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?
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?