Safety in the field


Here is a reminder: safety comes first.

I recently heard some reports from a student who was working with lab group in the field — the group was unprepared for injuries, and hadn’t developed adequate precautions for some major risks. A lot of field scientists are okay with a certain level of personal risk as they are doing their own fieldwork, and when they start supervising others, they can make the tragic mistake of implementing their own risk management practices (or the lack thereof) for their field crew. Just because some people are willing to cut corners for their own safety, that doesn’t make it okay to cut the same corners for others in the group. Also, when one person is accustomed to taking safety risks, this promotes an environment that can put all members of the group at risk.

Here are some basic questions that everybody in the field team needs to be able to answer:

  • What are the safety guidelines for the field work that everybody must follow?
  • If a member of the party is injured or has a major or minor medical issue, who do they report this to?
  • Where is the first aid kit?
  • How do you activate a plan for evacuating someone who is seriously injured?
  • Have you been told that safety is the highest priority, and more important than collecting data?
  • Do you know the major existing risk factors and how to minimize the probability of an accident or incident? (Risk can be managed but not eliminated.)
  • What are the mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment and assault?
  • What preventive steps are taken to protect members of the team from harassment and assault?
  • Is there institutional coverage for costs associated medical emergencies? If the work is international, do you have travel insurance and how do you use it if needed?

Yes, that’s a rattlesnake at the base of the tree where we were standing.

I’d like to point out to junior scientists that if you have concerns that your leaders are not adequately protecting your safety, you have the latitude (and the responsibility to yourself) to make sure you don’t end up in an unsafe situation. Sometimes, in the course of fieldwork, crew members are not aware of potential risks until they become familiar with the site (for example, unstable trails, venomous snakes, inadequate protection from vector-borne diseases, risk of lightning storms). If you were not informed of these risks and experience them in the field, it’s okay to call it quits until steps are taken to keep you safe.

Supervisors should be dealing with risk management matters before team members get into the field, so that they know what to expect and how they need to behave to protect themselves. If a team member feels unsafe, this is the responsibility of the PI. If someone comes to you about safety, their concerns matter, even if their concerns aren’t ones that you are personally worried about.

What do you do to ensure the safety of your group? Have you been part of an unsafe field team, and how did you handle this situation?

9 thoughts on “Safety in the field

  1. Oh man, these are such great questions, and I hope this turns into a good conversation!

    I have, twice, been in unsafe field situations. The first time I stayed pretty quiet in the moment but then reported the professor to his department when we got back to campus. (He was among other things driving drunk with undergrads in the car, I feel totally fine about my decision to report, although nothing came of it.) The second time I was lucky enough to be in a position to refuse to do the thing that I was being asked to do and to get myself and another field assistant to safety. In both cases, I learned really valuable lessons about what (not) to do when supervising others in the field!

  2. I had not fully realized the risks I was taking in the field until the first time I was supervising a student. For me, grizzly encounters, crawling relatively blind in rattlesnake habitat and spending time crouching down, with headphones on, in cougar territory was all just part of the fun of field season. This year, though, I was supervising a graduate student with limited field experience and no experience in habitat with large carnivores. I spent a lot of time modifying my normal protocol on the fly so as to accommodate my new realization that I could get someone killed. Surprisingly, it’s hard to find bear bells in remote locations, and its hard to teach someone how to spot rattlesnakes who isn’t used to looking for them. I know that next time the majority of the training I’ll do will be for personal safety and NOT how to collect the best data.

  3. Thanks to both of you, Jade and Sarah – these are the kind of examples I’m thinking of! There isn’t anybody training scientists how to become supervisors, after all.

  4. What are the institutional policies for fieldwork risks in US? Most unis here in Australia have risk assessments as part of standard travel procedures. At the start of every new field project you have to fill in a full risk assessment and identify all possible risks you might face in the field, and then every subsequent travel request has to have a field risk assessment for that trip attached or you can’t get approval to travel. While I’m sure some people do cut corners once they get out into the field, and we all whinge about having to fill them in, it does help to keep the safety issue at the forefront of your mind!

  5. In my experience, Canadian universities have similar risk assessment / field work safety documentation requirements as Manu describes for Australia. Filling those forms out for the first time was quite interesting, though not particularly surprising. There’s a rubric to work through that combines the likely outcome of some particular hazard happening (minor delay, minor injury, significant property damage / loss, major injury, death) and the probability of that thing happening (pretty much every day out to I doubt I’ll see this happen in my lifetime). Common things that kill people obviously get ranked as very high priorities and you spend most of the rest of the form describing how you’re going to reduce those risks and keep everybody safe.

    Which risk is always the highest priority, for every field site?
    The answer is always “driving”. Even if the field site is so remote you get dropped off with your camping gear on the side of a mountain by a helicopter and when you’re working you’ll be 100km from the nearest road, the greatest risk comes from driving – just the taxi ride to the airport is the single greatest threat you’ll face all season.

    For the work I’ve been doing the past few summers (restoration ecology in disturbed wetlands, especially peatlands), we drive to the site every day, and drive between sites in the work truck. It’s a pretty safe site overall – wildlife like black bears, moose, and white-tail deer are around but very unlikely to approach us or even show up on the actual site (so the risk there is hitting a large animal on the highway – driving, again!), and there are no venemous snakes and very few venemous spiders in central Alberta; the entire site is flat, but you could trip into a drainage ditch if you’re not careful around the 0.1% of the area with such ditches. It’s restricted access because the site is the lease area operated by the peat extraction company that we work with, and they have a really good safety record (the sign out front says more than 4000 days without a single LTA (lost-time-or-accident)). We have plans in place for all that driving (obey speed limits, seatbelts ALWAYS, zero alcohol before driving, watch out for wildlife, other drivers, and poor road conditions) and we discuss those plans several times over the summer. We also have plans for things like wildlife encounters (“go to the truck”), lightning (“go to the truck”), and what to do if somebody gets a minor injury (“go to the truck, or take the first aid kit with you when you’re far-ish from the truck”). We have emergency contact info for the company we work with and they have their own well-established incident reporting / response system in place. So far, we’ve only had to call them when we get the truck stuck (“Get out of the truck, but don’t go too far”).

    I’ve also been doing a bunch of work with oil companies, instead of the peat industry. They take safety very seriously. I’ve had wildlife training (including practicing with dummy bear spray), lots of First Aid training, H2S-Alive (SCBA funtimes), and detailed site orientation sessions that always start with some variation of “Welcome! The exits are here and here, the muster station is out front, turn right as you leave the building”. On-site, we are required to wear full PPE, including hard hats, goggles, long-sleeve shirts, gloves, high-vis vests, and steel-toe boots. Researchers like us have been banned from these sites for taking any of those things off even for a few minutes outside of a designated PPE-free zone. Employees at those companies have been fired on the spot for safety violations ranging from smoking in no-smoking zones (basically everywhere, these are oil & gas extraction and processing facilities) to driving 1km/h over the posted speed limit – their trucks have speed-monitoring GPS systems that continuously report back to the plant Safety Supervisor. His job is highly ranked, just under the director of the entire operation, and everybody takes what he says seriously. He has the authority to kick people off site – up to and including total evacuation – for any reason he likes.

    My PhD work was in the high Arctic, so we buzzed around in Twin Otter airplanes and occassionally in a Bell 206 helicopter. We had guns (12-ga shotgun) for predator deterence (i.e. polar bears), and parts of the environment were decidely hazardous – freezing cold water (with bears), unstable ice blocks stranded by the tide (that bears hide behind), unstable rock slopes (that look like bears from a distance), and severe isolation – in the event of a bear encounter (to take just one example) help would be between 4 (if we’re lucky) and up to 96 hours away. I developed a healthy bearanoia on those trips.

    We got plenty of training for all of those hazards (i.e. bears bears bears, first aid, bears, don’t cut your head off getting into the helicopter, bears, guns, bears, more guns, bears). My PhD advisor led by example, and took safety seriously. It’s one of the things I really appreciate about how he supervised students. It never turned off, either, he was the one to pull the fire alarm when some students in another lab put too much organic matter into a drying oven set to too-high a temperature, then yelled at them to get the hell out of the building while they were panicking about the billowing smoke.

    Sometimes I forget that the people I work with in the field – grad students and summer-assistant undergrads – have not received the full training and induction in safety culture that I have gotten, particularly the people working at the peat extraction sites who have never worked at the oil company sites. The weirdest and most frustrating encounters I’ve had have been with one particular student who has repeatedly tried to not wear her seatbelt in the truck. I’ve gotten pushback when I’ve said “Please put on your seatbelt” and I just. don’t. get it. It blows my mind, and then I get angry and shouty, and eventually she relents and puts the damn thing on. That tends to ruin my day because I’ll spend the rest of the day ruminating on it, alternating between getting mad at her again (keeping it in my head, though) and getting mad at myself for losing my cool. I really don’t like it when that happens, but I can post-hoc rationalise it (to some extent) simply by imagining the consequences – for EVERYBODY – of a vehicle collision and somebody’s not belted in. I’d rather be the volitile angry post-doc than the bearer of bad news. And I’m pretty sure the other people are aware that this is pretty much the only issue I blow up about (though I did get a bit shouty when somebody on my team accidentally muzzle-flashed me with the 12-ga one time in the Arctic).

    The website field for the details below doesn’t like my blog’s url so I’ll just put it here

  6. This year we incorporated a new element into our standard safety training for doing field research at a tropical forest field station. Although I have moved more and more into reducing lecture and adding in active learning in the classroom, I realized that our safety orientation consisted of handing them a document to read (with no way to check if they had) and having them listen to me talk about the endless details a person has to pay attention to. Even my eyes glazed over!

    Our standard procedures include:

    — orientation by International Programs Office and by team leaders before leaving campus, this involves general concepts of international travel safety (including issues of infectious disease, sexual assault and harassment, and substance use).

    — serious speech by me about how they are representing not only our team but the College, me personally, and US scientists in general.

    — conscientious modeling precaution and practicing what I preach

    –having a sign-in-and-out rule

    — spending several days at the start of the season quietly observing how each team member moves and works in the field.

    –being willing to adjust plans if there is someone who doesn’t seem to be observant, or is not particularly agile, or does not seem to pay attention to the guidelines.

    This year I added a couple of things, which I’ll be developing more fully for future field seasons, and I have a few other ideas that I’ll be working on. Here’s two that wor

    1, Once we got on site, students worked in teams to make a prioritized list of what they perceived as the 3 greatest risks they faced. After letting them work on it a bit we moved into a discussion of their ideas. Not surprisingly, they unanimously picked venomous snakes as the greatest risk. After discussion, they realized there are events that are more probable but generally less risky (e.g. bullet ant sting, heat exhaustion) and events that are extremely high risk but less probable (venomous snake bite). The teams then each took one of the risks and figured out a) how best to prevent it happening, and b) suggested protocol if it happened. I worked with each of the teams to refine their ideas and then we worked as a group on a plan to avoid dangerous events and how to handle any emergency (or urgency). This was time-consuming and somewhat exhausting but ultimately I think really worth it. Students had a sense of agency in developing our protocols and I am very sure they remembered them better. In the future I think I will get everyone to write up their plans, and then follow up on this exercise after the first week to see if we need to make any changes.

    Another exercise involved “what to always have with you in the field”. Everyone brought their day pack to a group meeting. I had a bunch of stuff laid out to start generating ideas, and gave everyone paper slips on which they were asked to sketch each object they thought they should always have in their field packs. After everyone did their sketches and put those in their bags, we rotated the packs and each team member laid out and organized the slips in the pack they were handed. They could then add an item, or sign off on the pack as “good to go”. We did this through a few rotations and then discussed until we arrived at standard set of items. In the future we’ll do this and then make a posted check-sheet in the student lab.

    The goal here was not to have safety “lite”, but to have each team member really invested in ensuring everyone’s safety.

  7. Great comments here. One of the things I do in my group at the beginning of the season is a meeting where all the standard hazards we typically encounter are discussed.

    I explicitly tell each and every field team member at that meeting that they are authorized to stop work if there is any situation they are uncomfortable with. No-one, no matter what their seniority is relative to the person making the decision, is authorized to override that persons decision. Most importantly I will ALWAYS back up that persons decision, regardless of what I might have done in the same situation.

    If that occurs, then post-incident we will discuss and as a group make decisions about how to respond in a similar situation in the future. Regardless of that discussion and future recommendations, however, I will back up the decision as made and will publicly commend the individual for thinking about safety first.

    In my lab driving is also a large hazard. I have specific workday length guidelines (including driving). If my crew is tired, I always encourage them to find a hotel, rather than trying to drive home (I always cover the costs).

    Hope everyone has a safe and productive field season!

  8. I’m a grassland ecologist, so never have any shade. I have about 15 yrs experience working in 90-110 degree temps, but my students do not. I realized early on that I needed to encourage them to take mini breaks, take our lunch break in the shade or sometimes AC (even though that often means driving 10 minutes or more each way), and let them know that I do not expect them to work as quickly as I do-15 years experience means I’m used to the conditions, but they are not. In addition, at the beginning of the field season (or on hot class field trips) I’ve started checking how many liters of water students have. 3 liter minimum means just that, but 80% of students think less is fine. It’s really challenging for me to carry extra water for students (esp now at 5 months pregnant!) but so many times students don’t follow my directions. So now, I check before we leave and stop at a gas station on the way out if my 3 liter rule isn’t being observed :) best decision ever.

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