New Mexico agency hits ‘Rust’ production with maximum fine for safety violations
A New Mexico agency delivered a stinging rebuke of the managers behind the “Rust” production, levying its maximum fine of $136,793 for safety violations that led to the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in October.
Saying managers “demonstrated plain indifference” to employee safety, the agency concluded that the management of the production knew that firearm safety procedures were not being followed on set and failed to review work practices and take corrective action, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau said in a statement Wednesday.
“Our investigation found that this tragic incident never would have happened if Rust Movie Productions LLC had followed national film industry standards for firearm safety,” New Mexico Environment Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said in a statement. “This is a complete failure of the employer to follow recognized national protocols that keep employees safe.”
The fine is among the largest ever levied by the agency against a film production company. In 2015, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the producers of the aborted movie “Midnight Rider” $74,900 after 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and other crew members were injured in a train accident. Authorities said the producers did not have permission to film on the Georgia railway in a case that similarly galvanized film crews and led to calls for safer sets.
Interviews with multiple members of the “Rust” crew paint an hour- by-hour picture of a cascade of bad decisions that created a chaotic set on which a lead bullet was put into a prop gun.
The New Mexico report will be a boost to the family of Hutchins, which has sued the producers and others linked to the production — including actor-producer Alec Baldwin, who fired the prop gun containing live ammunition — alleging they breached a number of safety standards. The rising star cinematographer’s death became a rallying cry for film set safety and a reminder of other lives lost in the industry.
“We are pleased that the NM OSHA report has shed some light on the workplace safety issues that plagued ‘Rust’ and led to the tragic and fatal events of Oct 21, 2021,” Brian Panish, the attorney for the Hutchins family, said in a statement. “Our own investigation has found overwhelming evidence of recklessness and negligence on the part of the ‘Rust’ production team and others.”
Under federal requirements, Rust Movie Productions has 15 business days after receiving the citation to either pay the penalty and provide the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau with certification of corrective action, or to contest the citation, the bureau said.
“While we appreciate OSHA’s time and effort in its investigation, we disagree with its findings and plan to appeal,” said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Rust Movie Productions. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with Halyna’s family.”
The bureau had six months from the incident to report its findings. It said the guidelines breached included failing to ban live ammunition from the set, not holding safety meetings when firearms were being handled and failing to ensure that employees refrained from pointing a firearm at anyone except after consultation with the property master, armorer or other safety representatives, such as the first assistant director.
In New Mexico, the state administers the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration program, which regulates workplace safety.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation into how a live bullet got onto the set and was loaded into a weapon without being checked.
A walkout by the camera crew over working conditions preceded the perilous course of events on the day of the shooting. During rehearsals on Oct 21, Baldwin fired a prop gun, which he said he was unaware had been loaded with a live round, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza. He also said he did not pull the trigger.
In a more detailed 11-page document made public online, the government investigators described a litany of safety violations and delays in getting access to the scene.
A day after the shooting, an inspector for the agency, Lorenzo Montoya, went to the Bonanza Creek movie ranch outside of Santa Fe. But Montoya said he was stopped by three armed guards who relayed a message from management that he was not allowed to take pictures or conduct interviews without a warrant.
3rd Shift Media Productions is facing scrutiny over its role in ‘Rust’ after the cinematographer was killed in an accidental shooting
The inspector left and returned on Oct. 25, after the Sheriff’s Office had released the site and the production granted the agency access for an inspection without a warrant. Among those present were line producer Gabrielle Pickle and Jessica Hoffman, a field representative of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, the inspector said.
“Rust” producers broke several safety standards they set for themselves, investigators found.
The investigators said “Rust” managers or supervisors — including Sarah Zachry, the property master, and Dave Halls, the safety coordinator and first assistant director — did not follow industry safety guidelines for firearms and blank ammunition on set.
For example, they said, the “Rust” production did not develop a process to ensure live rounds were not brought onto the set and failed to give 24-year-old armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed enough time to inventory the ammunition.
The industry guidelines also require sufficient training to handle guns. But the production violated that guideline when Pickle told Gutierrez Reed on Oct. 17 via text message that there would be no more training days, depriving the armorer of the authority to decide whether additional training was needed, the investigators said.
The investigators blamed Pickle, who had raised concerns with Gutierrez Reed that unattended guns were found on set, for not following up with her instruction to the armorer to implement a system to secure weapons and for ignoring the armorer’s concerns about not having adequate time to perform her duties. Gutierrez Reed previously had complained that she was stretched between the duties of being the armorer and assisting the props department.
Hutchins was shot during a rehearsal in a church on the ranch when Baldwin drew a weapon from its holster and pointed it at the cinematographer and the director. According to law enforcement records, Halls had handed Baldwin a replica of a vintage Colt .45 pistol, pronouncing it “cold,” meaning there was no ammunition inside. But the gun contained dummy rounds and at least one lead bullet.
Investigators said that was another safety breach as Halls, who they described as “Rust’s top-level management safety official,” did not consult with the prop master or armorer about the loading of the firearm, handing it to Baldwin, and deciding whether it was necessary to point the gun at a person.
The investigators further faulted “Rust” management for not investigating and taking action when they were informed of various accidental misfires on the set.
Additionally, they found that safety meetings fell short of what was needed. Although employees told the inspectors that safety meetings took place, they were not conducted each day firearms were used on set and there was not enough information shared about the use of firearms, according to the report.
“The employer, Rust Movie Productions LLC, demonstrated plain indifference to the hazards associated with firearms by routinely failing to practice their own safety protocols, failing to enforce adherence to safety protocols, and failing to ensure that the handling of deadly weapons was afforded the time and effort needed to keep the cast and crew safe,” the report said.
Lawyers for Gutierrez Reed welcomed the findings.
“Had anyone from production called Hannah back into the church before the scene to consult with her, this tragedy would have been prevented,” attorney Jason Bowles said in a statement. “Hannah has also reached out to OSHA recently in an effort to provide her suggestions for changes and improvement of safety standards on sets to avoid a tragic incident in the future.”
Will Waggoner, Zachry’s lawyer, noted that the prop master had reported an accidental discharge of the gun to management. “The [OSHA] report was good in that it concluded Sarah had no fault in the accidental shooting,” Waggoner said.
An attorney for Baldwin, whom Hutchins’ husband has in part blamed for the shooting, said in a statement the report “exonerates” the actor by “making clear that he believed the gun held only dummy rounds...We are confident that the individuals identified in the report will be held accountable for this tragedy.”
A representative for Halls did not respond to a request for comment.
The move comes as the DGA and other Hollywood unions face pressure to do more to improve safety on sets.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.
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