Field work encompasses a wide range of activities from short local day trips to extended international stays. Principal Investigations and field-site managers are responsible for providing a safe work environment for students and employees whether the activities take place on or off campus. Unlike working within laboratories, field work introduces hazards and risk that are sometimes very difficult or impossible to control. Understanding the risk associated with the field work allows you to prepare for the dangers you may face.
As outlined in the Campus Administrative Manual, the Principal Investigator has the overall responsibility for maintaining a healthy and safe environment within their areas under their supervision and are responsible for the safety of activities, procedures and operations under their control or direction. Providing researchers with the training and resources to conduct field work safely is of utmost importance. The PI assigns team leaders, works with the team to develop safety plans, reviews relevance of safety information, determines training requirements, and makes decisions to suspend activities when deemed unsafe.
The Team Leader is selected by the PI and is an authority in the field to verify required equipment and supplies are packed, ensure team members have received proper training, postpone work if conditions are unsafe, resolve or report conflicts that arise in the field, monitor for signs that will impact health and safety, and provide updates to the PI as necessary. The Team Leader acts as a liaison between the entire team and the PI, if the PI is not on the trip.
All members of the team are responsible for reporting unsafe conditions, reporting incidents, following safety procedures, monitor others in the group for signs of stress or illness, and understand the hazards encountered, associated risk, and prevention or mitigation strategies.
The entire team is responsible for contributing their thoughts and ideas to the safety plan.
Every research group involved in field work should develop a safety plan accessible to all personnel involved in the activities.
Development of field safety plans is critical for identifying and mitigating risk in the field. These plans allow you to prepare for situations you may encounter and know how to respond. The purpose of the plan is to make sure all staff and students are not caught unprepared and are aware of hazards they may encounter.
The plan is composed of information relevant to the specific hazards and control measures for the field work, and it is used as a safety resource for personnel. The depth of information provided in the plan should be commensurate with the complexity and risks associated with the field work. It is important to tailor the plan for the specific project, so it is an effective guide to lower risk to individuals.
A field safety plan template is available and may be used if it is useful for the project, but University researchers are not required to use this specific template to create their field safety plan. Below are 8 areas to incorporate into a safety plan. All 8 areas are likely needed for almost all projects encountered in university field work. The list is not exhaustive and other relevant information may be necessary. The list is meant to identify areas to consider while you are planning the research project.
Besides hazards specific to the site, cover any information important to know. Lack of proper site-specific information may lead to unnecessary conflict with the public or law enforcement. Project Site Information Template
Include policies on traveling and expectations on work at the field site.
Establish a means of communication among the field workers and back to campus or base camp, especially in areas with poor cell phone coverage. Determining a method of communication is important during emergencies and unanticipated conflict.
Cover information on how to respond in case of unexpected events (vehicle break down, accidents, injury, illness).
Provide a list of items that should be checked and prepared before each trip. Checklists are an easy way to prepare for field work.
Outline training requirements for field work and activities to be performed. Training includes reviewing the contents of the field safety plan in addition to other expectations for the particular project. Training often overlooked may include how to change a tire, how to de-escalate a situation, etc.
Information on commonly encountered hazards and activities during field work are available in the DRS Library.
The three keys to creating a safe field safety program are to PLAN, PREPARE, and IMPLEMENT.
The planning phase is when the research project is being developed and before you head out to the field. Consider all the hazards and risks associated with the project. Many of these are transferrable between different projects. Consider the skill levels of students and employees and how that will factor into risk. Researchers with years' experience may contribute a lot of the important information during planning, but those new to the work may be just as valuable in identifying areas of concern. During this phase, the field safety plan is developed. This can be a team effort led by the Principal Investigator.
Preparation for work in the field takes your field safety plan and forms a bridge with the actual field work. Preparing for the work includes reading through your field safety plan and related project-specific checklists to make sure necessary supplies are packed. This phase allows you to double check information like proper training, supply lists, and weather forecast. If you realize conditions are not ideal as you are preparing to head to the field, a decision to postpone the work may result. The Principal Investigator or Team Leader may lead this preparation.
Implementation puts all the planning and preparation into action. In this stage you conduct your work, but you should always be aware of the conditions and surroundings, and you can return to the previous planning and preparing steps if necessary. In field work, there are forces beyond your control. It is important to be aware of when it is safe to proceed and when it is necessary to stop work. Situations could include unexpected weather, conflict with the public, injury, hazard, or risk not previously considered, etc.
Incidents in the field should be reported to a supervisor or Principal Investigator. If an injury was involved, complete the First Report of Injury form.
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Attention to field safety has grown in recent years. Below are some articles researchers may find useful to include in their field safety plan.
Playing It Safe in Field Science
Safe fieldwork strategies for at-risk individuals, their supervisors and institutions