Recently, two moms contacted me with some pretty serious safety concerns about the sets where their children were called to work. As parents, we’re used to being pretty vigilant with our kids – we tend not to take them to places we deem unsafe. For example, I usually don't allow my kids to climb on the lumber in Home Depot…while climbing at the playground padded with 12” of superfoam is usually ok. (Laugh about it – this is my sad attempt at humor while I am procrastinating doing my Stats homework.) We all know how stressful it is to bring the kids to a relative’s house that is not child-proofed – it’s like playing full body goalie to keep your kid from tumbling off the floating staircase or forming a percussion band experiment on the Ming vases. You get the point. We also tend to think places where children are expected to be -- whether it’s a birthday party, school, or day care – are going to be safe. So reason would have it that sets for children’s photo shoots would be safe as well, right?
Um, no. Not really.
Here’s what New York State law says about the safety of child performers:
(a) The employer shall provide the child performer and his or her parent or guardian with information and instruction to protect the health or safety of the child performer, including any potential hazards associated with the specific activities that he or she will be expected to perform. In addition, a child performer must be given adequate instruction and rehearsal time for the specific activities he or she is to perform in order to protect his or her health or safety.
(b) A child performer and his or her designated responsible person shall be given orientation training to the workplace, other than the child performer’s own residence, that is adequate and appropriate to their ages.
Orientation training should include:
(1) Health and safety precautions for the venue or location;
(2) Traffic patterns backstage or on location;
(3) Safe waiting areas for child performers backstage or on location;
(4) Restricted areas;
(5) Location of rest areas/rooms, toilets, makeup areas, and other relevant rooms;
(6) Emergency procedures; and,
(7) Employer designated persons to inform of hazardous conditions and what actions to take.
Sounds pretty good, right? If only.
I think I mentioned this in the previous “Did you know…?” but I’ll say it again. This business is not always child friendly, and it operates much more on the basis of “children dropped into an adult world” rather than adults creating a world for children. One of the mothers who contacted me described the WAITING AREA of the shoot to be kind of like a Home Depot: ladders and wires and set construction stuff all over the place. This was the waiting area. She said that every mother there was playing the full-body goalie game, trying to keep little ones – we’re talking fifteen month olds here – safe and happy. (A walking fifteen-month-old is a creature unto its own…if you have older kids, you’ve probably blocked that all out of your memory. I remember childbirth better than I remember chasing my kids around at that age.) Now, obviously this description of the waiting area falls far from the parameters of the law.
Another mom described the conditions on a location shoot to be nothing short of oppressive. High heat, kids waiting around in winter clothes (in the summer), no cool place to wait while kids were visibly distressed and showing signs of the heat affecting their well-being, random production staff taking kids to different areas of the location without parents knowing, no private places to change children’s clothes for the shoot, and flights of stairs for parents and little ones to navigate endlessly because of the extreme disorganization on set. A typical shoot in these conditions would have an air-conditioned motor home parked on set, with seating (not much room, but cool and safe enough for everyone to have good supervision over the children) and a private changing area, a place outdoors for the kids to play between shoots, and a way to keep either our own beverages or production-provided beverages at least a little cool for our kids.
And here’s another one -- not recent, but an incident that is burned into my mind: a child FELL INTO A POND on a location shoot and a mom had to jump in a rescue the child. What on earth were they thinking holding a shoot right near a pond when plenty of little kids were in the vicinity?
Now tell me this: would Gigi Hadid put up with this? These shoots I described were for good brands and stores – with plenty of resources to make a couple of adjustments to keep the models more comfortable – but they did not take care to make sure the children were safe and at least slightly comfortable on set. Of those provisions I provided from the law, how many glaring violations can you see? Now, I paint these severe pictures as worst-case-scenarios. Generally speaking, I have found sets to have some safety concerns such as wires and gear that could be unsafe for the kids, but generally I’ve experienced safe waiting areas and the kids have been well-supervised on set. Most productions tend to show concern for the little ones’ well-being. I personally don’t have any horror stories…yet.
So here’s the big question: what do you do when you’re on set and these things happen?
I’ll focus on print here. Production companies (the people hired to set things up, organize the schedule, get the creative team’s vision into reality) are not child-care professionals. They are not used to the safety concerns we only really realized once we had our own kids. So it’s going to happen that you may encounter some degree of the inconveniences I mentioned. First of all, advocate for your child. There should be a “point person” on the set – and if you’re not sure who that is, ask someone who signs the vouchers. The person who signs the vouchers is probably someone with some degree of control in the situation. Express concern and ask specifically for what you need. Some examples: “I’m concerned that there is not a private area for the kids to change. Can you make a space?” (They can…there is stuff they can move around or they can clear an area behind a clothing rack if nothing else.) “I feel like there are a lot of unsafe things in the waiting area – can someone come and rearrange a few things so the kids aren’t so close to the wires?” I feel like the calm, professional parent can get a lot done with this type of direct concern/ask for change type interaction. It’s not confrontational and puts the staff into the position of looking like idiots if they say no.
Now, what if the staff is surly or unresponsive? Or just so disorganized that they cannot stop for five minutes to accommodate these simple requests? I think the next step is to call your agent. Your agent has the contact information for someone somewhere who has some control on the set, and your agent should contact that person immediately. As I mentioned in my previous post, your agent needs to know the law and your agent needs to be willing to advocate for your child. You want your agent to tell you it’s ok to leave if you feel like your child is unsafe or disregarded – and your agent should take up payment, etc., with the client afterwards. If your agent hesitates and seems to want you to stay so you don’t lose the booking, maybe it’s time to have a conversation with the agent.
On-camera sets tend to be different. Modeling is only recently covered under the child performer law, and they probably don’t know all they should about the rights and protections of children. THIS DOES NOT EXCUSE THEM, but it may explain why they need a reminder about their sets. Production staffs that do on-camera (or stage) are somewhat more versed in the law, as it has tended to be enforced more with them. The unions, SAG/AFTRA and AEA, have more stringent protections for the children than the law provides, and they have a representative on set to make sure production complies with union rules, so you know exactly who the point person is when you have concerns. Unfortunately, modeling has no union – yet – to protect its workers. Here’s a little political plug: if you are opposed to unions, this is one place where you need to acknowledge and be thankful that they actively protect child performers. (I could go on, but I’ll spare you.)
The only way conditions for children on sets will improve is if parents and agents know the law and advocate for their children. If EVERY parent and agent insists on safety, no one would have to fear retaliation by reactionary clients and production. Safety needs to become the norm – on every set – and should never be questioned.
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