Slates for Sarah: camera assistant's death catalyzes health and safety in the performance industry

Apr 03, 2014

Slates for SarahSarah Jones had all the traits and more to be a successful camera assistant: organizational skills, communication skills, attention to detail, agility, and speed. Nevertheless, none could help the 27-year-old escape the path of an oncoming train.

On February 20 - the first day of filming on location near Savannah, Georgia - a freight train struck and killed Sarah; six others were injured. The incident occurred on a narrow trestle over a river, and preliminary reports suggest the production company had been denied a permit to film on the tracks. Officials are said to be considering charges of negligent homicide.

The incident has sparked international conversations about safety standards in live performance and production venues. Production crew and cast members around the world continue to memorialize Sarah's death by posting photos of production slates bearing Sarah's name on a designated Facebook page. Slates, or clapperboards, are used in TV and film productions to identify particular scenes and takes.

The industry has a history of high profile incidents. Since Sarah's death, a pilot and news photographer died in a fiery helicopter crash in Seattle, Oregon. Closer to home, a drum technician died in June 2012 when a concert stage collapsed in Toronto's Downsview Park.

Here in Ontario, several prevention efforts are already well established, with another about to launch. More on these initiatives appears below, including an opportunity to get involved. But first, an overview of industry challenges and hazards.

"Stunt work, explosives, working at heights, high voltage in outdoor settings, temporary locations, child performers - these are just some of the unique issues that can affect health and safety in the performance industry," says Vivien Wharton-Szatan, acting provincial coordinator of the ministry's Industrial Health and Safety Program. Just as varied are the

  • settings, such as stages, fabric tents, orchestra pits, bleacher seating, and temporary performance and event structures. "People who work in such settings, often on a short-term project basis, may not be afforded the same structures that you would find in a regular workplace, such as a JHSC," says Wharton-Szatan.
  • applicable acts and regulations. In addition to Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations (construction, industrial establishments, diving, etc.), performance sites may fall under fire codes, electrical codes, the federal Explosives Act, and more.

How Ontario's prevention system supports the industry

In recognition of Ontario's vibrant arts community, the minister of labour appointed a film and television health and safety advisory committee in 1988, and subsequently a live performance health and safety advisory committee. The committees are tripartite, representing labour, management and government.

These two committees and the ministry have created more than 60 guidelines1 to help employers manage hazards unique to this sector. Other activities include hosting symposia, conducting training sessions, and liaising among regulatory agencies.

In a complementary initiative, WSPS is launching its own Television, Film & Live Performance Advisory Committee, comprising representatives from WSPS member firms. This committee will join nine other WSPS advisory committees representing various WSPS sub-sectors.

The committees are a unique and essential component of WSPS's work on behalf of our member firms. They

  • provide a voice for their industry sector, helping WSPS set strategy and make decisions by identifying issues and trends
  • serve as a forum for exchanging ideas, feedback and industry intelligence, helping improve the quality and effectiveness of programs, services and products
  • assist in developing solutions for issues and hazards.

To find out more about WSPS's advisory committees, including opportunities to serve on this latest committee, contact Elgy Varghese, Advisory Committee Program Lead, Tel: 905 614 1400, ext: 2122 or email:

Watch for more on WSPS's Television, Film & Live Performance Advisory Committee in an upcoming issue.


1Film and television industry guidelines; performance industry guidelines