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The magic of the extraordinary

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In film and television, creating the spectacular is often the big aim. Consequently, the risks involved in creating fantastic sets and scenes are sometimes just as dramatic. How do you do bloodcurdling stunts while keeping everyone around safe?


1st Option Safety is the UK’s leading provider of health and safety services for the media and entertainment industry. Its managing director, Paul Greeves, explains how the company mitigates risks in this high-risk environment.

1st Option Safety supports over 500 productions, venues and events every year, “enabling our customers to do what they do best: create ground-breaking, inspiring and award-winning content, safely”.

The company delivers three types of services: risk management consulting, specialist equipment and training. 1st Option Safety provides onsite support, medical services, risk assessments, online resources, 24/7 phone support and assistance with the preparation of health and safety policies, including high-risk security policy. It can provide its clients with specialised equipment, such as medical, high-risk, fire and remote location gear.

Scene from the TV series Strike Back. Photograph: 1st Option Safety

The company’s clients range from media and production companies, such as All 3 Media, Endemol Shine, Fremantle Media, Left Bank Pictures, Mammoth, BAFTA, The Royal Opera House and 20th Century Fox, to news outlets, including the BBC, ITN, CNN and the Washington Post.

Recently, the firm supported several large-scale TV productions, such as The Crown, Poldark, Victoria, Strike Back, The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and coverage of events such as the Winter Olympics and the Football World Cup in Russia.

Paul Greeves explains: “1st Option Safety was founded 12 years ago by two former safety professionals who used to work at the BBC. Now, we employ over 40 people and several associates with specialist skills. We support television and film production in the UK and around the world, as well as some venues such as the Royal Opera House, and events such as the Edinburgh Festival. We also train journalists and production staff who work in hostile environments and support some of the more adventurous television and news programmes made in other parts of the world.

From the mundane to the spectacular

Most of the time, 1st Option Safety operates in very high-risk environments and supports the rapidly expanding media industry.

“A lot of what our clients do in film and television is spectacular and involves stunts and explosions, including car crashes and sometimes even aeroplane disasters.

“There are also many other more ‘mundane’ risks. Any production brings together many people from different backgrounds that have to work as a team. There is a lot of construction work to erect sets and build whole locations. Lights are installed and there is a lot of elevated equipment around. The production crew often draws a large audience and there are many contributors who are not part of that team. All this has to be managed and meshed together, sometimes in dangerous locations and hostile climates.

A scene from the documentary ‘Everest Rescue’. Photograph: 1st Option Safety

“People are also becoming more ambitious and want to push the envelope further so that the productions are more spectacular. Moreover, TV series like The Crown are produced over long periods of time, employ large crews and involve lots of paraphernalia and moving parts.

“Among the more common risks present in many parts of the world are accidents due to bad driving, heat strokes, heat exhaustion and unexpected flash floods.

“Moreover, this is a fast-growing market, which brings its own challenges related to the scale of the operations: skills are in short supply and people get spread more thinly, while the demands are ever greater. You may not be able to source the expertise that you relied on in previous years because those people are already busy elsewhere. The scale of productions is also growing massively – they’re more complex, the sets are bigger and the locations are more extensive.”

Managing risks

“In an industry where the spectacular forms the core of the work, our job is to give production teams some comfort that that their work is being properly controlled, that the risks are being thoroughly assessed and that they’re taking the right level of risk to achieve their desired result. We want to find a good way of getting these things done safely. It is very rare that we say; ‘you can’t do that’, although we have worked with all sorts of spectacular things, such as car chases, boat chases, high wire walks and big explosions.

'Our job is to give production teams some comfort that that their work is being properly controlled'. Photograph: iStock

“We also have safety equipment, which we supply to news crews and to people going off to dangerous places. We provide them with safety jackets, helmets and medical packs. We also supply specialist clothing and equipment to productions that work on water, at height or in cold weather conditions.

“The production sets are usually very busy. People often borrow equipment from other industries and there is a lot of lighting, temporary constructions, manual handling and hanging of lights and screens. We need to be aware of the relevant rules and regulations and make sure that people are handling things in the right way, which should be obvious when they are throwing people off buildings and blowing up cars. Most of the time, we work with people who are experts in what they do.

“Some members of our multi-disciplinary team have spent many years working on TV and film productions. Others come from a security background. We also have people who have spent a lot of time in parts of the world with extreme climates, like deserts and high mountains, or in an austere environment where you need to know how to deal with dangerous animals, snakes and insects. We blend and match these skills to form the right team to manage a particular project”.

“We also provide a wide range of training for our clients to help them mitigate the safety risks in this business. We run hostile environment training for journalists and safety training for senior management, similar to the British Safety Council’s Health and Safety for Directors and Senior Managers course. On a slightly lower level, we have the Safe Management Productions course for managers working on television and film productions.

It teaches people about their legal responsibilities, the principles of safety culture, the primary causes of accidents, investigations, risk assessment, etc. We also have a range of specialist courses; everything from working on location to managing stunts and special effects. Two courses which are very popular now are safe use of drones and cyber security.

When things go wrong

“We try to prevent things going wrong but inevitably, from time to time, accidents happen because of the nature of the work. When something goes wrong, the immediate reaction is very important – how the company looks after its people, preventing any further danger, dealing with the scene of the accident. Gathering evidence and understanding what happened are very important. We assist our clients in that process and we urge them to contact us if anything goes wrong.

“We’ll make sure they do the right things, as well as advise them on what needs to be investigated and reported. The first step is to prevent anybody else getting hurt. Even so, we also help clients protect their reputation, give legal advice and help them learn lessons from the accident.”

How do you deal with people who want to do dangerous things?

“I am often asked how we handle stars who want to do very risky things. It doesn’t really happen that way. I’ve never met people who want to actively harm themselves. They often want to achieve that effect but without injuring themselves in the process. We work with them and help them figure out how to best achieve that effect. We have a lot of experience in doing this and usually there’s a safe way of getting things done. Many of those things appear very dangerous but they aren’t as risky as they look. That is the magic of film and television.

“Having said that, you need people who have enough strength of character to say to the client: ‘I don’t think this is properly controlled and there’s a significant risk of things going wrong, so you need to think about this again. We are paid to make judgments, take some responsibility and give advice.

“Although we must address significant risks, we don’t want to worry clients about every little thing. If we focused on trivia and things that aren’t important, we would very quickly lose people and their good will. However, if you’re addressing significant risks and doing it in a constructive way, nobody will regard health and safety as a nuisance.”

Beautiful, dangerous locations

“We often use people with local knowledge and an understanding of local conditions for this sort of work. Most British companies share this approach, although this is not always understood locally.

“The places that look most beautiful are often the most dangerous. Last autumn, we were supporting a production team in Panama, which was using a paradise island as a location. It was overgrown with trees from which grew poisonous fruits dripping juice which can cause burns and rashes, so no one was allowed to stand under them. Fortunately, the production team learnt about this from local people. This shows how many unexpected factors we need to consider while assessing risks.

“Overall, the media industry takes health and safety very seriously because many people in this line of work have had close shaves with danger, experienced accidents or things that left them with indelible memories. So, we don’t have to hammer the door down to get the safety message across.

“Our company’s philosophy is that we are in the market to help people do extraordinary things, while keeping everybody safe and protecting them and their organisations.”

More info on H&S in the film, theatre and broadcasting industries at: hse.gov.uk/entertainment/theatre-tv/index.htm

More info on H&S in the film, theatre and broadcasting industries at: hse.gov.uk/entertainment/theatre-tv/index.htm

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