Some say it will never work, some just feel misunderstood, and others point out that lawyers have an incentive to forecast the worst. Still others shrug and say we have nothing to worry about because we are a safe industry and the real target is gung-ho forestry workers.
Along with a number of cinematographers, I heard all these sentiments, and more, at a recent meeting in Auckland about the new Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) which comes into force on 4 April this year, bringing with it a slew of new acronyms, as well as new responsibilities for everyone.
The New Zealand Advertising Producers Group (NZAPG) held the meeting to outline the impact from the commercials perspective, and explain their new online tool for managing compliance. They did the whole industry a service, since the principles of the new Act apply across the board.
Thankfully, while the meeting gave everyone food for thought, there is a large group who shrug for a different reason, saying, ‘this is the new law, let’s figure out what we have to do and get on with it.’ This is where the New Zealand Cinematographers Society and most cinematographers stand, along with, we hope, most of the industry.
Stripped of emotional and ideological baggage the Health and Safety at Work Act seems a lot less daunting and onerous, although it does quite deliberately spread responsibilities around: ‘it’s not my job’ won’t cut it anymore.
The key point for head of departments, like directors of photography, is the concept of a PCBU – an acronym we can thank the Australian legislation for, defined as a “person conducting a business or undertaking”. It is a definition that apparently covers any kind of management or supervision, to the extent of your influence.
Your health and safety responsibility is in line with your amount of control, so for a DP on a film set, it will be part of an overlapping responsibility for safety. This is a deliberate fuzzing up of responsibilities to try to get everybody thinking about and accountable for safety. As the government explains on their Worksafe website: it is no longer about asking, ‘Who is responsible for Health and Safety?’ it is about asking, ‘What are my responsibilities?’
Thanks to the Pike River mine disaster, the new law makes it clear you can get all the advice you want but you can’t delegate the actual responsibility for safety. Insurance can’t save you either. After all, a society where you could insure against fines would be a sort of anarchy.
If you only listened to this part of the story, it might seem scary. However, it doesn’t come out of the blue and the current legislation imposed a lot of obligations too, it’s just that this time government is hoping to prevent more accidents through a shift in working culture, where everybody collaborates about safety.
In any case, the legislation is modelled on the Australian regime and the sky didn’t fall in over there. Aussie cinematographers don’t seem to dwell on this stuff; their industry still operates just fine thank you.
One thing to make it all a bit more palatable is the current requirement to take ‘all practicable steps’ which now becomes ‘reasonably practicable [steps]’, a phrase that is sprinkled 120 times over the new Act. But the industry meeting was warned not to get too excited – what is reasonable from a safety point of view does not necessarily coincide with what is reasonable from the creative or finance point of view.
Still, part of the definition of ‘reasonably practicable’ allows you to include consideration of whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it should prevent easy lampooning of the Act by requiring asbestos gloves when drinking hot coffee – or whatever your absurd scare story happens to be.
None of this is news to those sober industry volunteers who keep abreast of this sort of thing on behalf of all of us (we should thank them more).
One response has been ScreenSafe, which is an industry-wide collaborative effort set up by the New Zealand Techo’s Guild. Coincidentally, New Zealand Cinematographers Society President Richard Bluck is a member of ScreenSafe thanks to his position with the Techo’s Guild. ScreenSafe came about from a project to update the 1995 screen industry Safety Code of Practice to reflect the new Act but it intends to provide ongoing Health and Safety information source via a website.
Another helpful response explained at the meeting is from the advertising industry, which is setting up Risks Manager, an online tool for recording the virtual paper work and evidence of the collaboration that is required under the Act.
Hopefully these initiatives will pay off. True, we are safer than forestry or agriculture, but fatalities have occurred in the past. Worksafe New Zealand’s most recent figures say between 2008 and 2013 the screen industry, suffered 127 severe injuries but no fatalities. Television broadcasting suffered several fatalities in the same period, although they had fewer severe injuries.
Of course, after listening to the distinguished speakers at the industry meeting, you could be left with the idea that safety is about filling in forms. This is a natural enough impression, but safety is actually about your actions and what you do. The form filling and box-ticking is largely about providing evidence to cover your butt when something goes wrong, although it can also serve as a memory prompt about the things you should be doing.
If you treat the paperwork as a click and ignore concept, like the ‘I agree’ button on software apps, you are missing the point. The point is this: to do things that will make working safer so that you and your colleagues will head back home in one piece. With any luck, you will even take some of your newfound safety consciousness home with you, because home is, ahem, the most dangerous place of all.
Image: The Screen Advertising Safety Compliance Information Evening, 9 February. Image credit: Peter Parnham