Planning your field work? Have you thought about safety?

This post was originally peeked by a thread on reddit about lab safety horror stories, and is in fact horrifying. My experience lies in a different realm, field work, where safety is often also a big issue, though the guidelines around it are often missing, or totally ignored. I chatted very briefly with a few folks about this on twitter a week or so ago and my initial wanting to write this post was dampened by the realization that like the reddit post, this may spark a string of ‘oh you did that dangerous thing, mine was so much more dangerous’ and further fuel the masochistic dangerous mindset that often hangs over fieldwork and is very alienating to many, and dangerous for everyone.

My purpose here today isn’t to ask you to share your dangerous stories, chances are you have them, the times you’ve done something stupid and unsafe either by accident or on purpose, the times you’ve been goaded into it by your peers, your boss, or yourself because you had to ‘prove how tough you were’. The times you almost died, times you almost broke your leg, or whatever. Those details don’t matter, but I do want you to think, though not share, your experiences. I have a few terrifying ones, and I try to keep them fresh in my mind for one purpose, so I make sure they never happen to my technicians.

I’m a PhD student, I supervise 1-3 technicians a year during my fieldwork, I am a peer/mentor to other students in my department and elsewhere, and I am dedicated to helping create a safer and more inclusive place out of the wonderful world of field science. Since I am with a federal cooperative fish and wildlife research unit my techs have to go through lots of training, and while some of it is long and boring, it is all important and I make sure they do it, pay attention, and I test them over things throughout the season. I go out with them in the field at the beginning of the season and make sure they know how to safely operate an ATV, that they know how to back up a trailer, and most importantly they know that it is always OK to call me if they need help, no matter how ‘silly’ it may seem. I hired them because I know they are good workers, and good workers know that sometimes you need help, sometimes you say

‘No, I am not going to collect that data. This situation is not safe. My well being, the well being of my equipment and the well being of the organism I work with are not worth it’

At the beginning of the season I sit down my technicians and go over a long list of things, and the first thing is our four priorities

  • 1 - the safety of the crew (them and myself, them first)
  • 2 - the safety of the birds and wetlands
  • 3 - the safety of the equipment
  • 4 - collecting data

I look them all straight in the eye and say

‘I will never be upset if you come back without data because you choose to be safe, never. You are more important then my data. I know students who have had to call parents and say that their child died on their project. I am not going to call your parents.’

This might seem hyperbolic, and like I am a worry wort, but every field job is dangerous in its own way, and mine is no exception. Every field job has risks, some are riskier then others obviously, but all have risks and the supervisor along with the technicians need to know the risks and be trained in how to best avoid them and deal with them if they happen. Then the supervisor needs to model a work environment where avoiding those risks is the first priority.

Mocking technicians, telling them to ‘man up’ or ‘stop being such a wimp’ or ‘stop being lazy’ helps no one. If someone is not comfortable doing something, they shouldn’t be doing it, especially when it relates to safety. As I’ve interviewed each of my techs I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince them they don’t want to work for my project. I give them all the unpleasant parts, all the risks, and I tell them about how I try to mitigate these risks, but I want them to make an educated choice for themselves. Not everyone would enjoy doing my fieldwork, its not indication of their worth on any level if my project sounds awful to them and I don’t want to waste their time by painting a rosy picture of an experience they won’t enjoy and grow from.

I tell about my process this not because I think what I do is in any way exceptional, but because I want to encourage everyone when they sit down to plan a field project to think about safety at every step.

  • What equipment do you need to ensure safety (yes YOU should provide it, not the techs)?
    • helmets, first aid kits, snake chaps, gloves, special boots, hip waders, life jackets, gaiters, permethren, the list goes on…
  • How can you set up the methods so they are safe for you, your crew, and your organism/system?
    • Do you have to work 15 hours a day? Are the gains worth the loss of attention to safety late in the day?
    • Can extra time be given to more treacherous sites?
    • Can you send out your crew in pairs, or set up a design where they have to and are able to check in regularly to ensure safety?
  • How can you set up your work day so it is as safe as possible?
    • Can you minimize driving early or late in the day? minimize time spent along roadsides? send out spot units with your crew in case they don’t come back?
    • Can you set up check in times and places? Provide radios or other communication equipment in case of emergency? Can you buy lighter equipment to make it safer to carry long distances?
    • Can you set up protocols so your crew knows under what weather situations they should stop working (lightning, rain, wind)? Can you put together an extensive list of phone numbers and directions for how to contact and get to help in case your technicians can’t get a hold of you (just a simple binder with maps and telephone numbers will cover many situations)?
  • How should you advertise and interview for your position to ensure that the techs are prepared and qualified to handle the risks?
  • What training do you and your techs need?
    • First aid training (you should pay for them to get it if they don’t)
    • Equipment specific training (don’t assume they know how to use your model of GPS, that their compasses delineation is set correctly, that they know how to drive up hill in an ATV or how to cross water in a truck
  • How will you ensure that safety is important day to day on your project?
    • How will you make sure that you model good behavior?
    • How often will you talk to your technicians about safety, how often will you go out with them in the field to make sure they are being safe?
  • How will you prevent your project from becoming one big one-uping contest of who does the craziest thing?
    • How will you prevent yourself from feeding the fire that is ‘well you think that is bad, one time….’

For some projects, environments, and situations the answers to some of these questions will not be easy, some places are just plain dangerous to work, I’ve been there, its dicey, but those last two questions are ones that YOU have control over. YOU control how you treat safety, you control the mood of your crew, and you are responsible for stepping in if it heads in a negative direction. Even with the best planning a crew can head south without good leadership, and its important to check your self frequently to ensure that you are placing safety first.

It is also important to remember that even with the best planning accidents will happen, and that is why you were trained, to administer first aid, get a person to the hospital, help them in whatever way they need. If you plan well these situations will be uncommon and you will be ready to help, and that is what is important. This is another important moment where your attitude all along is vital. Technicians will not always admit to being injured if they fear being seen as weak. YOU set the tone, and you need to make sure your techs are comfortable asking you for help.

So think it over, remember your close calls, your accidents, your crazy experiences that never should have happened, do you want your technician to go through that? how can you make every effort to prevent it? Safety is not an accident, it requires intentional planning, and should be everyones first priority.

I’m happy to hear your thoughts, but not your field horror stories, either via email or twitter (@RallidaeRule

Written on April 30, 2015