In Praise of the Humble Workplace Safety Video

The poor production values and overly emphatic voiceovers define an art form that is timeless, sometimes terrifying, and quintessentially American.

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
The jaunty synthesized music. The black-and-white flashbacks. The somber voiceover narration that warns of the dangers of “social media” and “serious physical injury” and “quid pro quo.” These are the staple elements of that most inelegant and unintentionally funny staple of corporate life: the workplace safety video.
Have you ever texted a friend while walking down a staircase? Failed to properly secure a lid while pouring hot coffee? Stood on an unstable chair to reach a high shelf? These are all habits that greatly concern corporate America, which is why, over the past four decades or so, the business of corporate-education films has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone. The poor production values and heavily emphatic warnings that define the genre have led to its being gently mocked in SNL skits about workplace diversity (“Let’s put that diversity truck in reversity”) and a whole episode of The Office that revolved around the hilarity of sexual-harassment awareness training.
But while corporate-safety videos are often terrible by their very nature, they’re nevertheless an art form, tracing their roots back to the earliest PSAs and the pulpy social-guidance films of the mid-20th century. They’re also a business that, if nothing else, keeps struggling actors and wannabe filmmakers afloat while warning the workers of America that everything—a stapler, a high-heeled shoe, a compliment—can be dangerous when used without caution.
Today’s videos are typically entertaining only by accident, but it wasn’t always so. A 1969 production by Xerox Films is a masterpiece of comic timing and political incorrectness, using animation, sound effects, elaborate special effects, and a girl in a bikini to educate viewers about the fragility of the human body. “Here’s a pretty package of brittle bones, delicate organs, and precisely balanced chemicals, all bagged up in a sack of skin you can scratch a hole in with your fingernail,” the voiceover states, while a comely woman in a swimsuit covers herself in sunscreen. “Mark it ‘fragile.’” The film goes on to warn how everything can be hazardous to human health—bumblebees, typewriters, filing cabinets, and even a lone pencil left on the floor.
The idea that modern life is a nonstop parade of hazards and threats dates back to the late 1930s, when the actor Richard Massingham established an agency for the purpose of making short educational films, and thus birthed the public service announcement. One classic example is Coughs and Sneezes, a 1945 lesson on the dangers of not using a handkerchief. “Look here, what do you think you’re up to?” a plummy voiceover asks Massingham, who plays a bumbling, balding gentleman who can’t stop sneezing in crowds. “You’ve probably infected thousands of people already.”
In the U.S., this new genre was soon emulated by Sid Davis, a former stand-in for John Wayne who found a lucrative career in classroom-safety films. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Davis produced more than 40 short movies intended to terrify American teens about all the awful things that could ever happen to them. In his sensationalist universe, so much as trying marijuana (“everything speeds up to 100 miles an hour”) leads to heroin addiction, crime, and—most significantly—ravaged looks. “It’s fantastic, it’s unbelievable, it’s terrible, but most importantly, it’s true,” the voiceover states.
Davis’s first film, The Dangerous Stranger, was made on a $1,000 budget (donated by Wayne), and ended up bringing in more than $250,000. Today’s safety films are more in the vein of Davis than Massingham, in that they earnestly seek to strike fear in the hearts of workers while proving extraordinarily profitable for the people who make them. Canada, in particular, has produced some of the most gruesome examples, notably Alberta’s $850,000 “Bloody Lucky” campaign in 2008, which featured a series of grisly videos showing terrifying footage of chemical burns in a bathroom, head trauma in a shoe store, and a foot mangled by a forklift truck at a construction site.
The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board campaign “Prevent-It” from around the same time also proved popular on YouTube, even while it prompted numerous complaints for being unnecessarily graphic and disturbing. The ads feature bloodied, zombie-like workers who lecture their colleagues on workplace safety. “This is no accident,” a character named Jim tells his boss after being impaled by two steel bars. “The company knows it’s against code to store too much weight up there.”
There are no statistics relating to whether safety videos actually decrease occurrences of injuries and fatalities in the workplace, but they definitely offer a healthy defense against one serious threat: lawsuits. “The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that organizations spend about $1 billion a week to compensate employees for safety-related job inquiries,” says a statement on the e-learning website Docebo. “Beyond this financial burden, organizations can also face litigation of they don’t train their employees on job-related safety issues.” In other words, expenditure on prevention is seen by many companies as infinitely preferable to expenditure on compensation after injury, which is why production companies are able to charge several hundred dollars per video. Popular titles on the website include “Dealing With Hazardous Spills” ($249), “Office Safety: It’s a Jungle Out There” ($495), and “Miracle on the Hudson: Prepare for Safety With Captain Sully Sullenberger” ($495).
Of course, potential threats/lawsuits in the workplace are no longer limited to physical injury, which is why many of the most expensive and popular current workplace safety films relate to subjects like sexual harassment, diversity, and the dangers of social media. “There’s that term again: ‘social media,’” says one actress in a film about the dangers of sharing private company information on Facebook. “Sounds like techno-Klingon to me.” While such videos are frequently greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm by the employees obliged to watch them, they’re a boon for actors and voiceover artists. “Even if you’re tired of ‘corporate America,’ you won’t get tired of being hired by them as a voiceover narrator for corporate work,” says the website of the production company Edge Studio. “Webinars, trade-show videos, podcasts, product demonstrations, sales videos ... corporations constantly need to hire voiceover talent.”
If nothing else, corporate safety videos provide late-career stability to public figures including the actor John Cleese, the college-football coach Lou Holtz, and the aforementioned Captain Sullenberger. They offer cheerful nostalgic flashbacks to the synthesized sound effects and dubious visuals of 1980s VHS specials. They’re easy to parody. And they allow corporations to protect themselves from expensive lawsuits while mandating that overworked employees take a break to watch movies at work. In a world full of horrifying dangers at every turn, perhaps it’s reassuring to know there’s nothing more quintessentially American than that.