Why I Became Interested in Workplace Health and Safety, with Pat Landers

By Pat

Published March 2020

I became interested in safety because, quite simply, being unsafe scares the heck out of me. 

Growing up, my family members had hobbies in which you fabricated or repaired things using your hands and various tools and equipment. While learning these skills, safety awareness was always part of any lesson or demonstration. Learning new skills was fun, making things was fun, but getting cut or burned was definitely not fun! So, learning how to use a handsaw to properly cut a piece of wood, for example, also included first using safety glasses and then how to position the saw so we didn’t cut our hand or leg.

My grandfathers were both Veterans of WWII and wounded during their service. For one of them, his wounds resulted in a partial amputation of one leg below the knee. Though I didn’t learn how that came to be until I was older, it was always just part of life in our family. It didn’t keep him from doing things like gardening, fishing, or woodworking. He brought me along during these activities and showed me how to work with my hands to make things. Whatever it was I learned to do, I grew up knowing that our bodies weren’t invincible. Things could happen to you that could cause you to lose part of your leg, or maybe worse. What I was learning about using tools and equipment enabled me to envision how someone could get hurt using them. Learning to do things safely was part of learning to do things properly. So, why wouldn’t you want to put on safety glasses, or use an oven mitt, or do anything that could keep you from getting hurt?

As I entered the workforce in the entertainment industry it became clear to me how much there was to learn beyond just using safety glasses or hearing protection. (Two basic safety items everyone should use!) In the scene shop that I worked in at the Guthrie Theater, I was frequently reminding people to wear their safety glasses, use hearing protection, use fall protection, etc. I began learning more about workplace health and safety and found it fascinating. I was asked to join the Guthrie Theater’s Safety Committee where we dealt with issues such as the safety of theater patrons as well as employees in other departments. That committee was effective in addressing issues like fall protection, emergency action plans, and more. Protecting workers became something I was passionate about and wanted to focus on.

You may remember the tragic death of Sarah Jones in 2014.  Sarah was a member of a camera crew that had been, illegally, directed by their employer to work on a set of active railroad tracks when a train came and fatally struck Sarah and seriously injured several other crew members. Sarah wasn’t the first entertainment industry worker to die while at work, sadly, but that tragic occurrence was a turning point for me.  Sarah was the same age as my wife, who also works in the entertainment industry. It was hard to imagine the pain Sarah’s family was experiencing. A fatal event like that should never happen again, and it made me resolve to keep working to do everything I can to make sure my fellow workers are protected.

The laws protecting workers in the United States can be difficult to apply to the entertainment industry due to the unique ways in which the industry operates. Generally speaking, the entertainment industry has enjoyed little oversight from regulatory agencies like OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration). Those days are over.  The United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have partnered with OSHA to develop industry specific training and educate OSHA officials on the unique work we do. I am excited and fortunate to be able to contribute to these efforts through my work as a Business Representative of United Scenic Artists Local USA 829 and by teaching this customized OSHA training, as well as other workplace safety training. People love seeing the work we do and we love doing it, but we shouldn’t have to get sick, lose one of our senses, or die while doing this work.

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