Occupational Health and Safety: un-risky business

In a dynamic industry where all minds are fixated on the finished product, does OHS take a back seat to the ‘important stuff’? Micah Chua writes.

While Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) for any industry has a reputation for being bureaucratic, complex and generally difficult, perhaps things have a potential to be different for the screen industry.
“You can do safety and it doesn’t have to be boring,” says Bethwyn Serow, policy manager for the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA).
“You don’t have to watch paint dry; you can get the concept, absorb it, move on and get on with production.”
These were certainly the sentiments adopted by Film Victoria a couple of years ago.
“What we were hearing from our screen practitioners, and what we’ve found out from our own research, is that OHS obligations are very complex and there was a need for a simple and uniform way
for employers to implement safety in the workplace,” CEO Sandra Sdrauligh told Encore.
A combination of this attitude and an increased legal and social awareness for safety in the workplace over the past few years spurred the agency to take a leadership role in the issue. The resulting product was a new OHS management system industry-wide which was used on productions as diverse as Chris Lilley’s new series Angry Boys, Wilfred series 2 and international
blockbusters such as Knowing and Don’t be Afraid of The Dark. The success of the new system brought Film Victoria recognition as a finalist for Best Management Strategy in the 2008 Worksafe awards.
In NSW, policy makers and members of the industry are doing their bit to move the OHS sector along; the most recent effort being the joint initiatives taken by SPAA and consultants OHS Media with their online training course Ensure a Safe Workplace, available online on the SPAA website, free of charge.
The course was initiated to mimic the success of Screen Victoria and is funded by a $90,000 grant by WorkCover NSW.
The online course, separated into four different units, provides guides to read, video case studies to watch, assessment quizzes to complete, personal journals to reflect and an online forum for community discussion. Interviews and behind-the-scenes footage on productions such as the Project Greenlight feature Solo and the documentary The Bonediggers provide further insight into the OHS process on set with detailed accounts from experienced professionals.
These elements combined are designed to resist a one-size-fits-all OHS model.

“The aim of the online training has been to try and bring it very specifically to the industry and to think about what you’re dealing with during a day-to-day basis,” said SPAA’s Serow. “We’ve had a pretty good response.”
Resources are being pulled to make the OHS process as relevant, engaging and implementable as possible. Of course, the other main incentive behind taking the course comes with the industry-recognised accreditation received upon completion, the practical implication being the registration with a national training body, and a professional demonstration of competency to be considered and valued by producers and prospective employers.
“We don’t want to make money off this,” said Serow when asked by Encore what the strategy was behind making the training program free of charge.

“It really is about a service to the industry.”
For SPAA, 200 would be an ideal number of participants. At press time, the program had 170 registered candidates, and 40 had completed the course.
These initiatives enacted by Film Victoria, SPAA and other organisations are not merely knee-jerk reactions to changing legal obligations or spikes in safety incidents. The film and television sector as a matter of fact has had a very positive history when it comes to the safety of those who work in it.
According to the latest injury statistics provided by WorkCover NSW for 2007-08, the film and television industry, in comparison with others, ranks significantly low in areas of fatalities, injuries and time lost in weeks, managing to secure a place in the bottom five in all of those areas out of 30 listed industries.
Perhaps the reason behind such positive statistics is the proactive nature of the industry. Peter Wasson, managing director of OHS Media certainly thinks so.

“From the early 80s up until now, we’ve always been very good in our industry, and rather than waiting for government regulators to regulate what we do, the industry took control of the safety side of things”, he said.

Those efforts resulted in the Film Industry Recommended Safety Code approved by SPAA and MEAA in 1983, with the latest example being SPAA’s e-training initiatives.
“There’s an opportunity for our OHS systems to go far by doing the work we’ve done over the last few years,” said Serow. “And it will continue.”

It is reassuring to know that the industry refuses to rest on its laurels and pertain to a minimum standard of safety. Keeping productions out of legal trouble doesn’t seem to be the motivating priority; despite an already good track record, the attitude remains to be one of continuous improvement over previous methods and models.
“It has that psychological improvement as well,” said Wasson. “If they think they’re being looked after and if you treat people well, you’ll also get better work out of them. That helps the crews, and quite frankly at the end of the day, that helps productions.”
Keeping the best interests of everyone involved and maintaining a win-win situation on all fronts is motivation enough for a good OHS management system.

“We’re a little bit more humanistic than other industries,” continued Wasson. “Filmmakers are like a pack of gypsies travelling across jurisdictions making films. It’s got that family-orientated approach and the last thing you want to see is a member of your family getting hurt.”
The effort has always been a wide collaboration with OHS being everybody’s responsibility. While leadership lies with the producers, all members invested in production have a duty to maintain a safe working environment.
“Over the years everybody has started to work together as a team and everybody understands the severity of the issues that may potentially arise,’ says Lynne Benzie, president of the Warner Roadshow
Studios in Queensland.

“Production people have a good handle of it; we follow things through and so do they.”
The challenge now is to cater for the smaller production companies. It’s a wide conception that OHS processes for the film industry are resource, time and cost intensive. The tendency to cut corners for the sake of the production is all too alluring. Official organisations have taken note of this and acted accordingly.

“Where everything is done on very tight budgets, the very thing we don’t want is red tape bureaucracy that isn’t necessary,” explained Serow. “It’s about having an OHS scheme that is responsible and pragmatic. Because a safe system has everybody in the production informed and aware, we’ve tried to develop something that’s accessible to everyone.”
Free resources such as the e-training initiatives as well as a referral manual are designed to address such issues. And if it comes to having to inconvenience the shot to make safety a priority, perhaps it needs to be done.
“With a small production, with little resources, there is an OHS management system available that is exceedingly comprehensive. That is a free resource,” said Wasson.
“Quite frankly, no production on a small budget can use the excuse that they don’t have the resources to put in an OHS management system; they’ve got access to these resources so they can pick and pack and put a whole safe system of work, an OHS management system that meets their particular requirements.”
So what is the next step of improvement for OHS in the industry? Experts seem to think that the next direction to head is cultural.
“Overall the industry has really gotten on board over the past few years, in terms of making OHS a priority during production,” said Sandra Sdraulig. “But what we’re talking about here is a cultural shift, and that can take many years to adopt.”
Working OHS into the cultural mindset is admittedly a lengthy process that will need time to set. While most people in the industry know about the guidelines and protocols that address specific problems and scenarios, they are more one-off focused tasks which is not what the legislation looks to secure.
What needs to happen as a response to the increased attention and concern regarding OHS across all industries is an overall sharpening in logistical thinking as an organic reaction across all disciplines.
The general air needs to be one of safety and control.

The best avenue of approach for the film industry, according to Peter Wasson, is integration.

“The compliance side needs to be integrated with the creative side so it doesn’t just become a separate add-on,” he said. “It is just part and parcel of the whole production creative process.”
The goal at this point in time and what resources thus far have been poured into achieving is seeing that barrier between creativity and safety dissolve.
An OHS management system is most effective when it isn’t seen in separation from the work itself.
A practical hands-on, face-to-face approach, such of which OHS Media is in the business of doing seems to be the plan of action.
Workshops in connection with various institutions and organisations such as the APA International Film School facilitate this hands-on approach taking education as part of the solution.
“We’re getting the students and directors who are involved in writing their scripts and doing their short films to really think right from the creative process. And again, we talk about risk management in terms of OHS”, explained Wasson.
“And because we are a creative industry, we can also be exceedingly creative with the way we address our risk management obligations as well.”
Safety needs to be taken into serious consideration as early as the script writing process. Small success stories about student filmmakers rewriting scenes in their scrips and re-designing their shots to avoid hazards show to some degree the beginning of this cultural shift in the up-and-coming generation.
In the spirit of an improving and more collaborative approach to OHS in the film industry, perhaps the future is looking even brighter. The proposal in December by the Federal Minister of Employment
and Workplace Relations Julia Gillard, of a uniform set of OHS laws across the country is a positive step towards a unified national film sector.
“We’d love to see a national, collaborative approach to OHS in the screen industry,” said Film Vic’s Sdrauling.

“The federal government’s commitment to creating a national model for OHS across Australia certainly paves the way for that.”
Such initiatives also address the problems filmmakers have with OHS when travelling interstate with each jurisdiction carrying its own legislation.

“Whenever there’s a launch of new legislation we won’t have to change certain directions in our management systems as we go across jurisdictions, we won’t have to change our production process,
and we won’t have to change our OHS compliance requirements,” explained Wasson.
While the OHS arm in the film industry has largely been self-sufficient to different points of success, the attitude has remained largely unchanged.
“There is no light at the end of the OHS tunnel,” finalised Wasson.
“It’s a tunnel that just keeps going and just continuously keep improving.”


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