Safety goes to Hollywood: What Cary Grant can teach us about risk assessments

shutterstock_297899564He’s one of the most famous and celebrated actors of all time, he was an idol to millions and has an instantly recognisable voice. However, what you may not know about Hollywood legend Cary Grant is that he can teach us a lot about risk assessments!

That’s right, there’s a direct link between the man christened Archibald Leach and your legal duty to carry out ‘suitable and sufficient’ health and safety risk assessments. More precisely, one scene provides the link…

“That’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops…”

One of the most memorable scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller North by Northwest features Cary Grant running across a crop field chased by a small plane fitted with a machine gun. It is a fantastic and iconic piece of cinema, but what can it teach us about risk assessments?

Let’s quickly give the scene a bit of context; Grant’s character – advertising executive Roger Thornhill – has been mistaken for an international super spy and is being pursued across America by enemy agents. In a bid to stop the pursuers, Thornhill arranges to meet the real spy on a remote road near Chicago.shutterstock_78985789

So before we’ve even started the scene we’ve got a major error from Thornhill. Despite having the meeting arranged by Eve Marie Saint’s femme fatale Eve Kendall, he travels alone to the meeting point. Lone working requires a comprehensive audit at the best of times (and meeting a trained assassin in the middle of nowhere certainly isn’t the best of times!). Thornhill should have at least drafted up an action plan to assess the risks. That way he may have avoided some of his subsequent problems…

Suitable and sufficient

To his credit, Thornhill cleverly spots a potential hazard in the form of a crop-duster, which is dusting a field that doesn’t contain crops. This alerts him to a potential danger (i.e. that the plane is fitted with machine guns) and ultimately saves his life. Hazard spotting is the first step towards completing ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments. Had he had more time, then Thornhill could have assessed the area and identified more potential hazards.

Thornhill becomes aware of the crop-duster due to the loud noise it is making. It some ways this was an error by the enemy. Had they carried out a noise assessment of their plan, they would have discovered that the plane emitted excessive noise levels, which were not only detrimental to the mission but also potential hazardous to the pilot. A noise assessment would estimate the personal daily noise exposure of employees and identify measures required to eliminate or reduce risk, control exposure and protect employees. Had this happened then the entire episode would have played out very differently.

Dusting off

The next part of the scene sees the plane chase our hero across the field whilst firing a hail of bullets. Quite rightly, Thornhill sprints away from the plane to escape the bullets.   However, had the plane merely been dusting crops, then Grant would still have been equally wise to have run away. Exposure to dust clouds, such as those created by crop spraying in the sixties, is a severe health risk as clouds can contain numerous hazardous chemicals which can lead to serious health issues. As part of a risk assessment, assessors will report on exposure levels, legal compliance and suggested control measures.

Indeed, a dust cloud played an important part in the ultimate fate of Thornhill. Having evaded the plane, he hides in a cornfield. However, the crop duster decides to utilise its primary function and unleashes a massive dust cloud over the area. Exposed to the chemicals and pesticides, Thornhill is forced to flee back to the road. At which point a big petrol tanker arrives and almost runs over our hero, before the plane loses sight due to the dust cloud and crashes into the tanker causing a massive fire.

Blaze of glory?

Well firstly, kudos to the driver, who carried out a perfect emergency stop after seeing a frantic Cary Grant running in front of his vehicle. Given the driver’s high skill levels, it seems likely that his employers will have carried out a workplace transport assessment, which will have ensured that the right person was performing the role, as well as assessing other issues such as the vehicle and the traffic routes.


The other big issue (ignoring the presumed death of the evil pilot) is the massive fire caused by the crash. The good news for the driver was that he had a suitable means of escape and could clear the area, as well as ensuring that Thornhill was also clear from the fire. Having a suitable means of escape is a key part of a fire risk assessment. In addition, assessors would also look at sources of ignition, warning systems, risk to personnel and many more.

Roll the credits

Who’d have guessed that one of the most famous scenes from movie history could teach us so much about risk assessments? Hazards, noise, dust, transport and fire are all covered in just five minutes of cinema. So, even if you don’t happen to have Cary Grant working for you, there’s no excuse not to perform your legal duty and carry out ‘suitable and sufficient’ health and safety risk assessments. And who knows, if you do a good enough job, you might find yourself with a star on RoSPA’s very own walk of fame

For more thoughts, vital health and safety guides, facts and advice, please sign up to SafetyMatters, RoSPA’s free fortnightly newsletter, and receive our collection of free original e-books!

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