Risky Business: Stunt Doubles

Liz Carey

Los Angeles, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – While throwing oneself off buildings, or intentionally crashing a speeding car may seem like a dangerous job, industry experts say injuries on set are rare, even though they do happen.

Alex Daniels, president of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, said that while being a stuntman was a risky business at one time, advances in technology and stunt work itself have made the job much safer.

“There is more technology than there used to be,” Daniels said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com. “We work with wires and cables and lines, where we may not have been able to do that years ago. Because of CGI, the ease of removing lines from a shot are much easier and much less costly.”

Stuntmen, he said, generally don’t get hurt, regardless of how risky the stunt looks.

“Sure, there is some level of risk, but we have a higher level of expertise to make sure those risks don’t happen. There are more precautions and rehearsals now than ever before.”

But accidents do happen. In 2016, 33-year-old stuntman John Bernecker fell to his death on the set of The Walking Dead in a stunt that some have called “The ABC of stunts.” According to Coweta (Georgia) County Deputy Sheriff J. P. Traylor, Bernecker was supposed to fall from the railing of a balcony 22 feet off the ground onto a pad made of boxes, PortaPit pads and another large pad.

Traylor’s report indicated that Assistant Director Matthew Goodman stated that Bernecker signaled he was ready, got most of the way over the railing, but “did not appear to get good separation from the balcony.” Goodwin said Bernecker tried to grab the railing with both hands, but ultimately failed and landed on his head, missing the padding by inches.

After an investigation into the incident, in January 2018, the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Stalwart Films, LLC, the series production company, $12,675 for “serious” citations “for the company’s failure to provide adequate protection from fall hazards,” the maximum allowed by law.

Bernecker’s mother, Susan Bernecker, said the fine was a joke.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I mean, they spend that much on food for the crew for two days. If this was half a million dollars, it would get their attention. But $12,000 isn’t going to get anyone’s attention.”

WorkersCompensation.com calls to OSHA were referred to the organization’s statement on the incident.

“This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call for the entertainment industry,” said OSHA Atlanta Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in the statement. “The entire industry needs to commit to safety practices for actors and stunt people involved in this type of work.”

Stuntmen, Daniels said, are covered as employees for the studios they work for, according to their contracts. As employees, he said, stuntmen are entitled to workers’ compensation protection, as well as other benefits of employment. Wages for stuntmen start at $900 per day, and can go much higher, as much as $15,000 a day or more, based on the complexity and expertise called for in performing the stunt.

However, injuries, he said, are not very common.

“One would think, ‘Oh they’re jumping off of a building, or crashing a car,’ but again, it’s not really as dangerous because we know what we’re doing,” he said. “Bruises are common because sometimes you are repeatedly getting hit or falling down. It’s more common to get injuries on minor stunts, where you’re not paying as close attention to what is going on, than on more complex stunts.”

One of the challenges facing the industry, he said, was that there was no certification process or training school to go to that teaches someone how to be a stuntman. And with new media outlets popping up on the internet and on a multitude of independent cable channels, more and more untrained people have the option to call themselves stuntmen without the benefit of experience learned from years on set with major studios.

Still, the industry protects its own, investigating injuries and the rare fatalities to better educate its members.

For Daniels, preventing injury is what helps stuntmen keep going.

“That’s our lives on the line there,” he said. “With anything in life, stuff happens. But, that’s our job. To think about what could happen and do what we can to prevent that.”