This aerial photo shows a film set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. Actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of a Western being filmed at the ranch on Thursday, Oct. 21, killing the cinematographer, officials said. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Skirting the Rules — Fatal Shooting During “Rust” Filming

The producers of the film “Rust” are being scrutinized after the fatal shooting.  It seems clear from reports to date that rules were not followed and that some people on the set skirted those rules.  How does that happen?  Who is responsible?

Rules are a part of life.  Rules usually arise from experience and wisdom to prevent common mistakes. Rules are supposed to create a standard of performance to protect individuals and property.  Often penalties exist for those caught breaking the rules.  Deciding to skirt a rule is an ethical decision.

There are a number of rules with regard to the handling of firearms on movie sets.  There are experts, called armorers or weapons masters (often licensed), who are trained to handle firearms and ammunition properly on movie sets.  There are clear rules regarding loading, unloading, handling, storing and treatment of firearms.  Following these rules assures that individuals are not put at risk.  Reports, to date, indicate that the clearly established rules were not strictly followed on the movie set.

Too often, individuals who know the rules are more concerned with getting the job done quickly, meeting budgetary objectives, or are so focused on other goals that they ignore personal concerns for safety.  For example, in the construction industry workers know that they are to wear a harness when working at heights.  Still, almost 40% of construction incidents involve falls where a harness is not worn.

Where is the accountability when rules are not followed?  I believe that accountability lies primarily with the leaders charged with the responsibility to enforce the rules.  The leader must make it clear that rules are to be followed.  The leader cannot send the signal that reducing costs is the most important priority.  The leader cannot say safety is important then wink at the workers to show they are not really sincere about the safety requirements. 

The leader cannot ignore early warning signs.  Reports indicate that there were earlier firearms violations and improper gun discharges on the set.  Was there a thorough investigation as to why the earlier incidents happened?  There are reports that some of the workers walked off the set for a number of reasons – they were not being paid in a timely fashion, their accommodations were not proper and safety was lacking.  Were these claims investigated?  A leader cannot afford to ignore early warning signs, instead they must see that all major incidents (with and without injury) are investigated and that actions are taken to assure the incidents do dot occur again.  Some of these actions include suspension or termination of those who knowingly violate the rules.  Other actions might indicate that more training is required.  Tangible actions by the leader reinforce the importance of the rules.  It sets an audible tone at the top of the organization that safety is indeed very important.

There are important questions to ask before deciding to skirt a rule:

     – Why does the rule matter?

     – Can someone give permission to break a rule?

     – Would those in authority condone your breaking the rule?

     – Does breaking the rule encourage rule breaking by others?

     – Are you willing to accept the consequences if something goes wrong?

Rule breaking can become contagious.  Unless the leaders ensure that the rules are proper and must be followed, rules become optional.  Optional rules are useless guidelines that are ignored.  Explaining the rules, training the individuals how to follow the rules and enforcing the rules by punishing the offenders and rewarding those who comply, will develop the kind of culture that most leaders want in their organization.

(Image: This aerial photo shows the film set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong))