Amid ‘Gung-Ho Mentality,’ Stunt Deaths Renew a Debate Over Safety

“The regulations cover the majority of hazards I’m aware of,” said Eric Berg, deputy chief of research and standards for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. He said that the standards covering workplace hazards across a wide range of industries are sufficient for the film industry.

“It’s by hazard most of the time, rather than by industry,” he said, “so regulations cover machine hazards, explosive hazards, fall hazards, flammable hazards, and those apply to motion picture sets.”

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Peter Antico, a stuntman and stunt coordinator who thinks safety could be more rigorous, and Jwaundace Candece, a stuntwoman who believes that protections suffice. Credit Peter Antico; Stacy Quarterman

Workplace safety injuries are a bit hard to track. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data, on which people rely, is largely self-reported by employers. Studies have posited that the data underestimates injuries and illnesses by 30 percent to 50 percent across all industries.

But even if the numbers are spotty, there’s no data that suggests stunt-related injuries or deaths are on the rise, experts said. Before this summer, the last motion picture production-related death in the United States was three years ago.

The film industry issues its own extensive, though nonbinding, series of bulletins to regulate safety. For example, the “Guidelines for Safe Use of Stunt Air Bags, Boxes or Other Freefall Catch Systems” tells coordinators, among other things, to inspect the seams on any cushioning airbags.

When federal or state regulators cite safety violations — as they have after deaths, for example — the guidelines have been referenced as part of an effort to show that industry standards were not followed. Additionally, SAG-Aftra, Hollywood’s largest union, has provisions within its contract that mandate, among other things, that all stunt performers work with adequate safety equipment.

Still, some industry veterans argue the guidelines are not enough.

“You can be on the 70th floor of the building, and maybe you’re supposed to be wearing safety equipment, but who’s checking?” said Joni Avery, a stuntwoman and stunt coordinator who retired four years ago. At 59, Ms. Avery has had nine surgeries and broke her back on the set of “Blues Brothers 2000” in a staged car turnover, she said.

Some stunt workers, though, feel the existing protections are sufficient. “Everyone takes the proper precautions,” said Jwaundace Candece, who specializes in driving and motorcycle stunts. ”We’re above and beyond safe.”

Peter Antico recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for president of SAG-Aftra on a platform that argued the union should do more to ensure stunt workers’ safety. He wants more mandated rest time and licensing certification for stunt coordinators and argues that ambulances, not just medics, should be required at movie sets.

“Yes, it’s expensive, but we’re talking about a human life,” Mr. Antico said.

Mr. Armstrong said that competency ranges widely among stunt coordinators and could be improved with licensing.

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A police officer examining a motorcycle this month after the crash and death of a stunt driver working on the movie “Deadpool 2” in Vancouver, British Columbia. Credit Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

“There are a lot of fantastically skilled and talented people working safely,” he said, “but there are also a lot of people relying on luck.”

Ray Rodriguez, chief contracts officer of SAG-Aftra, said the union had been an effective safety advocate. “There’s really nothing that’s a higher priority than keeping people safe on set,” he said, citing the safety training for stunt coordinators that is in the union contract, an increased roster of visits by union representatives to movie sets and plans by the union to hold safety meetings with film studios.

The union has not taken a position on stunt coordinator licensing, Mr. Rodriguez said, because a division remains on whether such certification is necessary.

Some industry veterans say safety has never been a compelling issue for some stunt professionals because many share in a culture of bravado that says one should push through pain rather than vocally press for change.

“You have a lot of old-school guys and gals from way back who feel like you keep your mouth shut, you work, you get hurt anyway, and that’s part the deal,” said Ms. Avery, who said she once hid a broken arm to remain working. “I was part of that whole mentality. It’s just self-preservation, and it all comes down to being afraid you won’t get work.”

Mr. Armstrong agreed that an aspect of that attitude lingers. “There’s a certain element, an old macho-guy element, that comes from the cowboy,” he said. “You have to realize that the whole stunt profession began with westerns, and there was this gung-ho mentality, if they spilled blood or broke something, to be proud of it. I loathe that heritage.”

But Jack Gill, who has coordinated stunts in movies including “Date Night” and “The Hangover Part III,” said that, while he supported some safety innovations, a certain amount of injury is inherent to the job.

“A football player goes out there and twists his ankle and if he still thinks he can get the job done, he’s going to keep doing it,” Mr. Gill said. “It’s the same with us. You’re not going to go home and cry and say, ‘I hurt my hand and I can’t get it done.’ That’s just not the way we work.”

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Source: New York Times

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