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Hollywood, Cal/OSHA Clash Over Set Construction

Film: Agency wants to enforce permit rule on oversize structures. Critics say state would lose jobs.


At a time when movie stunt accidents are increasingly publicized, concern over behind-the-scenes safety involving construction of movie sets has quietly triggered a heated dispute between Hollywood and state labor officials.

For more than 20 years, Cal/OSHA has not enforced in the movie industry a provision of the California Labor Code that requires an "activity" permit for the construction or demolition of any structure that is 36 feet or taller.

Then, in 1994, a Cal/OSHA inspector new to the entertainment business happened to be investigating an unrelated accident during filming of "The Indian in the Cupboard." When the film crew couldn't produce the permit for an oversized set, one of the producers, Paramount Studios, was cited.

The incident touched off the dispute about construction safety on movie sets. State labor officials now want to enforce this provision of state law, whereas the film industry believes the permitting is unnecessary and would prompt producers to work outside California. No other state requires activity permits for set construction.

Unlike building permits, which require contractors to conform to construction codes, activity permits require employers to follow worker safety regulations such as providing protective goggles for use with certain machinery and respirators for use with certain paints. The industry contends the requirements are costly, time-consuming and unnecessary.

Cited employers face fines of up to $500 and are required to obtain a permit. If an employer continues to work without the permit, it could be fined up to $70,000. Paramount appealed its citation, leading to the current legislative fight.

At stake are film and TV production jobs that in 1992 accounted for a total annual payroll of $7.4 billion in California, industry sources say.

The film industry is backing a bill, SB 987, that would grant Hollywood a legal exemption from the permit requirement. Introduced by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), it is expected to be voted on by the Senate and Assembly by the end of the month.

Walt Disney, MCA/Universal and the four TV networks have joined with labor unions--the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 40, the Teamsters Local 399 and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor--to support the bill.

"We follow the safety guidelines that are issued by Cal/OSHA and the studio, but there are always a certain amount of accidents that can't be prevented," says Marco A. Campos, general foreman on the Twentieth Century Fox hit film "Independence Day." Campos, who has worked in set construction for 18 years, says the permit process will hinder production without improving safety.

Since 1974, when Section 6500 of the Labor Code was adopted, the word "structure" had never been interpreted to refer to temporary plywood movie sets.

When the question arose, "we all kind of scratched our heads and said, 'Yeah, that looks like it applies,' " says Mark Carleson, Cal/OSHA's deputy chief for field operations.

The California Labor Federation has been vocally opposing the proposed exemption.

"Some of these workers are building sets that are over three stories high, so we are concerned for their protection," says John F. Henning, the federation's former executive secretary-treasurer. Furthermore, they say, exempting one industry could prompt similar requests from other industries.

But the entertainment community contends that the labor code provision was intended for the construction of permanent structures such as high-rise offices and freeway overpasses.

"Every film has its own safety challenges, and in spite of the complexity of all the things we do, our safety record is such that our industry has a 'low hazard' rating, which is comparable to a law office or a bank," says Gini Barrett, senior vice president for the Public Affairs Coalition of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. "It's a real tribute to the men and women who work in this business."

Indeed, the industry's safety record seems to support their position. After reviewing hard data for a five-year period, along with anecdotal information dating back to the late 1970s, "none of us could remember or find a case where there was a relationship between the construction of a set over 36 feet in height and an injury accident," says Cal/OSHA's Carleson.

These findings may prompt the labor federation to withdraw its opposition to the bill.

Cal/OSHA remained neutral on the exemption, as is its policy. But Lee Klein, the Cal/OSHA district manager who wrote the permit policy manual, says such permitting is in workers' best interests.

Since movie sets go up and down all day, requiring a separate permit for every job, which would be required under current law, is difficult. As an alternative, labor leaders propose an "annual" activity permit.

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