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Film workers have been fighting for safe sets for decades. Here's one of the barriers


As more details come out about the shooting on the film set of "Rust," the broader question of safety on set has been drawing increased attention. So-called below-the-line workers in film and TV production have been trying to organize around safety for decades, with not much progress. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this look at what's been the holdup.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: A 2014 train accident that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones, the 1993 shooting of Brandon Lee, a 1982 helicopter crash on the set of "The Twilight Zone" movie that killed three people, including two children - these are just some of the higher-profile on-set incidents, but many of the risks people face on set are much more mundane.

KATE FORTMUELLER: People fall off ladders.

LIMBONG: That's Kate Fortmueller, a professor at the University of Georgia. She's also the author of the book "Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution And Exhibition In The Time Of COVID."

FORTMUELLER: There's also weapons, explosions, sexual harassment.

LIMBONG: Cars, stunts, animals, not to mention basic construction and electrical mishaps. Something that's felt across the board, though, is time.

FORTMUELLER: Being on your feet all day, all the kind of physical stuff - like, I have former students who have developed certain foot issues and health things just from the day-to-day work, which is just that - it's just physically taxing work.

LIMBONG: In 2006, the famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who shot "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?," released a documentary called "Who Needs Sleep," advocating for shorter working hours.


HASKELL WEXLER: OK, OK. I'm rolling.


WEXLER: I'm rolling.

LIMBONG: And it followed him talking to different people in the industry about long hours on set, drawing attention to fatal car accidents that occurred after 15-, 16-hour days, which is what happened to Brent Hershman, camera operator on the movie "Pleasantville."


WEXLER: The night he died, he had already worked four 15-hour days. And on Friday, it was 19 hours.

LIMBONG: Haskell went to people who are supposed to help, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, commonly known as IATSE.


WEXLER: Who do we talk to if we don't talk to the union?

LIMBONG: Tim Wade, then IATSE's safety officer, tells him, their hands are tied.


TIM WADE: Right now, until something comes up from the state legislature - or better yet, on a federal level - we are not able to deal with the long hours until our members say, hey, listen, this shows - the hours are getting long. Then we can go out and deal with it on a one-on-one basis with the producer.

LIMBONG: Haskell died with the issue still unresolved. Part of the reason why is the industry's fragmentation, says Fortmueller. And it's fragmented in different ways - first, by budget. So a small indie movie has a different kind of contract with workers than, say, a Marvel movie from Disney. And then there's geography. Safety rules are different in different places.

FORTMUELLER: California is one thing. New York is another. New Mexico is another, and...

LIMBONG: Georgia, Vancouver, Romania.

FORTMUELLER: All of these places where people go for tax breaks, they're totally different.

LIMBONG: And then there's platform. Contract language changes if a project is going to be out in theaters or streaming. Back in early October, nearly all of IATSE's 60,000 members voted to authorize a strike, the first time in the union's 128-year history. They've reached a tentative deal with Hollywood producers, but many workers have taken to social media to say they're unhappy with it.

Steven Ross teaches at the University of Southern California and has studied the history of labor in the film industry. He says rank-and-file members being displeased with the top brass of IATSE is nothing new.

STEVEN ROSS: Many of them may feel that they're being sold out yet again, that for them, the issue - yes, they want better wages. They want better hours. They want better benefits. But they don't want to have to work 12-hour days every day with little time in between.

LIMBONG: Because that's how accidents happen. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.