Managing safety on a high risk TV program

Roger Graham (left) and Todd Sampson talking safety

This article was originally published on May 15 2017 and I was reminded of it this week when talking to a colleague about the management of safety on some of the current home renovation programs.

It’s a long and, I think, fascinating article that suits a leisurely weekend read.


Todd Sampson has created a niche in Australian television by challenging himself in mental and physical tasks.  His latest program is “Life on the Line“. What is intriguing about this type of TV program is how occupational health and safety (OHS) is managed in a way that does not impede the aim of the show.

SafetyAtWorkBlog spent some time with the safety adviser on the show, Roger Graham, to better understand the demands of advising film and TV productions on workplace safety.  The exclusive interview is below.

Roger, your career profile says that you’ve gone from military and flying, and martial arts, and other areas, into safety management, or risk management in television, in production.  How did you end up in that sector?

 I never thought I would.  I think the experience you get from being exposed to real world risk teaches you things.  And what happened was in the beginning when I was even quite young, everyone was constantly asking me how do I mitigate this?  How do I deal with this?  How do I, what sort of process do I have to put my mind into, and my physical apparatus into to get past something?

And then in 1980, I was approached by a stunt coordinator I was working with.  I didn’t know he was a stunt coordinator at the time, and he just said, listen, I have to rig a lot of stunts, and I need someone who can manage all the rigging and all the crews.  Could you help me out?  And that’s kind of where it started.  And the phone just never stopped ringing, essentially.

Why does that phone keep ringing?  Is there something about your experienced background that makes you a unique fit for that sector?

Oh, yeah without a doubt.  There’s a lot of people in this sector, but they don’t seem to have the same success.  And I think it has a lot to do with people skills, and you’d need to have an acute understanding of what the client wants.  You don’t want to be, basically a brake on operations, because there’s obviously the paradox of production versus safety.  But, I basically stuck to what I know, and try to get them a result.  Rather than be someone who’s constantly pointing out the negatives, I’m actually pointing out how to do it.

I am a safety engineer, that’s what I’m trained to be.  An engineer is someone who turns the theory into practical, and that’s how I see myself.  So someone, says I want to do a performance off a 700 foot building, I say, okay this is how we can do it, within reasonable parameters.

But that’s one of the odd things about the Todd Sampson, he pushes himself to the edge, but also safety is along with him.  Must be hard to balance up a series that’s about risk, and about being right on the edge of safety.  It’s sort of an odd mix, because you’ve got to be as safe as reasonably practicable, but still not stop the excitement of the experience that Todd’s going through.  How do you do that?

Well Todd has an optimism bias which you probably can see in the show.  And he sees the bright side of everything, and I see the negative side.  So we balance each other out.

But I never lose sight of the fact that we’re there to create a TV show, and I need to adapt myself to the level of accessible risk for the insurer, the client, and for Todd.  That’s not my choice.  I’m a facilitator with someone else’s desire.  So they say to me, ‘We don’t mind if Todd breaks his arm, but we don’t want to kill him,’ so I work within these parameters.  So I say to Todd, okay, if we do something like this, there is a chance you could get first or second degree burns.  Are you happy with that?  And he’ll say, yes, and I’d take that to the insurer and say, are you happy with that?  Because it could shut the production down.  And they go, no.  So we work backwards from there.

Essentially it’s all about context.  You know, I say to a lot of my students and when I’m training people, skydiving is dangerous.  But we don’t not skydive, which is the only safe way to approach it.  We want to skydive.  We’re going to skydive.  Our job is to make skydiving safe, how are we going to do that?

That approach you can apply that to flying to the moon, space shuttle, you can apply it to playing football.  How much residual risk, and inherent risk, are you prepared to accept?  And if you’re prepared to accept what’s left after I work out all the what if’s, and how’s, and all the shooting that goes into place, then we can sign off on it if you’re happy with that.

I tend to work it out using all the usual traditional methods of graphs, and herringbone things, and bow-tie analysis, lot of crap.  Just, mainly for their benefit, not for mine.  For the insurer’s benefit.  I feel confident that I’ve done enough in life that I’ve got most of the answers, well 90% of the answers in the first 10 minutes, and it takes me the rest of the week, or the next two weeks of the block to work out the last 10%.  Experience is everything.  Yeah, it is really.

We hardly ever see you in the program I think I can remember seeing you in discussions about the construction of a sliding rig for the fire episode when there was a lot of engineering.  Are you right there from the very start of designing the set?

Absolutely, it’s something I insist on.  When they first approached me to do the series, as with a lot of shows, I tell them that I’m all in or I’m completely out.  I said I’m not prepared to be basically a scapegoat for you.  I’m not going to sign off on things that I don’t know intimately.  It’s just not going to happen.  So, my paradigm is, I make myself central to all these things, and I make myself the first and last contact to the insurer, and all stackholders.  So, I feel that I’m working for them more than I am for the director or anybody else.  And I basically placed myself above that.

The director, if they want to make a move, they have to come and see me and say, listen, are you okay with us doing this?  Or how should we do this?  And so when the engineers start to put things together, I’m basically standing behind, and I let people go forward, I let them try their own discovery.  Nothing worse than someone who’s a complete know-all.  So, I let them go as far as I think they reasonably can without going off the rails, and then I step in and say, okay here’s a few issues we have to deal with, and then I’d, they, we’d basically backtrack a little, then we move forward together.

And, it works.  As long as you’re always respectful and polite, but always stand up for your position.  It’s very difficult when you’ve got a lot of alpha people in a room, and in film and television there’s thousands of them.  And everybody’s an expert.  Sometimes it pays to give them a bit of rope, enough rope to scare them, so that they turn to you and say, okay, you’re a big part of this, you have to be involved in much, the extent.  And to an extent, that’s what happened on this show too.

You’ll see that we have the wrecking ball runaway.  That was the first episode we did.  And, there was a lot of people doubting my role, and saying, how come this guy has so much power?  And he’s telling us what to do?  And so I said, okay.  You guys just do your own thing.  They had engineers up the wazoo working things out, and they just didn’t do something very simple, which was draw a line on the diagram of the building, and then put a circle around it where the ball could potentially go.  And when the ball did start to make an ellipse instead of an arc, there were things in the way.  After that, nobody questioned my role whatsoever.

You’ve advised productions here, internationally, and in many states in Australia.  How does all of this fit with the various safety laws and rules in different jurisdictions?  Is that a challenge?  Or do you simply say, this is the pocket universe that we’re operating in, this is the rule, this is the safety level?  Do you, how do you manage the different places in which you work?

Well, you hit the nail on the head.  I’m a safety scientist, that’s my profession.  Safety scientist, safety engineer, whichever one.  Americans call them engineers, we call them scientists.  Though the science is solid and irrefutable, and is the foundation of everything across the whole planet, so, no matter where I go, I apply best science to everything we do.  We live in a luxury situation here where we have very good standards around the world.  Generally, across Asia, the standards are incredibly poor.  I’ve had police knocking on my door after a bad day at the office asking, why did something go wrong?  They’re happy to jump on you after the fact, but they have no regulations to work to before.

So, we basically export our way of thinking, and our framework, or model for due diligence, and duty of care all around the planet, and it works quite well.  And that’s why people hire a lot of Australians.  Australians are actually very popular, not just in safety, but for being production people, because they work to a very high standard.  That’s why Americans are quite happy to fly me across to Hollywood, or Alaska, or wherever, to help them, because they know we apply a standard which is superior to their own.

Given your prominence, is there going to be a next generation of Roger Grahams in America, who are taking the Roger Graham approach, the safety science approach?  How does your knowledge get out there, and is it being accepted?

It is getting out there.  I do a lot of briefing.  I think over the last 15 years especially I’ve managed to change things quite a bit in television.  Movie makers are a bit more stubborn.  The people who sign the cheques, who carry a lot of the liability, but they, the fact is a lot of them just don’t know it.  So, I do take it out there and tell them okay, I’m working for you, I’m not responsible, you are.  I’m making your life easier if you listen to me.  And the message does get through.

There are a lot of examples you can show them.  The internet’s full of them.  Like, the French last year killed their entire contestant pool in, on the first day of filming their version of, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. [This is likely to be the event to which Roger is referring. Ed.]  I think you’re probably not aware of that, but basically it was seriously poor management, and they managed to kill the entire cast on the first day.

But we’re not just talking about the science.  The science is irrefutable, we know what the right thing to do is.  The issue is, is managing people, and getting them to understand, let them do your job.  I’m afraid when you work for a company, your hands are bound quite stiffly.  I have worked in mining for 12 months and I was told to just fill in bits of paper, walk around, sign this shit and shut up.  I wrote a lot of letters to upper management saying this is farcical and I resigned.

My luxury in life is I won’t tolerate working in those situations.  And I’m quite happy to walk off.  And when people get to know that you can’t be intimidated like that, the game play suddenly changes.  That how it works for me in the film industry.  I’m quite happy to say to someone, I won’t work for you and, funnily enough, it has the reverse effect.  They want you to work for them as you’re not this lickspittle, or someone who just isn’t interested in the job and just wants a paycheque.  They know you’re somebody who’s going to give a shit about their production, and work with them at the same level, never below them.

My biggest bugbear is that safety people need to elevate themselves up.  Now if that means it’s something to do with your confidence levels, these can be directly affected by your understanding and knowledge.  If you feel you’re not qualified enough, you may not be so go and find out.  Then go and get some training, constantly building yourself up.  I can’t stand it when I see people working in safety who literally are just administrators.  They’re filling out forms all day long and they’re having no positive effect on the environment whatsoever.

Forms don’t save lives.  As I keep telling people is, when you do a risk assessment, the paperwork is just a record of the process.  You must do the process.  Sitting there just ticking boxes, and not doing consultation and discussion and planning is a waste of time.  People just seem to focus on the administrative part of it; maybe that’s because it’s all they teach at a lot of the lower levels of a tertiary education.

But, you’re not an administrator who fills out paperwork.  You’re someone that comes with practical and valuable answers to problems, and you should have the authority to implement those answers.

I think, if there’s an independence, and an integrity, you’re often given the authority to apply those skills.  In the SafetyAtWorkBlog, we’ve been having a running discussion, and battle to some extent, about paperwork, and the misuses of job safety analyses, and SWMS, and those sorts of things, and the commercial…

 A lot of people have just been trained like buffoons.  I don’t think people even know what a safe work method statement is.  I mean they just seem to churn them out left, right and centre.  I have said, you know this is complete abuse of administrative work.  It’s not required and you know your client’s not going to pay any attention to us if we spend all our resources doing useless paperwork, and did nothing practical.  They start to devalue us in such a huge way.

When we did the Todd scene where he’s climbing up the building.  In one building, the city has a reputation for being over-governed by building maintenance companies.  Even just getting into the building to look at the roof can be cumbersome.  One building, it took two and a half hours to go through their induction, to be closely supervised onto a roof which was completely safe.  And I said to the guy, I said, you realise that this is just totally unnecessary?  “Oh yeah, but it’s our process”.  I said, well, your process is costing your client a lot of money, and time, and is just making you all very un-valuable.

I’ve done a lot of work in the rail infrastructure area and one of the things that sector has learnt is that you have to have a high level of competence and qualifications if you’re going out on the rail corridor by yourself.  But in most safety inspections, you’re always supervised. I mean we don’t seem to trust the people who we qualify.

No, that’s it, exactly right.  I get the insurers and the legal departments ringing me all the time asking me, “do you think this is okay?”  All we want is for somebody else with higher qualifications, I suppose, to say that it’s okay to trust somebody.  You know, do you think we should have six people supervising this shoot, or would you be happy with one?  And I give them an honest answer based on the circumstances.

But yeah, a lot of people are afraid to make decisions, because they’re afraid to be put in the loop of liability.  But that’s our job.  I’m quite happy to tell insurers I’m prepared to accept responsibility for something.

You mentioned insurers before, in that, they must be all over shows like Todd’s high risk shows.  Did the production company rely on you to deal with insurers?  Or did they have somebody who liaised between you and them?

They always have somebody, a general manager or someone like that who gains access to the insurance, and then monitors it.  But if they read the risk assessments, they often will get back to me if they have an issue.  Usually if it’s something that’s really dangerous, then they want fine detail about how it’s going to happen.  I put a lot of fine detail in my reports anyway, with that, so I very rarely get a call back.

But I did have one when we were wanting to put contestants in a pond with 300 crocodile.  I was going to the shoot, everybody’s waiting at the location, I’m on a backroad, and the phone rings in my car and it’s the insurer, and I’m on a conference call between London and Sydney, because they’re all sitting around asking “how can this be safe?”  I sat on the side of the road for half an hour going through every bullet point, explaining how it worked.  And then I said, I will be getting in the pond first.  I test everything myself, because, I’m not going to design a system and/or sign off on a system that I’ve co-designed with somebody, unless I’m prepared to get on it myself.  And, then they were fine. I think most of the time they’re trying to gauge the level of my confidence by my voice.

There is a lot of trust that goes in this business. That’s probably one of the reasons I get a lot of calls from producers saying, “will you come on this shoot, because I trust you.  I trust that you will intervene and act on our behalf, and make sure that everybody performs at the right level.

So if Todd Sampson has another series, and you’re asked to participate, you’d have no qualms?

 It’s great fun, firstly.  As much as we all whinge about our jobs, my job is pretty special and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I get to do practical things, crazy things.

When we’ve seen Todd talk about the show, outside of the show, he’s always smiling and relaxed but during the show he always seems tense. It seems genuine at the time, but that level of worry, right throughout the series, must take a toll.

It does.  You know, statistically, the more you do, the more chance there is something could go wrong.  That is in my mind all the time.  As we keep going forward, I ramp up the controls.  I’m constantly overdoing it, trying to cancel out the consequences of people getting lazy, and tired, and fatigued, and so forth.  But in the end, he, is overwhelmed by the processes in place.  He knows that there is a plan B, and sometimes a plan C.

So when he was on the building with the vacuum cleaners, apart from the fact that we had him completely secure, and I could get him on the ground within seconds if everything works. I also had a backup which was, I had a fire extinguisher strapped to me, and I’m a mountaineer, so I basically had a bag which I could throw over the side and be down to him in seconds, and put him out if he failed to move, on a plan B, which is incredibly remote.  The way we rig it all up.  But, I still need to have a plan C for my own satisfaction, so.

OHS involves dealing with the mental stresses and people may be a distress with some of these activities.  Did you have that role as well?

When you walk onto a set, quite often you’re probably the only person who’s got an extensive background in the practical side, as well as the theoretical side.

For instance, I was flying across the world to deal with a bunch of contestants who were feeling uncomfortable about doing some skydiving.  So, they brought me in and said, here’s Roger, he’s been a skydiver all his life and he’s a safety scientist. They had to pump your credibility up, so you could talk with authority at these people.  I explained to them how it all works, and how I do all the checks and everything like that.  And I said I’ll jump with you if you like.  By the time I briefed them and talked to them about the stress and the strains and the near misses I’d had myself, and how I’d learnt how to negate all these trivial things that need to be fixed, they were comfortable to get in the plane and go.

I’m increasingly becoming the most, the oldest person on set, and with the greyest hair unfortunately, so.

Kevin Jones

The Life on the Line series is available for download at iTunes, http://ab.co/itunesTSLOTL and for purchase at ABC Shops – http://ab.co/DVDLOTL

Categories design, emergency, engineering, ergonomics, insurance, mental-health, OHS, psychosocial, risk, safety, video, workplace

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