The safety talk with students in your lab


Safety is a top priority in my lab, though in the lab I’m not particularly over-concerned about safety. The only chemical typically involved with our labwork is ethanol, there are other potential hazards, but not different than those that students experience in teaching labs.

Other researchers have bigger safety issues in the lab. Not far from me across town, another professor’s lab oversaw a major lapse of safety resulting in a tragic death. The PI of the lab is now standing trial for felony counts of violating workplace safety. Is the PI responsible for the technician’s safety lapse that ended up in her death? All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to be on that jury, being familiar with what is in the newspaper.

While those kinds of dangers are absent from my lab, I am very, very concerned about safety in the field. It’s very important to make sure that safety guidelines are followed, that no student ever violates major safety standards even once, and that everyone remains safe and healthy at all times.

My main “lab” is a Costa Rican tropical rainforest. We work at a well-equipped and well-staffed field station. This contributes to the level of safety, but also can lull students into an overinflated sense of security. With one poor decision, students could get permanently lost, bit by a highly venomous animal, or get crushed by a treefall or branchfall.

The analogy that I have used, for the last few years, is that the rainforest is perfectly safe if you follow the rules of the road. We aren’t afraid of driving on the freeway even though it could very easily be a deadly place, if you changed lanes at the wrong time or went up an offramp and drove the wrong way, against traffic. That’s deadly. If you don’t follow basic safety rules in the rainforest, it can be very dangerous.

Just like students in chemistry labs aren’t accustomed to working with chemicals that ignite in contact with air, students in my lab aren’t accustomed to spending their working hours kilometers into a rainforest. So, it’s very important that my students do everything that is necessary to keep themselves safe. This matters just not for their own safety, but also for my own protection as well as protecting the interests of other students who are or wish to be involved in this research program.

How do I make sure that my students behave safely? I short, it involves a combination of scaring the bejezzus out of them, and reassuring them. I play both good cop and bad cop. And I bring in grad students with concrete experiences with hazards (snakes, treefalls, orientation) to explain that these concerns are not just mine, but are universal for all researchers on site. They might think I’m exaggerating but when everyone else on station agrees with me, it provides additional credence.

The safety process starts back at home. First of all, I am committed to not taking a student who even shows one hint of having bad judgment or lack of sincere appreciation for authority on safety issues. If there’s even a small chance that I think a student would make a bad call about safety in the field, then I won’t take a chance.

Before we leave the US, we have orientation meetings in which I prepare them for the rainforest, which is rather vague until you get here. I lay out my three cardinal safety rules:

  • Do not ever go into the forest without the required footwear (rubber boots)
  • Do not ever leave the trail without a map and compass in hand
  • Do not ever go into the forest or away from the station without telling others your destination

I also tell my students that if they break these rules, just once, that I’ll immediately send them home.

And I mean it.

In the past, I’ve had two students knowingly break the rules once. That was when I had an unstated two-strikes policy (in which a first time violator might be given a second chance at my discretion.) These rule-breakers never broke the rules again, as far as I know.

However, both of these rule-breakers turned out to be royal pains-in-the-ass in other ways. If they were willing to flout the cardinal safety rules even once, I learned, then they were just not good students to have around in general. I really wish, in hindsight, that I sent them home right away. They created more trouble than any possible benefit they could have added. (If this were a pseudonymous blog, I could tell some great stories, but those’ll have to wait until you buy me a beer.)

I tell my students what I just wrote — that I used to give a little slack, but that I don’t do that any more. For example, if I ever catch a student without boots in the forest, or if I hear of it, then we go straight to the computer and rebook their flight and order a 2-hour taxi ride to the airport.

I’ve had that policy for a few years and am glad that I haven’t had to implement it. I only once have sent a student home prematurely in recent years, but that wasn’t for a safety violation. It was because the student was overbearing, overconfident, and under-focused. That student might have eventually broken a safety rule from being overconfident. But nobody’s life or limb was at directly at risk in this situation, as far as I am aware.

I don’t want to terrify students unnecessarily, as I need them to function effectively and independently. I want them to have both a fear and respect for snakes, but I also want them to have the confidence that they know how to behave appropriately when they do encounter a fer-de-lance or a hog-nose viper. (And this when, not if, as they are mighty common, though cryptic.)

This is a difficult balancing act, to make sure that my students always behave in a safe manner but also are not irrationally afraid of their work environment. It’s something that you always have to have in your mind, every step you take, but also something that cannot overcome you. I imagine it’s not that different from working with a carcinogenic chemical in the lab. You follow safety guidelines, and stay calm, and everything is fine.

Now that my continued existence is more important to a couple other people than it even is to myself, I’m not going to take any personal safety risks for any reason. That means that I am consistently thinking about the safety of branches overhead and the likelihood that the patch of ground in front of me harbors a coiled-up reptile. I’m not afraid, but it’s always on my mind. How do I develop that attitude in my students? It’s taken long enough for me to come to that level of confidence and conscientiousness. So far, I just consistently talk about it calmly but sincerely, on a regular basis, and I walk the walk. My students consistently impress me in their professionalism in so many other ways, that I think they’re just fine with respect to safety.

This field season, things are going just fine with my students, as far as I can tell, just 2.5 days into their 2.5 months of research in the rainforest. I’ve got a great bunch. It also helps that 2 of the undergraduates are fathers like myself, and most of them have concerned mates back at home that are just as concerned as I am that they stay safe.

I think maintaining a safe environment starts with having mutual respect. If you communicate safety as a priority, and students truly respect you, then they should be behaving safely. If that statement isn’t true, then mutual respect at least helps grease the wheels for adherence to safety guidelines.

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