Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Pulling The Plug In The Rain

Published : 16th August 2003


Neal, concerning possible electrocution when mixing divers and electricity and whether to pull the plug. Almost everyone I know in the business has some story cantered on accidents involving electricity. I've seen many scars (including one man that lost part of his hand) caused by being too bold. The saying goes... "There are old electricians, and there are bold electrician, but there are no old bold electricians". I believe in safety first, second, third...

More to the point, while water is not itself a good conductor, the minerals in the water MAKE the water a relatively good conductor. The more salt in the water, the better the conductivity. If you're in the water, then you ARE grounded by virtue of the surrounding water. If you come in contact with a "hot" source, you will become part of the circuit. If you come CLOSE enough to a hot circuit, you will become part of the electrical path. Electricity will always take the easiest path. I would never put someone in the water with power unless a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) was protecting the circuit. You have to do everything you can to make it as safe as possible, but we've all taken some chances when we've been pushed to do so. In my younger days working as a grip/electric, I sat in a condor with an 4K HMI in the rain, listening to the sizzle of a voltage leak somewhere in the system.

Did I stop the production? No. Today I would never put anyone in that dangerous situation. There is nothing that goes on the film or tape that's worth the price of life or limb. Not everyone on a shoot will feel this way...but they're wrong. If you see a problem, point it out, lobby your case, and suggest a solution. Always do your best to protect the safety of your crew. If you have to, stop the shoot.

No single job is worth the permanently injury or death of you fellow workers.

You might lose that job, but you'll gain the respect of your fellow crew and sleep better at night.

Bruce Aleksander
Lighting Designer +



Hi all,

As a gaffer, I have conducted quite a few set safety seminars that have now become required for newcomers to work in the industry here. My research with the Occupational Health and Safety people in Saskatchewan indicates that the penalties for employers if someone is injured or killed on a work site are severe. In the case of death, an employer found liable can be sent to prison for up to two years, fined up to $300,000.00 or both.

While the department head is not the employer, he or she is the agent for the employer in matters of safety and can be held liable to a degree for the electrical safety in the workplace.

I will not put anyone in the position of dealing with faulty electricity on any set because it is not right to do so and because I have an obligation to protect the employer from liability from safety issues in my department. When confronted with a production manager or producer who wants me to simply get it done, I will advise them of the liability involved and ask them if they still wish me to proceed. If the answer is to proceed at all costs, I am then within my rights to put down my tools and not continue the work until an impartial third party (OHS) comes to inspect and advise on the safety of the particular issue. No one may continue to work under the conditions until the matter is resolved.

Employees in Saskatchewan are all protected by legislation in this regard. Additionally, if there is an accident that involves life or limb, work stops until an inspector can get there and investigate. The unit doesn't keep shooting, the unit doesn't move until the investigation is complete.

For example, I just finished a show where the caterer kept calling me over to look into his power. He had a tester and it was showing a fault. We narrowed down the fault to his freezer and unplugged it. The fault went away. We were undermanned and didn't have the time to get back and fix it. The next morning, a truck came to pump out the grey water and the operator was getting tagged off the caterer's truck. That's right, the freezer had been plugged back in and was sending 120 volts to the frame of his truck. It turns out that from his last location to ours, something had rattled loose and was sending voltage to ground but was not grounding out because the tires of the truck insulated it from the ground.

Our temporary power was not the source of that problem, but if the grey water guy had been injured, nothing would move until the inspector was able to figure out the cause of the problem.

While I pride myself on being able to work safely and quickly, there is the odd circumstance where I have had to advise the employer regarding their liability and having done so, have been given the resources to make it right.

On the last show I was on, I insisted that my genny op be around whenever power was being used by technicians on the production. The production manager claimed that all I was out to do was f*** the production on wages for my genny op. Temporary power distribution systems require supervision when being used by employees whether they are gennys or tie ins. I won that battle but at some cost. The PM would no longer speak to me for the duration of the shoot.

I was annoyed and probably will not work for him again. I did mitigate the risk of the producers.

We bring a great work ethic to our jobs but I feel that part of that work ethic is to act sensibly even when things are going nutty in the production office regarding budgets and schedules. I know that many times the budget may not cover these expenses, but that is not my fault.

Making movies is not worth anyone's life or limb and I wholeheartedly support removing my crew and all other technicians from risk of electrocution. Further, I feel it is necessary in order to remove myself and the producer from the liability. Legislation backs us up on this.

Having the necessary documentation like OHS regs and Electrical code regs on your truck makes arguing the point easier. I always have to remind myself that a producer is paid to produce, not run temporary power.

While the costs of working safe look more expensive on the surface, it is always safer than having to deal with insurance claims, disability claims and penalties, not to mention having to call someone's wife or husband and inform them of their spouse's untimely passing....

My 2 cents...

Regards,

Andrew Gordon
Gaffer
Regina, Saskatchewan
Canada

P.S. Don't get me going on location PA's who are responsible to control traffic and who are never trained in proper lock up procedures or the producers who "can't afford" to buy a street and have the crew working on the street exposed to moving traffic. I'll start pulling out what's left of my hair.....



>I was after some feedback in regards to rain and exterior shoots. At what >point is the gaffer legitimately able to pull the pin on the lighting

The point at which one gaffer or another may capitulate and pull the plug, given identical extenuating circumstances, will differ as variously as there are
different gaffers. I have been on shoots where the gaffer has refused to raise cherry pickers because of the weather although I had experienced using the equipment in far worse conditions. While on another occasion I can remember having to tip the rain water out of orions, bypassing the RCD before we turned them on, then having to loudly announce that no one should touch them while they were plugged in (I wasn't the gaffer!). As professionals we all adhere to the maxim, "safety first" and there would be nothing worse than a fatality on the job but as professionals we are also there to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

Where someone draws the line is that persons own judgement call and in that
regard all decisions of this nature are legitimate. Personally I have never had to pull the plug before, but in retrospect although I have never had a serious incident on a shoot I think the moment when my fingers began to cross themselves behind my back would be the time I'd think twice about it again.

Marc Mateo
Gaffer



>If rain water could conduct electricity, then every time it rained the power >grid would shut down.

You make an inaccurate assumption that rain water is pure. Let me tell you about some secrets of chemistry. First off there is no such thing as pure liquid water. Sure rain water is supposed to be a simple combination of molecules but remember that process takes place in an atmosphere. The atmosphere has chemical constituents in it like nitrogen oxides which create airborne sulphuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3) and that rain water is not pure.

Rain water also has hydroxide and hydronium ions and an assortment of other things that make it less than pure. Lightning can also alter the combination of water quite a bit because very simply water actually acts upon itself. This impure air reacts with water as it falls causing the pH of water to become more acidic making most rain water have a lower pH than pure water should. Acidic water also conducts electricity well.

Your statement about electrical grids and water is more like a good science fiction story. If water fell in a sheet and made a connection between two opposing phases of power, the grid could short out. But the conductors are separated and insulated and air is not a good conductor of electricity whether it is wet or dry. That is one of the many reasons why power grids are not affected by electricity. It's the old question "why doesn't a bird get killed when he lands on a high voltage line? He is not making a circuit.

Rain water is like little birds who don't make a circuit. During severe rain in NY city, underground lines are covered with acidic freestanding water but they still work just fine. the secret is good insulation. This is why the phone company uses liquid nitrogen to seal its cables in NYC. If you've ever been here you would see freestanding liquid nitrogen tanks on street corners every now and then with the label of "NY Telephone" on their side. They are used in situations where pressure drops and leaks are detected. In the end, freestanding water does not like liquid hydrogen and the wires are kept nice and dry. Every now and then with underground power lines the insulation breaks down and you have what I experienced a few weeks ago on 37th Street - a manhole exploding and thousands of volts of electricity shorting, causing spectacular flames, and lots of poisonous smoke.

Walter Graff
Hellgate Pictures, Inc.
Walter Graff Productions, Inc.
444 E. 82 Street
New York, NY 10028

http://www.film-and-video.com



>Pure water -- and rain water is pure -- is not a conductor of electricity, >especially at the voltages normally associated with film production.

Water regardless of whether it is distilled ("pure rainwater" as you call it), or it has dissolved minerals in it as in water affected by salt on the street is a conductor. How well it conducts is another thing. But do remember it takes between 20 and 50 milliamperes for a human to go into respiratory arrest from thoracic muscle tetany and a mere 50 to 100 milliamperes for a person to have ventricular fibrillation.

I just did a little test prior to writing this post. I do not have a glass of rain water available so I took the closet thing available -10-7M H3O+ and 10-7M OH-, AKA room temperature distilled water.

I took the glass of distilled water which I make in a water distiller daily and tested the resistance in the water with probes at ten centimetres. It measured .625 Ohms. I then took a glass of regular tap water and it measured 124.346 ohms. Both conducted electricity quite well. Well enough to kill you if you were the path of least resistance. In fact, the distilled water conducted almost twice as well as the 'regular' water. You can blame the regular water for having fluorides and other chemicals from processing for this.

I thought I would take it a step further so I took bare ends of 16 gauge cable and plugged on end into a 120v outlet and the other bare ends first into the glass of distilled water to see if both waters conducted electricity well. Almost instantaneously the circuit breaker tripped. Tried the same thing with the 'regular' water and almost instantaneously the breaker tripped.

First of all your assumption that rain water doesn't conduct electricity is inaccurate and for you to tell people this is irresponsible. Secondly safety on a wet set involves proper insulating and in hardwire cases, proper grounding. If instruments are properly shielded and/or grounded and the ground termination is appropriate then the odds of you being the least path of resistance are dramatically reduced. Of course nothing can prevent you from being the path of electrons so even with the safest set-ups, problems can occur. I just did a 240 60 amp installation of my sisters hot-tub last week. As I was putting in my GFCI breaker in the main box I got to thinking about why they switched over to GFCI in the first place. Although I don't have substantial proof of my conclusion, I would imagine that as good as the procedures for grounding were in the National Electrical Code prior to the introduction of GFCI, people could and did get electrocuted, hence the reason they had to make sure circuit tripping became a much more sensitive issue.

Walter Graff



Tom Gleeson writes:

>Safety and equipment protection are the primary factors here but I am >interested in some others experiences and thoughts.

Jim Sofranko summed it up nicely. To Jim's suggestions, keep in mind that pure water -- and rain water is pure -- is not a conductor of electricity, especially at the voltages normally associated with film production. If rain water could conduct electricity, then every time it rained the power grid would shut down.


However, having said that, there are circumstances in which rain water can become a conductor. For instance, road salt used to melt ice and certain fertilizers can make pure water into an unpredictable conductor. Also being wet can make a person a better conductor -- that's of electricity not music. When the rain combines with body salts from perspiration, an otherwise poor connection can be made good enough for a good belt; in such cases the greatest danger of shock is still from improperly grounded equipment or reversed neutrals, not from the rainwater itself.

If there is a thunderstorm or if lightning is in the area, that's an entirely different mater. Stop shooting immediately and seek shelter. Don't delay. If there is time, shut down the generator and disconnect the leads, thus isolating and protecting the generator.

Lightning has enough power to make a conductor out of nearly anything.

Be safe, no shot is worth someone's life.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



Tom Gleeson wrote :

>I was after some feedback in regards to rain and exterior shoots.

Hi Tom,

That point is when the conditions become unsafe for anyone. There is no good reason a shoot should continue if someone is unsafe. On the other hand, a good gaffer must be prepared for rainy conditions to assure the safety of the electric on the set at all times. I have gaffed in downpours and torrential rain with no problems as long as you are prepared and knowledgeable.

For whatever it's worth, I have found that the most difficult rain situations are setting up, moving a hot light and wrapping. Once a setup is lit, there is usually very little difficulty in continuing in the rain. Rain covers, connections wrapped and off the ground on apple boxes, turning off power when moving lights...all precautions must be taken. But rain itself is never a problem although I have been shut down by excessive wind in a storm where it became very unsafe quickly. Wind is usually a much more difficult problem as rain covers blow over and the lighter equipment becomes airborne missiles.

Another point about equipment is to remember to be careful when shutting the set down in rain. The fresnel lamps must be kept on with rain protection when lowering and striking the set. They will dry themselves out from the heat they generate when they are down and on and can be turned off only when well rain-protected in the lowered position. Then they must be turned off and allowed plenty of time to cool before being exposed to the rain. Otherwise, the water will touch the lens and caused it to shatter.

Hope this helps.

Jim Sofranko
NY/DP



I would like to second Jay's response to Tom.

I started my career in Minneapolis and worked there for 15 years. We had a lot of rain there and only once was a set shut down. It was a night exterior with three condors and a lightening storm was moving in. The gaffer's decision was correct, but that was and is a very rare instance and based on a safety decision beyond our ability to deal with.

I have kept shoots running in rain, snow, and cold, because we're there to get the work done. Safety is always the deciding issue.

Oh yeah, Jay, thanks for the tip on the doubles.

Brian Jennings



Thirded

I shoot in the UK, if we stopped for rain we'd never shoot!

Cheers

Geoff Boyle FBKSTS

Director of Photography
EU based
CML List Owner & Sysadmin



I've worked in all kinds of conditions, as an electrician, gaffer and DP and I've never seen production stopped because it was raining. I even shot a movie called Monsoon which we filmed in India during the monsoon season.

While I admit that safety standards in India are not the same as they are here, I would have stopped things if I felt there was any danger at all. I've always been a safety nut and I have called a halt when things were getting out of hand for the electricians, grips, my AC's or anyone, but rain isn't that difficult to deal with.
Blain Brown



Tom Gleeson wrote :

>At what point is the gaffer legitimately able to pull the pin on the >lighting?

Tom,

In my opinion, with preparation - and under "normal" circumstances (IE: Not a hurricane, no mudslides, no lightning) there is no reason to pull the plug at all. Chances are, if the gaffer is worth their salt, they're not going to be caught with their pants down - although I will certainly concede in parts of the country it can quickly turn from pure blue sky to rain in moments - one would hope the locals would know that and be prepared.

Visqueen on the connections. Properly isolating the junction boxes, connectors and ballasts from ground. Making sure the lamps all have nice rain hats - there's really no reason why one should pull the plug. Especially in today's day and age of GFCIs, Cam-Lok connectors and well manufactured lamps.

The one consideration to always keep in mind is that rain will slow you down. Even the most prepared crew will work much slower in the rain. Aside from fairly cumbersome foul-weather gear, all connections and disconnections are done with more care. (I used to make juicers kill breakers on even lunchboxes before unplugging or plugging anything in) Focusing a lamp can be a dangerous situation. It requires more care and caution than normal just to pan and tilt a source. Movement is slowed - no quick walks - due to slippery surfaces. All of this can contribute to a working speed, easily, 1/4 normal pace - if even slower. Pushing the crew beyond that is asking for trouble. That is where I might, as a gaffer, step in and "pull the plug." If the guys are being pushed beyond what any of us think is safe - then we've got a situation.

I will always do my best to accommodate production, to great levels of discomfort - that doesn't matter - but safety is not an area to compromise whatsoever. That being said - there is no reason why normal production can't safely continue in the rain. I shot several nights in the West Virginia forest in freezing rain (NOT comfortable by any stretch of the imagination) without issues - but we were prepared for it and had no problems.

A bit off the topic - a great tip I learned when it gets cold outside is to stuff the lamps with a pair of doubles about 5 minutes before killing them. That way - when the globe goes out and the glass starts to cool, there's still an insulating layer of heat (residual from scrims) that keeps the glass from shattering (seen that a few times).

All the best,

Jay Holben
Director of Photography
Los Angeles, CA
www.imaging-the-future.com