Sleepless in Hollywood: A Threat to Health and Safety

I love to make films. But the health of my fellow film workers and citizens is more important than anything on the silver screen. Government regulators seem afraid to confront Hollywood, and they have fallen short on protecting workers' hours in our industry.
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Tonight or early tomorrow morning in the Los Angeles area, hundreds of sleep-deprived film workers will be driving home after work in a state equivalent to legal drunkenness. Their unnecessary fatigue threatens their health and safety and the community at large.

When you hear the word "Hollywood" it's easy to think of the so-called rich and famous, the ones on Entertainment Tonight. But in fact most of the people who make up the film industry -- the cameramen and gaffers and editors and all the others -- are not "celebrities." The vast majority are the people behind the scenes -- the ones who routinely work 70+ hour weeks. These long hours are the industry standard -- scheduled and on the call sheet. If someone balks at that overload, there are 20 others standing by ready take the job.

Fifteen years ago this month, Brent Hershman, an assistant cameraman on the film Pleasantville, drove home after working a 19-hour day. Exhausted, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car. He was killed. Brent's preventable death led me to begin my documentary Who Needs Sleep? which I finished in 2006.

Since his death, Brent's crew and friends have lobbied the film industry to "limit our workday to 14 hours, beginning at the call and ending when the last person is wrapped," saying that "the workforce in our industry has persevered for too long without such a vital safety guideline in place."

I've tried to carry on their message. On the Internet and with my camera in Washington, D.C., I have been calling attention to the fact that working long hours takes a toll on our health, safety, and family lives.

The medical evidence on sleep deprivation is alarming.

In Who Needs Sleep, Dr. William Dement, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine, warns that sleep deprivation and long hours form a lethal combination. Sleep deprivation has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, cognitive and mood changes, and heart disease.

Col. Gregory Belenky, M.D. of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, was assigned to find ways to keep soldiers awake. Because of the extensive resources of the military, he was able to discover compelling evidence demonstrating how critical sleep is to health and safety. In the film, he shows us an example of sleep-deprived pilots who crashed their plane because of their diminished cognitive abilities due to lack of sleep.

But government regulators seem afraid or unwilling to confront Hollywood, and they have fallen short on protecting workers' hours in our industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is chartered "to help workers come home alive and healthy at the end of the day." But OSHA tries to dodge the issue -- they've told me that perhaps we should take it up with our union, or with the employer.

We wouldn't want the Food and Drug Administration to let supermarkets sell rotten meat, yet somehow grossly overtired workers are asked to operate machinery on movie sets and public highways, where nearly one in five fatalities is related to drowsy driving. That's the fault of government regulators. When OSHA ignores its charter and fails to oversee safety, the agency leaves the well being of workers and the public to market forces. That allows producers to take the cheapest way out. Long hours and disregard for the human need for sleep is a case of corporate values outweighing human values.

But nothing has changed in our industry. Long hours are still as routine as when Brent was killed. Back-to-back 16+ hour days are still routine. We work late on Fridays deep into Saturday -- it's what we call the Lost Weekend.

There's nothing I love more than making films. But the health of my fellow film workers and citizens is more important than anything on the silver screen. Long hours can be an acceptable part of our work, but repeated excessively-long shifts and short turnaround times that leave us chronically sleep deprived are not.

This is about our lives and the threat to public safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration paints a dark picture of tired and distracted driving deaths, citing texting, emailing, surfing the Web, eating meals. In accident reports, police check for alcohol and drugs -- and now they include "asleep at the wheel" as a cause. People who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in such a crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more, while people sleeping less than 5 hours increased their risk four to five times, according to a AAA report.

To stay awake on a late-night set, we down gallons of coffee and Red Bull -- or reach for the medicine cabinet. Common pills are Vivarin, NoDoz, Stay Alert, and Provigil. With quick turnaround time, we are obliged to shortchange our families and ourselves. Sleeping fast requires help: Alluna, Lunesta, or Ambien are common among the sleep deprived.

There's a line in Who Needs Sleep that goes like this: "the only thing we own is our time." Dr. Eve Van Cauter points out that "sleep deprivation is unique to the human. There is no other animal that sleep-deprives itself." Stretched thin, on little sleep at our jobs, I wonder if we really own our time anymore.

While making Who Needs Sleep, I was driving home after 14 hours of work. I knew I was tired, but I opened the windows and played the radio, confident I stay keep awake. But sometimes you can't will yourself to stay up if you're overtired. The lights went out. My beautiful '87 El Camino was totaled. Hanging upside down by my seatbelt, I could hear the paramedics ask each other, "You think he's alive?"

During the course of making my documentary, there were three deaths. One of them was my friend Conrad Hall, the Oscar-winning cinematographer.

From the hospital, he gave Roger Deakins, a mutual friend and cinematographer, and me a statement that he wanted to make public:

As Directors of Photography, our responsibility is to the visual image of the film as well as the well-being of our crew. The continuing and expanding practice of working extreme hours can compromise both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others.

He knew I was making the film, and he urged me to finish it and to get it out.

That's what led me to form 12 On 12 Off, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising awareness of the lives of film workers and the risks of long hours and sleep deprivation. Our credo begins: "As individuals, we believe every human being working in the film industry has a right to enjoy a life outside of their work, including family, friendships, and sleep."

As I write this, I believe I am honoring Conrad's pledge, which is now mine.

Haskell Wexler is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Bound for Glory) and director of the groundbreaking film Medium Cool. For more information on workers' hours in the film industry, go to his blog at 12 On 12 Off. He's working on a variety of film projects and was recently shooting on location in Northern California on the Yurok Indian reservation on Kevin McKiernan's new film, Line in the Sand.

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