnight Rider’ Was Denied Railroad Permit, According to CSX Email -- Variety