Interview: Ruth Denyer, director of production safety at Netflix

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Netflix is 25 years old. It’s a long time in the world of streaming and digital entertainment, yet the principles in risk management remain built on bedrocks which have stayed pretty much constant in that time.

We catch up with Ruth Denyer, director, production safety at Netflix to find out what managing risks in this fast moving and creative world looks like. And whether her job is as glamorous as it sounds…

Getting the theatre bug

Ruth chose health and safety as a first-choice career, studying for a BSc in occupational health and safety at Leeds Beckett University. But as is the case for many young graduates, the road forward was not obvious.

Job prospects in health and safety in the late ‘90s seemed limited to construction, or doing desk top assessments in banks. None of this appealed. But then she stumbled on an advert for safety advisor at the National Theatre: “I suddenly remembered going there as a kid and seeing Guys and Dolls and all these plays, and how amazing they are and how incredible the creative vision. I imagined doing safety in that environment, where it’s different every day, where the boundaries are being pushed and managing all the risks associated with that.”

Ruth Denyer: “One of the pillars of Netflix is context not control. I lead a dream team [this way]."

There’s a saying in theatre, that no two nights are the same. That sense of the unknown has kept things exciting, says Ruth: “It means you have to challenge yourself to think in less of a process way than perhaps you would naturally, because you’re not manufacturing the same thing every day. So you can’t change one thing consistently because it’s not the same thing – I love it.”

Journey to Netflix

From the National Theatre, Ruth took up roles including at the Prince’s Trust, but it was at ITV where she gained her experience in TV production safety, working there for 16 years, latterly as group risk director. She had a broad remit there, working on resilience and culture change as well as overseeing more operational risks.

It was a “huge decision to move” but not only had she followed Netflix from afar, particularly its approach to culture (more on that later), but a new opportunity came up in safety there.

Netflix had expanded into producing more original content globally (think Lupin made in France, Squid Game from Korea, or Sex Education made in Wales), and they needed to boost in-house production capabilities. Although Ruth’s move happened at objectively the worst time, mid-Pandemic in November 2020, it was also a moment where safety was a real focus for productions at Netflix.

The Netflix logo. Image: Netflix

Safety on multiple sets

The team Ruth leads oversees safety in production making for Netflix in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, UK and Asia–Pacific regions. It requires an eagle eye on managing the risks and what training and guidance workers on set need. “We look after so many productions, 20 years ago my role was much more focused at an individual production level but now it’s much more about how you work it out at the organisational level.”

Recent work has been to quantify the highest risk activities undertaken globally in Netflix’s content making: “We are using this to establish the foundations for safety across our sets, and make sure that’s really well communicated.”

Ruth says there’s a lot of work to do before the cameras are rolling too, to ensure people feel safe and confident. One initiative is Talk and Listen: “We’ve done a lot of research around the fundamentals that set up a culture where safety is important and a lot of it is around speaking up, psychological safety. Are we setting people up for success in their work, do they understand what they’re doing, are the leaders clear on the instructions [they are giving]?”

Supporting safety at this scale has not been without its challenges. “How you localise a global approach to safety is a real challenge, there’s a habit of saying ‘the way we do it here, is the way you should do it there’ and that’s not impactful.”

‘No rules rules’

A flexible approach is built into the Netflix culture and this is exactly what attracted Ruth to the company all those years ago.

The idea is that honest feedback, regardless of hierarchy, and a willingness to change and ditch things that aren’t working breeds innovation. “One of the pillars of Netflix is context not control,” explains Ruth. “I lead a dream team [this way]. You set people up for success, but you give them the context to enable them to go and they do the best work of their lives. That’s an ideal situation for someone to be working in.”

Crucially, it means that safety is not about reading off a checklist on auto pilot: “We focus on how process can support people and productions, we don’t have process for the sake of it. We have rules that are meaningful.”

The power of storytelling
Ruth’s other hat is as president of the International Institute of Risk & Safety Management (IIRSM). She’s keen in this role to explore with members – who work across the risk spectrum of security, sustainability as well as health and safety – how framing and storytelling can win support for their causes and challenges at work.

A lasting impression are the words from an early mentor who was the company secretary at ITV. “I would always write on the incident report the ‘IP’ – meaning the injured person. She said to me, “this is a person it’s not an IP”. The story you’re telling is really important but everyone switches off in the boardroom when they read that.”

She warms to her theme: “Someone’s got hurt because of something they did at work within an organisation or operation that these people [in senior management] are responsible for, and yet it loses it all because of the way you write it.”

How the safety community talks about itself also translates to the PR it gets – good and bad. “I don’t think we spend enough time talking in safety about our ‘Why’,” she says.

“In safety, we go for ‘dashboards’ and indicators, there’s so much more of a story that we don’t tell in a great way. Slowly but surely [safety is] changing its image, and my work is making sure there’s a space for the organisation to understand it and go ‘if I care about people, I care about this’. And why would you not care about people?”

While Ruth assures me that her job isn’t glamorous, it sounds like she doesn’t need the red carpet. “Health and safety is part of decent work and if we believe in decent work for people we believe that health and safety is important, it’s not boring and dull.”


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