Tragic Death Sparks On-Set Safety Debate

busy film teamEarlier this year, the need for more safety regulations for Hollywood film crews was made even more urgent in light of a tragic accident; 27-year-old Sarah Jones was killed in a train accident, while shooting a scene for the biopic film Midnight Rider, on February 20.

The film crew, shooting on an active train trestle in Doctortown, Georgia, reported 7 injured crew members, as well as the death of Sarah Jones. The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the case, in addition to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The filming for Midnight Rider has been postponed indefinitely.

According to David S. Cohen, senior editor at Variety magazine, the crew was filming a dream sequence that involved placing metal beds on the live train tracks. Cohen revealed that the crew was informed that they would hear a train whistle if a train came, and they would have a minute to clear off the bridge.

However, the approaching train took the crew by surprise, leaving them no time to remove the beds from the bridge. “The train struck the bed, which then became shrapnel,” says Cohen. It is still unclear if the crew has permission to film on the train trestle, and what kind of safety precautions were taken.

Though the details are not yet confirmed, the on-set accident has sparked a relevant debate about safety not just for the stuntmen, but also for the film crew.

What’s more, Jones’ death has widened the discussion to include all members of a film crew. Jones’ death was memorialized at this year’s Academy Awards alongside various Hollywood deaths including deceased stuntman Kun Lieu, who died on set of The Expendables 2 in 2011.

While the injury of a stunt person could be considered an occupational hazard due to the high-risk nature of the position, crew positions are not considered to be particularly dangerous. However, due to film productions moving to “push the envelope” when filming, even crew positions- like Sarah Jones’ position as second assistant camera- are proving riskier than ever.

“There is a feeling that in the push to get shots made, to get shows done in an era of a bad economy and limited resources, that productions are pushing harder and harder, and that safety is less and less of a consideration,” Cohen says. Cohen also attributes the safety oversights to pressure on the crew members to accept any and all filming conditions.

He states that crew members are reluctant to refuse a dangerous assignment for fear of not being hired back in the competitive world of film. Mark August, Vice President of the Society of Camera Operators, confirms that young camera operators are under the impression that their boss is informed on all safety issues. “They look to leadership for safety,” August says. “There is the assumption that your boss is taking every precaution, and that when you are employed, you are safe.

The reality is, if it isn’t safe, [you should] speak up.” Still, the death of Sarah Jones may have served to protect others in the future, due to the immediate appearance of discussion on the subject. Cohen argues that the debates could lead to increased safety regulations on set. “What we’re already hearing,” he says, “is that more people are saying no, and more people are saying, wait, stop, think.”


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