SAGE Musings: Highlights from a Field Safety Course

Kristie Bradford, Lone Star College – Tomball
published Jun 7, 2018 1:15pm

I am writing this Musing about the Field Leadership Safety course I took the Friday and Saturday before the Geological Society of America meeting in Seattle. I took this course for two reasons: 1. I really want to make sure that my field trips are as safe as possible, and 2. I am working to create a field course to the Florida Keys, so I figured taking a field safety course was in my best interest!

The book on which the course was based is Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments: A Process-Based Guidebook, written by Stephen R. Oliveri and Kevin Bohacs and published by AAPG (the American Association of Petroleum Geologists). Kevin Bohacs ran the course and I must say he is a brilliant instructor! Very knowledgeable and really quite funny! Take the course in Indianapolis next year if they offer it!

Here is a bit about why the book was written. ExxonMobil says "Safety is Not Proprietary." Dr. Kevin Bohacs, Senior Research Associate with ExxonMobil's Upstream Research Company, and Steven Oliveri, with the company's Medicine and Occupational Health department, co-wrote Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments as an external resource for universities and industries that conduct research in the field. "In 2003, we developed a company safety manual for our Upstream Companies because we would participate in field trips led by other companies and professors," said Bohacs. "We also learned that universities were finding it challenging to sponsor research trips in the field due to the risk of injuries and because of liability concerns by land owners. These issues prompted us to ask ourselves – how do we make these outings safe? Our answer was to make our safety manual a public offering of information."

The things I got out of this class:

Preparation and Planning

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Be proactive to prevent injury! The guidebook includes self-explanatory forms to perform a risk assessment for each place an instructor would plan to visit. These forms are VERY detailed. Knowing what could cause injury helps the instructor mitigate the risks.
  2. Planning and preparation prevent a bad situation from becoming a worse situation. The planning and preparation step is also INCREDIBLY detailed. The book has many forms and checklists to assist the instructor on planning and preparing for the trip. Health and safety is really important. They go so far as to list all of the telephone numbers for hospitals and emergency response organizations closest to the field trip location. The forms are taken into the field so that if someone is hurt, no one questions where to go or who to call. They also have forms to fill out when they are done with the trip to summarize what happened, what worked, and what didn't, and to note any changes from the last time the site was visited. They keep these forms in a field notebook so that anyone going to the site can see what happened on previous trips to the site.
  3. Set "go/no go" areas and conditions for each site during field reconnaissance. For example, for a no go area, no one is allowed past this point (marked with a visible marker or landmark). A no go condition would be something like a field trip along a high cliff is cancelled if there was a significant amount of rain that week, as that can make rock falls more likely.
  4. Plan to have no more than eight students per instructor.

Before Heading into the Field

  1. It is vital to begin a field trip with a safety briefing. In this briefing it is possible to go over the potential hazards at a site as well as inform the students that there will be boundaries, places they cannot go and things they cannot do, before they even get to the site. The advantage of this is that when they get to a location and there is an amazing wall of rock that looks like it would be fun to climb, students already know that they are not be allowed to climb it. This reduces the "loss of fun" aspect of the trip. This is one of the hardest aspects of field trips for me: where to set boundaries. Having a pre-trip briefing makes it much easier -- I would have set the boundaries during my trip planning and preparation, so I won't have to make these decisions on the fly.
  2. Before beginning the field activity, it is important to give students and instructors a clear way to communicate discomfort or feeling unsafe to the principal instructor. Using clear, pre-planned language will lead to better communication and safer field trips:
    • "I feel uncomfortable with this situation [give details]."
    • "I think this situation is unsafe because [give details]."
    • "Stop [this activity] right now!"

What to Carry/Have in the Field

  1. Always carry a first aid kit. What needs to be in the kit will be determined by where you are going. Since ExxonMobil is often in VERY remote locations, their first aid kit is in a back pack and includes a stretcher to carry someone who cannot walk. This is hard even with six people carrying the stretcher.
  2. Bring the first aid checklist. No one should be so good at first aid that they don't need a checklist -- that would mean they have students getting hurt frequently! The goal is to prevent injury so that first aid is unnecessary.
  3. Bring radios if you have a large group that could get spread out along a trail or over an area or if you are traveling as a convoy of vehicles. Cell phones often don't work in remote areas.
  4. If you will be stopping at road cuts:
    • Have traffic safety cones to put along the side of the road.
    • Park vehicles up traffic from where the students are working so that there are several tons of steel between oncoming traffic and the students. People will tend to move away from things along the side of the road so it is best to move them over before they reach the students.
    • Have every person in the group wear a safety vest.

Thinking and Talking about Safety is Everyone's Responsibility

  1. Model the behavior you want your students to follow.
  2. The protocols set forth in the book are industry protocols. Impressing upon students that this is the way professional geologists work helps to get buy-in.
  3. Focus on the big stuff, not the small stuff. If you fuss at students over every little thing that could hurt them, they get safety fatigue. Focus on the stuff that really matters. Ya know, pick your battles.
  4. It is important to stress that safety is everyone's goal and responsibility.
  5. While some students respond well to instructions like "Don't do X because you could get hurt," others may be more cautious if you remind them of their responsibilities to others. For example, you can impress upon them that if they get hurt, an instructor will have to attend to them, chances are the field trip would come to an end for the rest of the students, and it is possible that future students would no longer be able to go to that field site.

These are some of the major points I took from the class. There is so much more in-depth information in the book. There are protocols for nearly every field situation, from road cuts to remote deserts to snorkeling at a reef. There are even protocols for what to do if there is an accident and the media shows up. It is all based on the best way to prevent injury and to take care of the people on the trip. I know that I have much preparation to do before my field trips are up to industry standards. Most of mine are in parks or locations that are very safe and I will not need to do much, but I still need to do risk assessment. I do have one two-day trip that requires more work this summer.

The authors and their assistants have collected much data on field safety. These data show that ExxonMobil's trips, using the protocols and procedures in the book, have much lower incidence of injury and death than many other organizations/events, including college sports, both with and without contact components. They are in the process of publishing a paper with all of the data. These data can be really useful to take to administrators who are concerned that field trips are too much of a liability and should be eliminated.

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