(Editor's note: The following article is submitted by a long-time COS reader, that looks at some memorable films and how workplace health and safety are portrayed in their plots. If you have any workplace health and safety news or commentary you would like to share with us, send us an email at email@example.com)
My only and closest brush with show business occurred when I worked for the demolition industry. A Hollywood production crew arrived on one of our sites in Toronto to film scenes for Good Will Hunting. Two characters in the film are young labourers who weigh their career options during their breaks on a demolition site. The scriptwriters used the construction metaphor to show the main character as a brilliant underachiever stuck on a demolition site, but clearly destined for a future as a math genius.
I remember seeing the film and feeling discomfort when Hollywood misrepresented my job giving it its own self-serving spin. My subsequent work in occupational health and safety has made me sensitive to the way popular entertainment uses workplace issues to further the plots and develop the characters in its stories. I began to list films where the characters are affected by occupational hazards or workplace health and safety.
The result is by no means comprehensive, but shows that health and safety is not a subject that fits neatly into the categories of thriller or science fiction or any other film genre. At best it is relevant subject matter and at its worst it is inconsequential to the needs of popular film culture. Indeed occupational safety issues shown in narrative film are used to set up its story and to define or develop its characters. Being used in this utilitarian manner means that occupational health and safety has a secondary role in art that I hope does not reflect modern society’s belief.
I suspect the problem lies with the difficulty of acting out the most important moment in safety: prevention. The idea of prevention as a potential film subject is beyond Hollywood’s scope and interest because nothing tragic happens when an accident is prevented. It is not fertile story material for the performing arts because it does not have dramatic possibility; an accident prevented is really a positive non-event. If nothing bad happens it’s good for health and safety, not so good for movies. A careful search beneath the Hollywood glitz and glamour uncovers no understanding of prevention, and a little knowledge of workplace safety and the challenges faced everyday by workers and their employers.
The following, in no particular order, is my personal list of films that have incorporated some aspects of occupational health and safety events or issues into their storylines. In the interest of full disclosure, my critique of the films has a professional bias toward determining how effectively they have grasped basic safety ideas like prevention, risk control and the precautionary principle.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Kirk Douglas plays a down on his luck journalist exploiting a story that will put him back on top: a man trapped underground after a mine collapse. The film’s theme though is not worker safety; it is media sensationalism. The man trapped is not even a worker at the mine but a local treasure hunter. Health and safety professionals will still agree with the film’s point that the media runs to a workplace only when tragedy strikes: if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead. Recent news headlines have included all kinds of bridge collapses, tower crane topplings and workers falling from heights; a few have dealt with in-depth investigations of workers suffering from occupational diseases, such as asbestosis and silicosis.
Urban Cowboy (1980)
I know, viewers only remember the mechanical bull, the cavernous honky-tonk bar or the two-stepping cowboys and cowgirls. A small town boy moves to Houston where his uncle puts in a good word for him at the oil refinery. Listen carefully at the film’s beginning and you hear the plant manager giving the John Travolta character a short job orientation. Some advice about shaving his beard because: “It’s regulation if you have to wear any kind of fresh air mask.” This refers to the real dangers associated with hydrogen sulphide, a nasty byproduct of oil production at refineries. Travolta’s character is later hurt in an accident at the refinery when he falls from scaffolding. He loses his beard but he doesn’t gain any personal protective equipment, like maybe a safety harness. Push the pause button and you will notice the lack of proper guardrails on the scaffolding and of other safety equipment. Health and safety professionals will also notice that Travolta is not offered modified work duty by the plant manager, and he is told to return to work only when he has fully recovered. His convalescence allows him time to catch his wife fooling around at the local bar. Later and before its climax the film provides Travolta’s character with some motivation through a workplace fatality. His uncle dies while at the oil refinery when a lightning storm causes a tank he is working on to explode. His bereaved aunt gives him a belt buckle his uncle won as a former rodeo champion. No more oil refinery or work mishaps from here, only a failed heist and the hazards of riding a mechanical bull on the off hours. The bar owners do recognize though the inherent dangers of their mechanical bull. They ensure riders sign a waiver before they are allowed to mount the machine. These hazards are technically leisure hazards and not occupational, unless a bar employee rides the machine.
In Moonstruck, Cher’s character needs to invite her fiancé’s younger brother to her wedding. The younger brother played by Nicholas Cage is a baker who lost his hand in a slicer while slicing bread for his older brother. The accident happens in the back story so there is no opportunity for the viewer to inspect the bread slicer. However, we do get to see Cage’s prosthetic hand. An inspection of the bread slicer would have given us the status, if any, of the guard or casing which helps prevent injuries to limbs. Was there an emergency or “dead man” switch? Were these safety devices disabled or removed? Was the baker properly trained in the use of the equipment? There is not enough information for root cause analysis, so let’s get back to the film: there has been “bad blood” between the brothers ever since the accident. Clearly the younger brother blames his older brother for the workplace amputation. But all is well in this romantic comedy where Cher falls in love with the baker, the original wedding is called off and everyone’s happy, including Cage who lost a hand but gains a bride.
The spaceship Nostromo returns to Earth from a mining enterprise with 20 million tons of mineral ore. Seven crew members are awakened in transit from “stasis,” or induced sleep, to investigate a mysterious signal from a small planet. And what do they first talk about upon awakening? They talk about work conditions and bonuses, of course. Too bad the space workers do not have access to a completed risk assessment report, or job hazard analysis, which warns them of being exposed to the hazard of alien life forms.
Standard quarantine protocol is breached when a contaminated colleague is brought into a secure area without waiting the required 24-hour period. The contamination theme reminded me of SARS, West Nile virus, epidemic emergency planning and visitor guidelines at health-care facilities. It also suggested regulatory requirements to provide workplace chemical or material information to workers, as in WHMIS programs, when workers realize they are exposed to the alien’s circulating tissue, which is not blood, but a corrosive acid like muriatic acid.
Needless to say, contamination does occur in the spaceship, otherwise our crew would be getting an intergalactic safety award and there would be no film. Prevention is really risk management or “accident avoidance” that is not amenable to blockbuster films. Even corporate safety departments have difficulty convincing management their real actions have prevented real accidents that have not really happened. We are surrounded with concrete hazards and potential accidents, even “near misses,” but prevention – or the exact moment of an injury avoided – is difficult to measure, even harder to capture on film. It would be like trying to calculate the speed and position of an atomic particle: physicists say it is impossible.
That is why in films generally and in our case, Alien, the hazard is actual, measurable and preferably ugly with lots of risk potential that can bring about really bad consequences. This particular alien has the nasty habit of injecting its seed inside host bodies, although if you’ve seen the movie the proper term would be “forced ingestion.” Now is an opportune time to review the four routes of entry into the human body for workplace toxins: inhalation, absorption (including skin or eye contact), ingestion and injection.
The mini alien then pops out of its host at maturity. There is no protection from occupational hazards as crewmates die one by one, devoured by the eponymous alien. Our space workers are now in crisis management mode as they plan to abandon ship and to escape in its shuttle. Only Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, and the ship’s cat, Jones, survive. In this film, five workers and one android die on the job, and only one worker survives the shift for the journey back to Earth.
(Hanging on the edge of your seat? Check back here next week for part two of this series.)
Francesco Tancredi has been involved in the occupational health and safety field for over twenty years