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Safety through Hollywood's lens - Part 2 of 2

By Francesco Tancredi

Last week, we featured part one of COS reader Francesco Tancredi’s analysis of Hollywood’s portrayal of workplace health and safety issues in films.  Part two continues with number four on his list of films.[em]


5.    The Ten Commandments (1956) Slave labourers are forced to build pyramids and obelisks for the Egyptian pharaoh. There is no consideration for safety in one scene where a worker is caught in a huge block of stone being slid into place. Losing a labourer in a crushing accident is collateral damage for the evil taskmaster so a fellow slave labourer stops the work, saving our damsel in distress. In this case our hero does not have the right to refuse unsafe work, but puts the principle into practice anyway. Moses (played by the late Charlton Heston) is sympathetic to worker health and safety, even personally intervening in one scene, but earns the distrust and jealousy of his half-brother, Ramses.  

6.    Norma Rae (1979) This film is primarily about a woman’s struggle to organize a union at the cotton mill where she works.  The first scene shows her concerned for her mother, who also works at the mill, because she suspects her mother is suffering from hearing loss. Throughout the film the sound from the cotton mill machines is deafening.  The physical hazard of noise in this industrial workplace has been captured perfectly by the filmmakers.  Personal protective equipment is seen when a union organizer is given hearing protection by management before he enters the mill.  


At a meeting the union organizer tells workers the gathering is about their “health, a decent wage, a fit place to work.”  During another meeting a worker reports that her husband recently died of “the brown lung.”  Brown lung disease, or byssinosis, is an occupational lung disease affecting cotton mill workers and other textile workers.  No one in the film is shown suffering from the effects of breathing cotton dust.  However, actor Sally Field, who plays Norma Rae, reports wheezing herself after only a couple of weeks working at the mill.  The film’s director reportedly mused that the workers did not wear the masks provided by the company because it was a “kind of suicide.”  There is no mention of the existence or effectiveness of worker training, company health and safety policies or government regulations.  


Later in the film a worker dies from the effects of work-related stress.  The “stretch out,” or multi-shifted, three-day compressed work week has been sanctioned by the company to discourage union activity.  Norma Rae’s father appears to die from a heart attack at the mill caused by the forced work acceleration.      


Norma Rae seems true to life because it was filmed in an operating cotton mill with the actual workers as extras. If you pay attention you can see a sign at the mill that says, “Wear goggles when using grinder.”

7.    Outland (1981) Sean Connery plays Marshal O’Neil who is responsible for law enforcement of a mining colony on Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon.  Miners are dying gruesome deaths on the job and O’Neil tries his hand at some workplace accident investigation.  He is helped in his investigation by the corporate doctor.  The doctor tells O’Neil that blood samples of the two workers share a common substance – a mysterious amphetamine-type drug which increases worker productivity, but has the side-effect of psychosis leading to death.  His investigation reveals a corporate-sponsored scheme to provide workers with drugs in order to increase their productivity.      


The Marshal then faces his own occupational hazards when assassins are dispatched to murder him before he can reveal the results of his investigation and put a stop to the unsafe work practice. In real life, the opposite case applies where some companies run employee drug testing programs and conduct pre-employment screenings to ensure drug or substance abuse does not cause work accidents.  

8.    Ladder 49 (2004) This film continues a long tradition of using the firefighting profession and its associated dangers for cinematic material.  A firefighter is trapped in a burning grain warehouse.  The fire causes the grain to set off a series of explosions that make rescue attempts by his unit difficult, and maybe impossible.  


In a series of flashbacks, the trapped firefighter recalls his career with the fire department.  As a rookie, his fellow firefighters show him the safe and proper procedures for extinguishing a fire.  His other flashbacks include the loss of one colleague in the line of duty and seeing a horrific injury sustained by another colleague while searching for victims at an industrial facility.  


The occupational hazards of firefighting are perfectly set up in the film to prepare us for the death of the trapped firefighter.  The firefighter accepts his fate as all rescue routes are blocked either by fire or the collapsing structure and the search mission is abandoned by his unit.  There is a fitting tribute given by his colleagues at the end of the film for a worker who has made the ultimate sacrifice.  The problem with this film is that it ignores the fact that firefighters are also dying from occupational diseases and non-traumatic injuries such as “cardiovascular events,” the most frequent cause of death for firefighters.?


The film industry itself has had to revisit its own health and safety policies in high profile and widely-publicized accidents.  Actor Vic Morrow and two child actors died on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982) in a sequence involving a helicopter and pyrotechnics; actors Brandon Lee and Jon-Erik Hexum died on movie sets from gun prop-related deaths in separate incidents; a stuntman died in Toronto during the filming of Exit Wounds, and a filmworker was fatally crushed in 2007 on the set of Jumper.  The film industry takes the issue seriously having organized a safety committee and also publishing Safety Guidelines for the Film and Television Industry in Ontario.  The Ontario Ministry of Labour has even published a safety guideline for the live performance industry.? Film art has not always been inspired by the real progress other industries have experienced through accident prevention, risk management and safety audit programs.         


Most of the films mentioned above are unsatisfactory from an occupational health and safety point of view.  The films created by Hollywood are popular entertainments produced for mass consumption.  Only Norma Rae has had some positive social impact (a judge mentions the film in a landmark decision regarding unions in the textile industry).  At best, narrative film is interested in catastrophe and accident reconstruction in order to create disaster entertainments such as Titanic, Towering Inferno and the recent Knowing.         


The documentary format, in print or film, seems better suited to investigate unsafe working conditions in the office or the factory or on the construction site and it could also suggest the idea of prevention, or at least the ways of preventing an unsafe situation in the workplace.  Norma Rae was based on an in-depth article in The New York Times Magazine.  A Canadian film documentary, such as Hogg’s Hollow: A Tragedy Unveiled (2003), about the tunnel collapse deaths of five workers in Toronto on St. Patrick’s Day, 1960, captures the devastating effect of the workplace tragedy on family members, and even covers the unsafe working conditions and the inquest findings.      


Film documentaries are not without their limitations in accurately portraying all aspects of a health and safety issue.  For example, both The Devil’s Miner (2005) and Grito de Piedra (2006) investigate child labour and dangerous work conditions at the Cerro Rico mine in Bolivia.  Although both mention the hazards of “black lung,” or silicosis, neither documentary visits the local hospital to film the dying workers.  This omission is made up partly by photojournalist Stephen Ferry in his book I am Rich Potosí in images of the workers at Caja Nacional hospital.           


Health and safety professionals will have noticed a wide gap between Hollywood fiction and documentary fact.  Somewhere in the workplace is the truth about occupational health and safety.  Maybe it will take a very talented scriptwriter to sell a story about a character who prevents accidents.  In future I hope the concepts of prevention, risk control and the precautionary principle enter the public consciousness through all media and the arts in order to benefit everyone’s well-being.

Francesco Tancredi has been involved in the occupational health and safety field for over 20 years.

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