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'Midnight Rider' indictment: Sarah Jones' death highlights safety on the set challenges

A YouTube video showing support for Sarah Jones, who was killed on the set of
A YouTube video showing support for Sarah Jones, who was killed on the set of "Midnight Rider" by a train.
Admin.Sarah.PSA (via YouTube)

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Prosecutors in Georgia have indicted the filmmakers of “Midnight Rider" on charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass in the death of Sarah Jones. The 27-year-old camera assistant was killed by an oncoming train in February, when she was preparing a scene on a railroad bridge. Six others were injured.

The tragedy has highlighted the motion picture industry's attempts and struggles to keep film locations safe for the people who work on them. It has rallied actors and below-the-line crew workers around a push for greater emphasis on location safety.

In a public service announcement launched earlier this week, actors Paul Dano, Heather Locklear and Jinhee Joung appear with makeup artists, directors of photography, production assistants and craft service workers.  All stare silently into the camera holding slate cards with messages like "We are all Sarah," "Safety for Sarah" and "Never forget. Never Again." The video has brought more traffic and expressions of support  to the "Slates for Sarah" Facebook page and Twitter feed.

"Most sets think of worst-case scenarios when making plans," said a caller named Leslie on KPCC's AirTalk Thursday. "Crew members have been devastated by this, and so much so we're trying to speak up in a way we may not have before. And when we do, we're calling it a 'Sarah Jones' or a 'Jonesie' so the community remembers the event and tries to prevent it in the future."

From the prop maker to the camera operator to the publicist, the motion picture industry requires many people who work on film locations to take certain classes on safety.  The classes are part of the SafetyPass program administered by the nonprofit Contract Services Administration Trust Fund. Veteran location manager Steven Shkolnik says the problem isn't a lack of awareness, but a lack of time.

"They make you take the classes, they try to put the liability on you, but they don't give you the time to do the proper safety checks," Shkolnik, a location manager for over 30 years, told KPCC. 

Proper location preparation can take three months, Shkolnik said, but producers often want it done in three days.  He said common sense and training can create a safe environment on a regular set, but shooting in a more unique environment — like train tracks in the middle of rural Georgia  — requires a  lot more planning and preparation.

The indictment accuses the "Midnight Rider" producers of being on the railroad bridge without permission. Shkolnik has worked shoots on train tracks before.  

"Train companies are huge companies. You can't get to the right guy and find out permission in a week," Shkolnik said. "It takes time." 

Every year, more than 4,500 workers are killed instantly on the job, according to Workplace Health and Safety Consultant Peter Dooley.

"The entertainment industry is very similar to a lot of other kinds of jobs — like construction jobs — that are moving from one place to another," said Dooley, who serves on a national advisory board to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Dooley’s nonprofit, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, highlighted the death of Sarah Jones in its most recent annual report as an example of how common — and preventable — workplace fatalities are.

What's your experience working on film or television productions? Share us your thoughts on set safety on our Facebook page (embedded below).