The next question in our ask us anything series is from Kate. Paraphrasing: Why do we apparently take lab safety more seriously than field safety, when the latter often poses much greater risks? What does it take to improve safety during fieldwork, on both a personal AND institutional level?
There are really two questions here: why does lab safety seem to be taken more seriously than field safety, and how can we improve field safety?
I agree that lab safety does seem to be taken more seriously than field safety, at least on an institutional level. For instance, here at Calgary, everyone employed by the university–even office administrative staff who will never enter a lab–has to take a safety course that covers some elements of lab safety. Not everyone has to take a field safety course. I speculate that’s because people who work in labs (or elsewhere on campus) far outnumber those who work in the field, and because lab work is more visible to campus safety staff. But I only have my own mostly-not-field-based experience at one university to go on, so my experience may be atypical.
Re: improving field safety, it’s a very important question, but I’m not the best person to ask. Both because few of my students have ever worked in the field, and because if I’m honest I probably haven’t given them as much field safety training as I should have. Here’s a Small Pond Science post on basics of field safety. And here’s the University of Alberta page on field research pre-planning requirements.
I would also agree with the premise of the question that there is more emphasis on lab safety than field safety. I’m sure Jeremy’s theories about frequency and proximity are part of it. It also might be that field safety may just be more variable and difficult to come up with general protocols for. Lab safety is about chemicals (which have a few major classes: radioactives, mutagens, corrosives, infectious agents, etc) and dangerous machines (centrifuges and blades and lasers in most cases). But you could argue that the field is not that much more varied. Safety from bad weather, venomous animals, falls, boats, remote settings, and getting lost cover a pretty big part of the list.
Most campuses just leave this up to the PIs which is probably not a great idea as PIs have greatly varying backgrounds and trainings themselves and also – if we’re honest – have different levels of risk tolerance that may be higher than the university or their workers should be comfortable with.
As for what to do about it, I’m not sure. I have to say that as somebody who sometimes but not always has students in the field and who was not trained in my lab of origin in field safety, I haven’t found it super easy to find out what I need to do to keep students safe. I can and do talk to colleagues, but there ought to be more information around. And like Jeremy said, I probably hear more comments about lab safety than field safety just in passing over lunch, etc. I do think there might be a cultural deficiency around field safety. Few schools are as proactive and detailed as the U Alberta website that Jeremy linked to.
One thing I have discovered is that field safety emphasis does vary from place to place. I’m going to make a sweeping statement, but in my experience wildlife departments have more culture around field safety than ecology/evolution departments and university folks with ties to state or federal government (e.g. USGS cooperatives) have even more of a culture. That partly comes down to what fraction of a units’ people spend time in the field and partly down to how risk adverse the governing authorities are (with governments more risk averse than universities in my experience). I don’t know how to use this observation except it gives clues about who to go talk to. And it suggests it is possible to create a culture of lab safety.
A one afternoon course required of everybody doing research in the field or sending people into the field could cover a lot of the important material and leave no doubt about additional required trainings (e.g. water safety if boats are involved, first aid if a remote location is involved) and resources on campus. Several campuses I’ve worked on have made me take an afternoon course to be authorized to drive a high occupancy vehicle (i.e. 10 person van). You have to get several hours of training to submit an IRB application (doing human subjects studies even when they’re very innocuous). This doesn’t seem an unreasonable burden to me.