One year after factual TV director dies on job, workers speak out for safety
by Peter Driftmier
One year ago, my talented and beautifully spirited brother, John Driftmier, died on the job shooting adventure factual TV. It was by no means an isolated accident, though a fatal one: a plane he was taking aerial footage from crashed in a foreign country. The fact of the matter is that the hard-working people who create Canada’s factual TV productions are not being supported to make their workdays as safe as possible. In fact, there is a widespread culture of fear in the industry that is steering people away from speaking up to improve safety on the job. His death has helped prompt many in the industry to become more conscious of their own safety, and to speak out.
John Driftmier was contracted by Pixcom of Montreal to direct and shoot large portions of the show “Dangerous Flights: Season 2” which is currently airing on Discovery Canada. He was an accomplished shooter/director in adventure television, and this was his second season working on “Dangerous Flights”. The trip he was documenting took him from Louisiana to Kenya.
After completing the scheduled days of shooting, he did as so many people dedicated to doing the best job possible would do. He sought and received permission from his production company to get those extra scenic shots of Mt Kenya’s landscapes for the editors back in Montreal. The plane that he went up in to get that footage crashed on February 24, 2013, killing himself and the local pilot. It made headlines all over Canada.
These fatal accidents are the tip of an iceberg. Its bottom stretches wide across factual television and reveals routinely unsafe conditions. This results in more frequent accidents that are far less newsworthy. John’s fatal accident didn’t stand on its own. Two weeks before his crash, a cast member, a cameraman, and the pilot all died in a helicopter crash while filming an unnamed production for Discovery Channel in Acton, California. The helicopter pilot, David Gibbs, had also worked on contract for Pixcom to get aerial footage for “Dangerous Flights”. This prompted calls in California for a probe into safety standards on reality TV shoots.
Two years previously, a Canadian Director of Photography died from respiratory complications following a helicopter crash. Greg Jacobsen was part of a crew of four that were shooting aerial footage for the program Campus PD, produced by Toronto-based Cineflix Productions. The rest of the helicopter’s passengers survived.
The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) completed one recent survey of 328 people who work in factual TV, the majority of whom identified themselves as freelancers. The survey came back with some striking results. 31% reported working in situations that were unsafe for them; 37% witnessed situations that were unsafe for others.
For the workers who did their role on location, rather than an office or editing suite, those numbers are much more stark. 54% reported working in situations that were unsafe for them; 59% witnessed situations that were unsafe for others.
These situations don’t just look like getting in to the backseat of a small aircraft for an adventure-oriented show. It often means driving oneself to and from a 16 hour work day – day after day – for a mundane shoot. Or, as DOP/shooter Khalila experienced, safety-briefings from the production company only going as far as colloquial reminders to “be safe out there.” She never received training for safety regarding show-specific issues, like safety on construction sites, etc.
Anna from Toronto has been line-producing reality TV for over three years following a career on scripted sets. As the person directly “entrusted with the crew, the budget, and safety”, she’s been stuck in between a production company’s negligence and the crew’s safety concerns too often for her own comfort.
“When you work a fifteen hour day, or a sixteen hour day, you’re not coherent at the end… to drive home. And you’re not coherent to drive others home.” Yet when she has often asked companies for extra hands on deck to shorten everyone’s work-day, or for hotels so that workers would not have to drive an inter-urban commute, her requests have often been denied.
“There hasn’t been a show yet that I’ve been on in the last three years where there hasn’t been an accident because of (these commutes after long days).” Even with injuries resulting from these collisions, she has witnessed production companies respond that “it’s up to you. You could’ve chosen to not drive. They tend to wash their hands of it.”
If the production companies avoid liability, are they still willing to insure their workers? A camera operator informed me that at least one production in Canada cancelled its life insurance for its on-location workers where it used to provide a policy. This change was a direct result of my brother’s death. Contracts with this company now read that by signing on to work, the crewmembers already have their own life insurance policies.
It effectively weeds out the freelancers who can’t afford insurance, it implicitly encourages workers to lie about their own private insurance access for the sake of not losing a gig they were already working on, and it further off-loads responsibilities from employers on to contractors. Even being largely contractor-staffed, rather than employee-staffed, enables production companies to avoid many provincial Employment Standards labour laws.
My brother’s death was a wake-up call as to the extent that work in this industry can be unsafe. If worst-case scenarios don’t bring out the best in production companies to have their crews’ backs, what will?
James, a location sound recordist based in Toronto, has worked in – and witnessed others working in – dangerous situations frequently. He believes it should be up to individual workers to be “self-policing, and ask the questions” when it comes to safety.
“But that’s easy for me. I’m 53 and have been doing this since I was 25. So it’s easier for me to ask those questions than the guy who’s 25. And believe me, when I was 25 I was not asking any questions: just doing it.” His experiences of saying no to one unsafe situation or another have been respected.
There are many in the industry who, like James, think that “people should be able to empower themselves to say no (to unsafe conditions)”. Yet, others think this is a harder feat for individual workers to make reality than James implies.
Before Anna was line-producing in factual TV, she worked in scripted television on both union and non-union sets. “I saw people let go very frequently who complained, who said ‘This is crazy. This is really unsafe’.”
Now, in her non-scripted line production work, she has been in the situation where her crew has come to her with safety concerns. The protocol for her is to take those concerns to the production company, requesting permission to implement changes that would ameliorate the safety issues.
“What happens sometimes is the company says: we hear you, we acknowledge this, but we need to hear it from the crew as well. And then the crew is absolutely not going to say anything, because they fear being blacklisted, they fear being labeled as a trouble maker, they fear the company firing them down the road.”
And in an industry based on short contracts and freelance work, the companies don’t even need to go through the red tape of firing someone who speaks up in this way; they are simply not hired back.
“I don’t want that blood on my hands when (an accident) happens,” Anna states. She adds that she has often been willing to threaten quitting if a production company does not support her attempts to make the shoot safe.
“If more people advocate and put their feet down and say ‘this is not acceptable,’ then the companies and the broadcasters will hear it.”
Across the factual TV industry, workers face challenges in voicing safety concerns. Of the CMG’s survey respondents, more than a third felt targeted for voicing concerns over working conditions.
Karen Wirsig is an organizer with the CMG. She has been working with factual TV workers on the ground to improve their working conditions.
“I’ve talked to workers who don’t want their names used in anything that smacks of even constructive criticism of the industry because they don’t want to be blacklisted. And this is a group (where) 70% consider themselves to be freelancers, which means that they have absolutely no job security and they rely on their reputation to get their next job. In this particular part of the industry, in factual TV, your reputation largely rests upon you not speaking up about things. And that’s been very clearly conveyed to me by lots of workers in the industry.”
Let’s take a step back to look at the big picture of safety on factual TV shoots. That workers are currently disempowered to speak up about safety for fear of being blacklisted seems counter-intuitive. After all, shouldn’t it be the companies who fear something comparable to a worker’s blacklisting for putting their crews in unsafe situations, rather than the worker that speaks up for safety? Who is the real ‘troublemaker’?
Wirsig sees the need to not just look at labour laws when talking about how networks and production companies interact with government. Provincial and federal government agencies provide direct financial support, ranging from tax credits to the Canadian Media Fund. Furthermore, broadcasters are required to meet Canadian Content regulation quotas set by the CRTC, adding incentive for networks to broadcast work by Canadian production companies.
According to Wirsig, this amounts to “provincial and federal governments (being) very much partners in producing this programming, and they really need to be aware – more aware than they are – about the conditions under which this programming is being made. And probably asking a lot more questions around safety and basic employment standards on these productions.”
My brother’s death was a tragedy. It was also a wake-up call. For a couple of the workers I spoke with, it was a wake-up call to leave factual television altogether. This shouldn’t have to be the case. A loss of talent hurts the entire industry. Accidents should be learned from, with earnest steps made to ensure they never happen again. Workers in the industry do not have to go it alone, either, in making that change.
There is an old labour movement saying that rings true today for the people working on these productions. “Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” The safety of these crewmembers is worth it, because they are worth it. Just ask their loved-ones.
The Canadian Media Guild is collecting reports of safety incidents in factual TV in order to get a fuller picture of the situation across Canada with a view to improving safety. The Guild will keep the names and identities of the people reporting the incidents confidential. To share your story, please write in confidence to Karen Wirsig at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Peter Driftmier is a freelance journalist and food industry worker living in Calgary, Alberta. He is the proud and loving brother of the late John Driftmier.
The factual TV workers quoted in this article are named so as to protect their confidentiality.