This past week, we learned that Gordon Billings, a UK props master, died from exposure to asbestos. Billings had suffered from shortness of breath and coughing for awhile, and passed away from lung cancer this past August. It was not until last week that the coroner issued his ruling that Billings’ death was due to asbestos exposure.
As a props master, Billings worked on films such as Empire of the Sun and TV series like The Sweeney. Part of his job was sweeping dust and debris from derelict buildings used as sets. Before his death, he had made a witness statement that he was not aware he was being exposed to asbestos.
As props people, we may be exposed to toxins, poisons and harmful chemicals on a daily basis. We may not even be aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. The harm from some of these chemicals may not manifest themselves for years, or even decades, after being exposed.
We may be smart about the particularly nasty chemicals; the ones that smell really bad and that have warnings all over their labels. But those chemicals that we only use once or twice a year may not cause as much harm as those which we subject ourselves to every day. Many harmful chemicals do not even have an odor, or give an indication that we are being exposed. As with Billings, you cannot tell whether you are breathing asbestos or whether you are just inhaling dust. The two-part polyurethanes we use in molding and casting have little to no odor, yet can be some of the more toxic chemicals you come into contact with in a props shop. Cleaners such as Simple Green or any of the “natural” cleaners which have “Orange” in the name can actually contain chemicals which cause reproductive problems, organ damage and even cancer, if you use them without gloves or adequate ventilation. The list goes on.
Protecting yourself from harmful exposure to chemicals is one area of safety where you cannot rely on assumptions or so-called “common sense”. Adequate protection can only come from gathering as much information about the products you use, and building the correct safety infrastructure to deal with them.
It is one of the great downfalls of our industry that this kind of information is not taught as consistently or in-depth as it needs to be. Even when the desire to have a safe workplace is there, the knowledge of what that means, or the funds to make that happen are often lacking. A visit from OSHA can certainly point out all the dangers in a shop space, but the fear is that the company will be hit with steep fines or even shut down. One of my dreams is to have some kind of funded organization that could audit shop spaces for their safety infrastructure without fear of being reported, and train employees in proper safety procedures. The larger companies can already do this, as can areas with strong union presences, but there still exists so many smaller theatres and ad hoc film production companies with practically no knowledge of safety. Colleges and universities also suffer greatly from a lack of proper precautions, and these are training the next generation of technicians and managers.
Until that happens, it is up to each of us to protect ourselves. Know what chemicals and hazards you are dealing with. You do not want to devote your entire life working like Gordon Billings, only to spend your last years on Earth suffering from health problems.
Monona Rossol has been teaching health and safety to theatres since at least 1986 and is uniquely qualified to write this book.
So rather than a review, this is more of an introduction about being aware of your own health and safety, and an encouragement to read this book and act on the information contained within. This goes for those working professionally, as well as the growing number of hobbyist prop makers (I would say especially for hobbyist prop makers).
I’ve attended Monona’s safety seminars three times, and even with this book, I am still learning about the hazards we face in our line of work and the precautions we need to take. Luckily, she uses a very factual and empirical approach with this book. Rather than present her personal opinions, she discusses what the laws and regulations are. She will also present the various studies done where she feels the laws don’t go far enough in protecting workers. This is perhaps one of the more striking lessons to take from this book or her seminars; as stringent as we may feel OSHA is, the dangers we face remain woefully understudied, and manufacturers have great latitude to push untested chemicals on the market or provide misleading safety claims on their labels.
You’ll notice the mention of OSHA above. This book is very much grounded in the legalities of working in the United States. Though she may occasionally mention regulations in Canada, the UK or Europe, her focus remains firmly enmeshed in US law. Unfortunately, there is no real equivalent to this book outside of the US. All is not lost for my international readers, though. Since US laws protecting workers are among the most lax in the developed world, this book can be seen as presenting the absolute minimum guidelines for protecting yourself on the job.
While the book does deal with electrical safety, shop safety, fall hazards and other areas of physical danger, the majority deals with materials and chemicals and the less-understood danger of chronic exposure. We all know that you should avoid chemicals that could instantly kill you if you accidentally breathe them. What is far less understood is the result of your body somehow absorbing a myriad of chemicals and products throughout the day and over the years you are in the workforce. Some of these can live in your body for years, reacting in unknown ways with all of your genes and the other chemicals present in your body. Steve McQueen died from mesothelioma at a time when asbestos was used frequently in the theatre and film industry for painting and prop making; what are you being exposed to?
If you’ve never given thought to any of this, this book will be overwhelming in the information it provides. You may think we are safer these days with our stronger laws and new products. After all, lead paint only comes from China and we don’t use crazy materials like Celastic anymore. But as Monona points out, lead has only been banned in indoor house paint; it can still be found in any number of industrial paints. Some filling materials and putties were still being taken from a mine which contained asbestos as late as 1998. We are also exposed to far more chemicals on a daily basis than our fore-bearers in the past. Every one of us is already carrying a certain amount of mercury, dioxin, PCBs and countless other chemicals in the tissues of our body (known as our total body burden); scientists estimate we carry as many as 700 contaminants regardless of where we live in the world. Any additional chemicals we add from our work place enter that toxic soup and can have all sorts of additive or synergistic effects. So it’s even more important for us to monitor what we use than it was for our grandparents.
This second edition is long overdue; the first edition came out over 11 years ago in 2000. Monona includes many of the important changes to the laws as well as advancements in the science behind the effects of the chemicals (both of which have a lot owed to Monona’s own tireless work), and the addition of new types of products in the marketplace, such as nanoparticles. Unfortunately, the through-line remains the same: companies don’t want to spend money on safety training, manufacturers add more toxic products to the market, scientists can’t afford to study even a small percentage of their effects on the body, and governments refuse to pass stronger laws or give their agencies the power to enforce existing ones.
Until all that changes, though, we have this book. Read it and use it.
Ten years ago this weekend, I was working as a stagehand apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. I’ve gathered some news stories about how fellow technical theatre and film employees stepped in and helped out on September 11th and its aftermath. If you know of any others, leave a comment or drop me an email.
Local 52 is coordinating with New York-based Production Houses that are providing generators and back-up equipment at no charge. Studio Mechanics are working voluntarily (at no compensation) around the clock manning spot lights, flood lights, torches and mechanical cutters to cut through the steel, concrete and other debris in efforts to rescue those who may be trapped in the rubble.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, Musco Lighting received a call from the NYPD requesting the use of its mobile lighting trucks.
Another story of people in our industry pitching in comes from Charlie Libin, a DP/grip who, along with David Skutch of Luminaria Ltd., have been volunteering to help with the lighting at the World Trade Center site.
“On Wednesday, the city wanted to use Pier 94 as a morgue and asked us to put up drapes and lights to create a welcoming place for the families,” explains Longert. “On Thursday they changed their minds and asked us to help in the construction of the Family Assistance Center.”
“In five minutes the Local 52 crew and I got it up and running.” With some supplemental lighting from the Law & Order lighting package, they turned a darkened sound stage into a makeshift hospital.
In the wake of the horrific events at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D. C. and in Pennsylvania, the IATSE has donated $50,000 to the New York State World Trade Center Relief Fund, it was announced by Thomas C. Short, President of the International Union. These monies are intended to aid the relief efforts of the New York State and City emergency response, Short added.
In an effort to keep legitimate theater productions on Broadway lit, New York locals and the IATSE have jointly agreed to a 25% wage reduction for a four week period, it was announced by Thomas C. Short, President of the International. This decrease came in response to the economic chaos created by the recent attack on the city. As a result, five major productions including Chicago, Full Monty, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Rent, are threatened with closing unless substantial economic relief can be found.
Monona Rossol is well-known to many in the technical theater community. She has been working for decades to make our theatres safer, and many of us have attended her seminars over the years, which is usually the first time we hear about how hazardous all the materials we work with are. She was also one of the first to speak out about how toxic the air around Ground Zero was. In this interview at Green Theater Initiative, she says:
I live on Thompson right near Houston, and when the wind shifted on September 11th and all that dust and odor drifted uptown, I had my first ever asthma attack. They were announcing on the radio that the air was fine, and I said, “I don’t think so!” Any common-sense chemist knows that you cannot grind 16 acres of buildings into dust, with all of their computers, plastics, asbestos, fiberglass, and metals, and tell people the air is okay. So I formed an alliance with the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, and their lawyer, Joel Kupferman. I told him how to take samples and create a chain of custody to the lab; and we had our own samples analyzed. I did a radio broadcast on the 17th of September on PBS saying, essentially, “Are they crazy? This air is horrendous and people should not be cleaning up this dust on their own.” We did our first joint press release on September 22nd, making us the first people to speak out, and that was just because no one else did it.
Here is a funny item I found a few years back while cleaning out a theatrical props shop:
Once you stop laughing, you should realize it’s not actually funny. It’s serious: deadly serious. A container without a proper label can potentially contain any number or combination of hazardous chemicals, and should be treated as such. If you are just a hobbyist or sole proprietor of a shop, you should follow the proper labeling of chemicals for the reasons I give in the last two paragraphs of this article. If you work in a company with more than ten employees in the United States of America, then you are legally obligated to follow the OSHA regulations on Hazard Communication, which have strict and well-defined rules for labeling of products. You should know these whether you are the employer or employee (technically, as an employee, your employer is required to make sure you know these rules and train you if you don’t). The ten employee–rule does not apply just to the prop shop; the whole company is counted. If you count up the employees in finance, literary, scenery, marketing, lighting, box office, casting, etc., you will probably find that most theatres employ way more than ten people.
Part of the OSHA regulation on Hazard Communication (1910.1200) states what is needed for labeling:
“Labels and other forms of warning.”
The chemical manufacturer, importer, or distributor shall ensure that each container of hazardous chemicals leaving the workplace is labeled, tagged or marked with the following information: Identity of the hazardous chemical(s); appropriate hazard warnings; and name and address of the chemical manufacturer, importer, or other responsible party.
You can read the entire Hazard Communication (1910.1200) regulation if you like. It further defines what is meant by all of its terms, such as what constitutes a “hazardous chemical”, where to find the appropriate hazard warnings and other information of this type. Like many government regulations, the language can seem heavy, the wording verbose, and the overall tone threatening. Here’s the thing; in order for a manufacturer or importer to sell these products, they are the ones who need to abide by these rules. If you buy properly-labeled products from legitimate manufacturers in the United States, then you are already following the labeling requirements. If you remove or deface the label, or transfer the product to an unlabeled container, then your employees can no longer see what hazardous chemicals are present and you are in violation of the Hazardous Communication regulation.
During Hazard Communication training with Monona Rossol this past July (part of the 2010 S*P*A*M Conference), I learned an interesting caveat. If you purchase a product from another country, you become the “importer.” You are now responsible for making sure the labeling requirements are properly followed, and because US requirements differ in subtle ways from other countries, a foreign product will not necessarily have the right label. It also means you are the one responsible for creating the MSDS. What this all boils down to is that if one of your employees becomes adversely affected by the chemicals in that product while employed by you, you can be legally liable if the label and MSDS do not follow OSHA’s regulations for properly warning the employee of the health risks. If you find a product from a foreign company that you like and want to use, you need to find a US distributor of that product and only purchase it from them.
The regulation does have some allowances. You do not need to label the container if, according to the regulation, “the container into which the chemical is transferred is intended for the immediate use of the employee who performed the transfer.” Suppose you are mixing a two-part RTV silicone to make a mold. You pour each part into a cup to measure it, then you pour these into a third cup to mix it. These cups you are using do not need to have a label for RTV silicone on them because you are the one who poured the stuff in, and you are using the stuff immediately.
If you do not use it immediately, you may forget about it, and years later, someone else digs up a bottle marked “Kerosene?” I hope by now, you realize this is in gross violation of the labeling requirements. Because it is mislabeled, we do not know what hazardous chemicals are present, and thus, we do not know what we need to protect ourselves. Do we need to wear gloves? If so, what kind? Do we need a respirator? If so, what kind? Is this flammable? Acidic? Also, without a manufacturer’s name and address, we have no one to contact to get an updated MSDS.
We have a secondary problem; how do we dispose of this? Depending on local regulations, dumping many kinds of hazardous chemicals down a drain is illegal. Even without regulations, there are certain chemicals that should not be dumped down a drain regardless. Without a label, we can’t be sure. The same is true for disposing of chemicals in the dumpster or garbage dump. Not knowing what chemicals are in this jug essentially make it “toxic waste”, with no easy way to get rid of it. It is quite a headache just because somebody did not feel like properly labeling or emptying that container when they were through using that product.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies