Actors' Equity Enlists Former OSHA Chief to Help Reboot Live Stage Safely

Closed broadway theaters during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020 in New York City - Getty - H 2020
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The union's model standards could help the film and television industry, as well.

Actors’ Equity Association, the union for stage actors and stage managers, on Friday announced that epidemiologist and policy veteran Dr. David Michaels will consult for the union, effective immediately, to help develop health and safety standards for theater work in the era of COVID-19. 

The engagement of Michaels, a former head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, comes about a week after Equity issued a statement that it is “unclear under the current circumstances” how production can resume and asked members to call their regional Equity office if they are offered work. 

“David’s expertise will be invaluable during this unprecedented time,” said Equity executive director Mary McColl. “Ultimately, while the employers are solely responsible for ensuring the health and safety of all actors and stage managers, Equity is committed to being an industry leader to help develop model health and safety standards that will eventually allow us to reopen and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.”

Equity’s efforts could also help inform the film and television industry, which faces social distancing issues on production sets and in cinemas. The Directors Guild of America on April 16 appointed a committee, headed by Steven Soderbergh, that will consult with epidemiologists on rebooting the industry. The International Cinematographers Guild, a unit of IATSE, has also weighed in, and last week, a coalition of Hollywood unions — including the American Federation of Musicians, DGA, IATSE, Teamsters, SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America East — sent an email to members mentioning a list of activities that included production workplace protective measures, but without details.

On Monday, unions in an industry with similar concerns — construction — released guidelines for workplace safety on building sites, venues that are not dissimilar to film and television sets. The recommended practices, promulgated by the North American Building Trades Unions and a research center, encompass training, screening, social distancing, decontamination, personal hygiene and respiratory protection.

Meanwhile, on April 21, Equity’s governing council unanimously passed a new internal membership rule that its 51,000 members may only return to work when the union deems it safe to do so. Michaels will be a key part to implementing a plan where member safety is put first and decisions are made with a clear safety and scientific basis, the union said. 

Michaels has conducted epidemiological studies of diverse populations, including typographers, nuclear weapons workers, construction workers, bus drivers, jail inmates and others, and studied such health threats as asbestos, tuberculosis, silica, workplace accidents and more. He has received medals for his efforts on behalf of workers and for his advocacy of scientific integrity.

Currently a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of the George Washington University, Michaels served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA during the Obama administration, from 2009-2017, and as Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health from 1998-2001. He received his Masters of Public Health and PhD from Columbia University. 

April 27 2:38 p.m. added construction trades guidelines