Danger Lurks in the Routine: Learning From Tragedy So We Can Better Prevent It

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By now, most have heard about the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust. Current accounts state that actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that struck Hutchins and director Joel Souza. While many are asking, “How could this happen?” It is important to remember that workplace safety is a team effort and we must learn from tragedy if we are going to prevent it. 

The prop was declared to be “cold”, meaning it was not loaded with live ammunition, prior to being handed to Baldwin. A cold gun may still have gun powder and/or a blank, one with no bullet so that it will create the illusion that a weapon has been fired. This is common, especially in a movie set as a western where gunfire will be a part of the narrative.  

Like so many things in the world of construction, we often take routine activities for granted. Many of the most common jobs we perform can also be the most dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) slips, trips, and falls, aka Fall Protection, are among the leading citations and injuries on construction sites. Danger lurks in the routine.  

According to numerous news reports, hours before this incident, crew members arrived around 6:30 a.m. at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Shortly after, up to a half-dozen camera crew operators and their assistants gathered their things and walked off the set. There were murmurs of unsafe conditions, including long hours, low pay, and discrepancies over who was paying for lodging. 

In the rush to respond to an emergency service call, large loss, or national disaster, logistics and safety can easily slip on the priority list. As professor Randy Rapp aptly puts it, intentional restorers must bring order from chaos. We do this by developing a process for our response efforts and training our teams so these critical items remain top of mind. We must check every item off of the checklist with the assurance that the item was competently performed.    

In Santa Fe, in the initial reports, an unnamed “knowledgeable person” claimed there had been three prop gun mishaps before the fatal shooting – two on Saturday and one last week, telling the Times, “There was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”

If this is true, this speaks to the importance of listening to the crew so your team can make the proper corrections with urgency. Issues escalate when we do not address them immediately.

If a crew member brings an issue to the attention of a supervisor, manager, or someone in leadership and it is ignored, they will believe that: 

  • Safety doesn’t really matter here
  • The company doesn’t really care about their employees
  • If further issues arise, it’s “not my problem.” 

Many “geriatric” (aka older) Millennials, like myself, will remember the surprising death of Brandon Lee on the set of the cult classic, The Crow in 1993. Lee is the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee and his career was taking off when his life was ended by a prop gun. Following an investigation, no criminal charges were filed over Lee’s death, citing that while negligence was a factor, there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

It sounds as though there may be a similar conclusion for this incident, but such a finding does not change the fact that between these two incidents ,two humans are dead and one was injured. Both incidents occurred using tools of the trade that were declared to be safe.

Many organizations have made public statements that safety is a top priority or part of their core values, and yet Fall Protection continues to be top of the list for OSHA citations. This is followed by Hazard Communication Standard, General Industry. We can and should do better at keeping our people safe with better communication, training, and team accountability for workplace safety. 

On a positive note, workplace conditions on construction sites have improved, OSHA reports:

  • Worker deaths in America are down, on average, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 15 a day in 2019.
  • Worker injuries and illnesses are down-from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 per 100 in 2019

Anyone who has ever been around firearms knows that rule number one is to check to see whether the gun is loaded. While this may not have been the responsibility of the actor, how did this safety check pass by the armorer on set? The investigation around Brandon Lee found that the tip of bullet had remained lodged in the .44 caliber pistol prior to being fired at the actor. How could this have been missed in an inspection? 

Advancements in Safety

There are aspects of the work we do that are inherently dangerous. With the advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI), many are asking whether blanks are even necessary on movie sets anymore. Are there similar advances in construction that can update our approaches to dangerous work? When these activities become a part of our scope of work they should be specifically addressed and training should be conducted by a competent person in a hands-on manner so that team members understand how to perform these functions safely. 

Many of the routine activities, arguably due to the high volume or regular nature in which they are performed, are also the most dangerous. We should take a three-tiered approach to safety training, which should be relevant, engaging, and hands-on whenever possible. 

  1. Regular all-staff training. Regular training on common disciplines that address normative procedures. Have weekly training to cover safety issues and monthly training to do a deeper dive. Both of these are great opportunities to have various members of your team lead the discussion. 
  2. Onsite training. Daily, worksite-specific discussion of the work to be performed and the best practices for said items. This requires training for site supervisors and project managers to effectively distribute this information. 
  3. Supplemental third-party training. All leaders know that your team members benefit from hearing the same message from someone outside of your team, so it is beneficial to send team members to offsite training and/or bring trainers into your office. 

As I share in my upcoming book, So, You Want To Be A Project Manager?, your company should view training as your internal means of apprenticeship. If you are an owner or manager, nothing should substitute for The _________ (enter your company name) Way of doing things. Those in a position of leadership need to download their technical and practical knowledge so that everyone on the team can practice the art of restoration in harmony with the vision and values of your organization. 

We all know that it is impossible to spend too much time on safety, so we have to do our best to develop the right mindset and enhance our habits in this critical area.

Philosopher Aristotle eloquently worded the call of intentional restorers this way, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Keep doing good things. 

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Jon Isaacson

Jon Isaacson, The Intentional Restorer, is a general contractor based in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of several moderately selling books and the host of the info-taining DYOJO Podcast. Content from The DYOJO aims to help contractors shorten their DANG learning curve.

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