After a months-long pause for the film and television industry, contributing to an expected $5.5 billion loss in global revenue for 2020, many studios now have a safe way forward green light from state and local governments to resume production. Getting back to work is a relief for sidelined producers, cast, and crew. However, without a vaccine, it also means working under the lingering threat of COVID-19.
To keep employees safe on set, industry leaders have developed protocols that give studios defined requirements for pre-production, workplace entry, and day-to-day activity. Based on a white paper written to provide a foundation for state agencies, the resulting guidance is known as the Safe Way Forward.
Safe Way Forward Protocols
Originally drafted by the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA), the Safe Way Forward guidelines are a collaboration between DGA, Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and Teamsters and Basic Crafts (Unions).
Emphasizing safety, the protocol focuses on four key pillars:
- Aggressive testing
- Safety training for cast and crew members
- Strict adherence to social distancing and the use of PPE
- Development of a robust Health Safety Department, led by an autonomous Health Safety Supervisor
Notably, Safe Way Forward is meant to be a living document. As the landscape evolves and information improves, some guidelines may change. Moreover, each set will experience unique circumstances. This is one reason the guidelines emphasize building a team of medical experts who can respond to the ambiguities that often arise when implementing a single set of protocols across individual sites. Below, we’ll look at the specifics of each pillar and what sets can do to implement Safe Way Forward.
Training and Education for COVID-19 Compliance
Safe Way Forward mandates that employers provide safety training specific to COVID-19 for all workers on set. This starts with the development of a Health Safety Department, led by a dedicated Health Safety Supervisor (HSS) who is experienced in public health and infectious disease management.
Employee training should cover the following topics:
- Proper use of PPE
- Social distancing
- Infection prevention
- Rights and responsibilities on set
- Benefits if they contract COVID-19
The original industry white paper also advocates providing mindfulness training and education about mental health services to address anxiety workers may feel returning to set.
Moreover, cast and crew members should be educated about the risks of returning to work if they or family members have comorbidities.
Safe Way Forward Pre-Production FAQs
Who can be on-set for pre-production?
Only personnel who are absolutely necessary should be on-set during pre-production. Table readings and other activity not related to the set itself should be done virtually.
How should productions handle casting?
Casting should be done online in every possible circumstance.
Is scouting for locations still allowed?
Yes, but alternatives, such as photo libraries, are encouraged. When choosing a location, productions should consider the size and space available to allow for social distancing.
What should PPE entail?
Sets should provide ample face masks and face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer, and spray disinfectant.
Note: Safe Way Forward warns that gloves may provide a false sense of security and recommends them only for isolated incidents, such as riding in a people mover or when required to interact with the public.
Who is responsible for providing PPE?
Employers must provide personally assigned masks and adequate soap and hand sanitizer for all individuals on set.
On-Set Safety Plans and Health Officers
To implement the Safe Way Forward, productions must create a dedicated Health Safety Department, led by a Health Safety Supervisor (HSS), as mentioned earlier. The department should also include a dedicated Hygiene Crew, Security Unit, and a Health Safety Manager (HSM) who executes the strategy of the Supervisor.
Safe Way Forward Safety Officers
Health Safety Supervisor
The Health Safety Supervisor is responsible for effectively implementing Safe Way Forward guidelines, including:
- Managing the testing process, from start to finish
- Appropriately communicating positive COVID-19 test results
- Ensuring that cast and crew complete a daily attestation form (preferably digitally)
- Monitoring cast and crew for compliance with protocol
- Giving instructions at daily safety meetings (and, as needed, calling additional meetings)
The HSS has the authority to pause production if he or she identifies a breach in a protocol or feels the set has otherwise become unsafe. The HSS may choose to add consultants or staff with medical experience to support the management of testing and monitoring.
Health Safety Manager (HSM)
The Health Safety Manager oversees the practical application of the Supervisor’s strategy, including the Hygiene Crew, Medical Checkpoints, Security, and PPE implementation.
Under the guidance of the HSS and HSM, productions must follow the Zone System, outlined below, to protect actors, set workers, and office staff. Supervisors must also develop a strategy for workplace entry management that includes mass testing. Here’s a quick guide to the on-set protocol:
Safe Way Forward Zone System for Production Sets
The zone system separates on-set workers into two groups, based on their vulnerability to contracting COVID-19:
This zone encompasses any person who must interact at a close distance without personal protective gear (PPE). Therefore, anyone entering or working within a “Zone A” environment must meet the following criteria:
- Personnel must have a negative COVID-19 test result within the last 24 hours
- Once cleared for Zone A, personnel must be tested a minimum of 3 times per week
- In circumstances of close contact or exertion, certain personnel may be tested daily
Zone B refers to all areas on-set where social distancing and PPE are possible. In these areas, which might include offices, base camps, trailers, or vehicles, personnel must practice social distancing and use PPE at all times. This is particularly important for personnel who occasionally must come into contact with talent or crew members designated for Zone A.
The criteria for Zone B are as follows:
- Personnel must have a negative test within the last 24 hours to enter Zone B
- They must then be tested a minimum of 1 time per week
- They must practice strict social distancing and use of PPE on set
Zone C refers to anywhere off-set. Everyone starts in Zone C and must have a negative test before entering Zone B. No one can jump directly to Zone A.
Workplace Entry Management
A number of rules may apply to workplace entry. The biggest, of course, is testing. To ensure that only workers with approved negative test results enter the set, a badge system should be in place. Ideally, a positive test would deactivate a worker’s badge.
Rapid testing is necessary for the zone system to work. The longer studios wait for tests, the less effective testing is in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Under the guidance of the HSS, production managers should look for labs with the fastest possible turnaround time, ideally under 48 hours.
Testing should also fit the circumstance. When filming particularly close contact scenes, consider a CEPHEID test, which can be completed on-site in less than 60 minutes.
Employers also need a strategy for staggering cast and crew and hiring enough testers to allow for maximum social distancing without testing bottlenecks on set. The HSS is responsible for developing a process. Studios may also consider engaging a consulting partner to identify and source rapid tests, and labs with appropriate turn-around time.
Safe Way Forward Production FAQs for Safety Protocols
Who implements the Safe Way Forward guidelines?
The HSS and HSM are responsible for implementing safety guidelines. As an expert in epidemiology, your HSS provides the strategy, and as an expert in set production, your HSM provides the execution.
How do I find a COVID-19 workplace compliance officer?
Your HSS should have a background in epidemiology, public health, and safety management. Here is a suggested foundation:
- Bachelor’s degree in health & safety, environmental studies or public health
- At least 3 years of medical, nursing, or public health experience.
- Experience with commercial health and safety standards
- Familiarity with your state’s health safety guidelines
- Experience with infection control policy development and execution.
What employee training is needed for Safe Way Forward compliance?
All employees should receive training in the following areas: PPE, handwashing, cleaning & disinfection of surroundings, set entry qualifications and procedures, the mental health impact of COVID-19, protection at home, and preventing cross-contamination. Your HSS should receive industry-specific training, as determined by your management team and the Unions.
How do I know I’m following the most current guidelines?
Your on-set safety department and consultants, discussed below, should remain up-to-date about current guidelines. The evolving nature of COVID-19 in the workplace is one reason that Safe Way Forward recommends building a dedicated Health Safety Department that involves medical personnel.
What operations will need to change on set?
Sets may continue normally with a few modifications. Safe Way Forward recommends a 10-hour day, with limited crew pre-calls and early calls allowed for hair and makeup.
Is catering allowed?
Catering is allowed, but sets may not provide communal or buffet-style food service. The protocol also recommends staggering meal times to allow for greater social distancing.
What about hair and makeup?
Hair and makeup should be considered part of Zone A. Production should operate with the smallest possible hair and makeup team, and whenever possible, set up in a location that limits the distance talent must go without PPE before filming. The use of handheld face shields is also recommended.
Resources by City
Safe Way Forward is the guiding document for studios nationwide, but different cities have their own rules about the number of people allowed to gather in one area, on-location shoots, and other details that can affect production. Here is a snapshot of rules in the three biggest US cities for filmmaking:
A limited number of Atlanta-based productions restarted in July, even as cases rose across Georgia. To date, studios have remained open. To assist filmmakers, the state has released its own best practices and guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19, available here: https://www.georgia.org/covid19filmguide. The Georgia Film Academy is also offering free safety training courses to Georgia-based productions.
Hollywood resumed production on June 12. In addition to Safe Way Forward guidelines, filmmakers must comply with the protocols outlined by the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health. You can find those protocols here:
Los Angeles County Reopening Protocol for Music, Television and Film Production. You can find more information and updates in this living document: https://www.filmla.com/covid-19/
New York City
Production resumed in New York City on July 20, when New York state moved into Phase Four of its reopening plan. Although the SAG-AFTRA guidelines cover NYC’s requirements, all production activity, regardless of whether or not it requires a film permit, must also comply with New York Forward Industry Guidance. Productions must also comply with industry-specific State Department of Health guidance where applicable. More information: State Department of Health’s Interim Guidance for Media Production During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency
Additional City Resources
Snapshot of Success
As studios get back to work, some are providing a glimpse of what it takes to stay safe. Pinewood Atlanta Studios, home to Avengers: Endgame, has brought several thousand workers back to set for various productions, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The article highlighted three factors that have kept the set in production without incident:
- Test results in under 48 hours
- A badge system to prevent workers who test positive from entering the set, and
- An app that allows set managers to track workers’ symptoms between tests.
Other productions have also reported great success, including HBO Max’s upcoming dog-grooming competition series Haute Dog. As explained by The Hollywood Reporter, Axiom Medical supported the 12-episode season without a single positive test, despite surging virus caseloads in Los Angeles. The production utilized Axiom’s best-practice comprehensive layered approach, consisting of:
- Axiom Health Safety Supervisors and Nurse Testers
- OnSite mobile COVID-19 testing
- Axiom’s CheckIn2Work app, for daily health checks and symptom screening
The Employers, Unions, and Guilds Behind Safe Way Forward
Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers
Amazon Studios LLC
CBS Studios Inc.
Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Disney Television Studios
Paramount Pictures Corporation
Sony Pictures Television Inc.
Walt Disney Pictures
Warner Bros. Entertainment
Directors Guild of America
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)
Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)
Making Safety Seamless
Interested in learning the secrets of our success? Download the FREE white paper, Safe Practices – Successful Film Productions.
Axiom Medical manages COVID-19 employee, student, and public health programs in multiple industries, including high-risk environments. Contact us to find out how you can get started today!
Holly is an ER nurse by trade, but loves content marketing. She was born outside the box and believes everything is better with “sprinkles and sparkles”. She is passionate about impacting lives and uses marketing as her platform for sharing practical solutions to address real life occupational health challenges.