Ask us anything: field work safety

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?

Jeremy’s answer:

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.

Brian’s answer:

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.

14 thoughts on “Ask us anything: field work safety

  1. Our University’s Animal Care and Use Committee requires a Personnel Safety and Risk Assessment as part of our IACUC protocol submission, which applies to both field and lab based work but is only relevant for those of us handling vertebrate animals as part of research. I am not sure why that requirement is exclusive to projects that use animals, probably because there is an easy mechanism (the IACUC protocol) to implement it. In my Department (the wildlife dept at the same University as Brian) we have a fairly comprehensive safety training checklist that all students/faculty/staff engaged in fieldwork have to complete, including blanket training for everyone like CPR/First Aid and fieldwork safety basics, plus specialized training for those who need them (e.g. boat and snowmobile operation).

  2. This is an incredibly important subject, and I’ve written a bit about on my blog as well.

    I can think of a couple more possible reasons:
    – I feel that PIs with lab-related research spend more time in the lab than PIs with field research spend in the field. Thus, PIs are aware of the risks that labwork offers, but often forget the risk offered by fieldwork, as most of it is done by students.
    – Lack of qualified professionals to teach fieldwork safety. For example, general first aid courses are not applicable to field situations: whereas in a “normal” setting first aid is about keeping the person stable until professional help arrives, in a remote location the ambulance will not arrive. A decision has to be made about removing the person or someone leaving and searching for help. I took part in a wilderness first aid course once focused exactly on this kind of situation.
    – Limited funding: If there is a limited amount of funding, will people prioritize getting new data collection equipment, or personal safety equipment? Most of the ecology labs I’ve had contact with do not provide basic safety equipment (e.g. gaters) for the researchers. I think they should.

    What can we do about it? Well, there are some basic safety things that apply most of the time:
    – Do not do fieldwork alone (because if something happens, there will be no one to help you). Unless you really have to – in this case, let people know where you are working, when you are expected to get back, and what to do if you do not return by a certain time. This can be solved by PIs having two or more students working on related projects in the same field site, and helping each other.
    – Always have a vehicle ready: A practice I saw sometimes is that, if several people are working at nearby but different sites, the same vehicle drops them off and returns for them at the end of the day. There’s no cellphone coverage – so if something goes wrong, such as a snake bite, there’s no quick means of extraction.
    – Communication: if two or more teams are working in the same location, they should have radios or walkie-talkies for communication. Again, this depends on funding, and on PIs prioritizing this sort of equipment in their funding requests.

    Finally, I think that a one-afternoon course is not enough for field safety unless the field site is really close and accessible. The optimal time would be a two-day course (e.g. one weekend).

  3. Great question, and one that really strikes me where I’m at. Lab safety courses are not only available, but aggressively pushed and required of everyone, even if 99.9% irrelevant to some people (beware the great danger of the stapler!), and – importantly – fully paid for by the institution. Field safety is the wild west – up to the PI and at our own expense (clear disincentive to to anything at all). We (a group of ecologists) assemble whichever field researchers need the training, and if it’s enough people in a given year, we hire a specialist to give a course. I do think there are as many universals as there are for lab training, such as what to do in case of injury (various kinds) or being stuck in the wet/cold in a remote place. Good suggestions from Pavel.

  4. From a pessimistic, and rather depressing viewpoint, I’ll posit that at least at some institutions, a fair amount of the difference is because institutional priorities are for safety theatre, rather than for safety.

    Not an ecologist – but you might be surprised to know that some biophysicists have field stations too – so there may be institutional and departmental cultural differences, but around here, institutional, rather than PI-instigated safety rules are almost exclusively about mitigating institutional risk and creating appropriate “optics”, not about improving safety.

    Many, perhaps most of our institutional safety rules do little to improve safety, but do a lot to transfer any potential responsibility for accidents from the institution to the individual (for example, our institution requires a specific model of absolutely unusable safety goggles to be used in the lab at all times. They are amazing goggles – your eyes would probably survive a combined nuclear and biochemical weapons attack if you were wearing them – but they fog up instantly, making it utterly impossible to see what you’re doing. Sharps accidents, etc, go up dramatically when wearing these, but, these are now all “operator error” accidents, for which the institution can disclaim responsibility).

    For fieldwork, they just have folks sign blanket “I know what I’m doing and accept full responsibility to use all necessary safety equipment and procedures to prevent accidents” waivers (again transferring responsibility). I think they’re comfortable with this for the “out of sight out of mind” field work, because it’s unlikely for anyone to connect the random people out at the sampling site with the institution, so they’ve avoided any responsibility and it’s unlikely that any safety-gear violations would create a bad-optics moment for the institution. In lab, compliance to safety-theatre minutiae is mandatory, because one never knows when a donor might walk through and have a kitten because some student is wearing different goggles.

  5. This is something that bothers me a lot as well. Lab safety courses and biosafety courses are available at my institution at no cost to the PI (research overhead funds put to good use….), while I have to pay field relevant training out of research funds. While each field situation is different, there are certain risks that are relevant to all field programs that training could be available for. First aid and driver training (e.g. defensive driving) are two places where substantial risk reduction could be achieved for modest costs.

  6. 1. The Natural History Institute has a great manual of best practices:

    2. Get the researchers and faculty members in charge of field work to come together and design a program that follows both your institutional culture and accepted best practices. It is much better if these safety programs are designed bottom-up than forced on us top down. We, the researchers, need to take the initiative.

    3. In general marine/aquatic research programs have these kinds of things in place due to scuba and boating certification, so you can model after them.

    4. Tell your institution that you want it to fund a wilderness first responder course, this was the best thing I ever did to increase my situational awareness, my confidence to handle diverse circumstances in remote settings, and my knowledge about how to take care of the most common things that happen. Look for a course that is taught by a community college with an outdoors-focused program (I took mine at Colorado Mountain College, Summit County). Getting a WFA certification is probably more than you will ever actually need, but that’s better than having less experience and knowledge than you need.

    • Did you do the Wilderness First Aid, or Wilderness First Responder (or both?). I’ve sent my people to Wilderness First Aid, and have been wondering if Wilderness First Responder training is worth the time and additional cost for my folks, who aren’t really going to be out of contact with civilization for weeks at a time.

      • I did WFR because I felt that being team leader I should have the highest level of training available, but it is a big time and $ commitment. I think WFA would be a good choice for say, faculty teaching field courses that are generally within mobile phone coverage areas, and for grad students leading teams at a field station (where I would hope there is a higher level of preparation for emergencies.

  7. I’m guessing the “why” bit has more to do with frequency and visibility than variability. Lab work is ubiquitous in almost every STEM field (chemistry, physics, biology, etc), and it happens directly on campus, so accidents are highly visible to the entire campus community.

  8. The main issues in field safety are *extremely* variable. In Arizona, its best to have a snake-bite kit, in AK and BC its grizzlies; and all sorts of other animal and plant hazards around the world, not to mention heat and other physical dangers.

    Seems like there could be a standard wilderness safety manual with specific local info provided by PI.

  9. I will reiterate what Dr. Whitney said on twitter, above, and link to the FemFieldSecrets blog, which can be quite helpful:

    Also, regarding Brian’s comments on culture, I can vouch for the difference between campus and agency approcaches. My department on campus essentially doesn’t have any training for field safety, but I work with the US Forest Service, and we have a heavy focus on safety there and new people have to go through numerous safety trainings before being allowed to go into the field unsupervised.

  10. This is also an issue that affects graduate students working in the field themselves or working with field crews–often undergraduate assistants with minimal prior field experience. The training available within the university for my field assistants was minimal (a 20 minute online course on heat stress). I would have preferred them to have a full training like Forest Service research teams do, but couldn’t afford anything like that on my <$2000 research budget.

  11. This comment might seem stretching a bit too far but, I would say, dressing and conduct while working in areas with local communities should also be emphasised on, and for all genders.

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