OSHA Upholds Safety Citations in the Death of Worker- Sarah Jones

On February 20, 2014 Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant was killed while working on the crew of ‘Midnight Rider’ in Georgia.  Film Allman, the production company, was cited in August, 2014 for one willful and one serious safety violation for exposing employees to struck-by and fall hazards following a worker fatality and injuries. Judge Sharon D. Calhoun of the Occupational Safety and Health Review upheld those citations on September 15.

The crew with which Jones was working was told to go out onto a train trestle while the tracks were live. Reportedly, the directors and producers knew that the tracks were live, did not have permission to be on the tracks filming, and instructed the crew to go out onto the train trestle to begin filming anyway. A bed that was to be included in the scene was made airborne by the rushing train and hit Jones, pushing her onto the tracks and into its path.  She was killed instantly. Eight other workers were injured.

“Bad management decisions have real and lasting consequences, and when those decisions involve safety, the consequences can be tragic. The death of Sarah Jones is particularly disheartening because it was entirely preventable. Film Allman’s management blatantly disregarded their obligation to ensure the safety of their crew and cast. They were fully aware that the railroad tracks were live, and that they did not have permission to film there. While yesterday’s decision cannot correct or reverse the terrible events of February 2014, we hope that it will serve as a reminder to the film industry that safety has an important, necessary role on every set and in every workplace.” said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA’s regional administrator for the Southeast, in a statement Tuesday.

Many who are familiar with the Jones story have asked themselves what they would do in a similar situation. If a supervisor has given you instructions to do something that was potentially unsafe would you be able to stand up and walk away? Would you trust that your supervisor had put your safety above budget and production deadlines? In this case, the crew did trust the assistant director when she said it was safe to go out on the tracks. However, they were not aware that the production company was denied access to the trestle not once, but twice. This meant that they were all criminally trespassing on the trestle,  and were in danger of oncoming trains.

Under the General Duty Clause, section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, all employers are required to provide a safe work environment:

“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

A large part of why a safety-culture can be seen as lacking in the film industry may stem from its project-based nature. Production companies are often created for a single film or series, such as in the case of Film Allman, and all of the crew members involved in the making of that film are employees of the production company only for the length of time it takes to make it. One might argue that there is generally a much larger emphasis put on budget and deadlines than safety. Standards and best practices are set industry-wide, and by unions.  Unions play a pivotal role in safety training for its members. However it is not up to a union to identify or eliminate hazards in the workplace; that is the responsibility of the employer. Production companies should take this as a painfully learned lesson to take the time to create safety plans and eliminate hazards. At the end of the day they will be the ones held accountable.

As a result of criminal proceedings, the director, Randal Miller, co-founder of Film Allman, is serving a reduced sentence of two years in prison, eight years of probation, community service, and a $20,000 fine for involuntary manslaughter and criminal tresspassing. The producers and the first assistant director will not be facing any prison time. Along with the now upheld OSHA citations the penalties could total up to $74,900.

There is no doubt that Sarah Jones and the circumstances of her tragic death will be remembered by the film industry. Hopefully it will prompt industry leaders to promote a culture of safety, despite the temporary nature of production companies.


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