Field season safety: a tale in two parts

Field season is coming up fast as the spring semester winds down, and even though I’m done with fieldwork now, it’s on my mind as my labmates gear up for theirs. Field season safety in particular is on my mind. There have been great recent articles and blogs about the dangers of sexual assault and unwanted contact while conducting fieldwork, especially in remote locations or isolated conditions. But I want to focus on two different, potentially overlooked and very American aspects of safety: cars and guns. Today I’m just talking about cars and road safety, and my next post will be about guns.

Working in the “field,” wherever that may be, often requires driving to field sites. For my own research, I was often driving for more hours in a given day than sampling at each site, due to the distance between field sites and frequency of sampling. While the sheer number of hours I’ve logged behind the wheel may be at the far end of the spectrum, driving for at least two hours per fieldwork day is common for others in my lab and department.  Since fieldwork is often collaborative, the driving is also often split between the research team. This means that undergraduate students, technicians, graduate students, and postdocs all rotate driving shifts throughout the day and across the field season. I never gave much thought to trusting my field crew with driving and our field vehicle until an incident a few years back. Two undergraduates who worked for me and I were in the car. One of the undergraduates was driving, and as he was pulling out from a field site, he took a weird angle going up a short hill (this was not on a paved road) and our vehicle rolled over. Fortunately, no one was injured and we were traveling so slowly (since we had just started the vehicle) that the car was not totaled. However, it was a deeply humbling and frankly terrifying experience for everyone involved.

Previously, I thought nothing of handing over the keys to my undergraduate employees. They are hardworking, energetic, and all around excellent people. But did I know anything about their driving records when hiring them? Only that they met the university’s minimum requirements for driver safety – which involves owning a license and having a clean record for some number of years. My school requires no extra training or certification. After this incident, our lab looked into the possibility of proactively signing up all employees (and future employees at their start date) for a local defensive driving course, but this proved infeasible due to a lack of funding. Apparently some universities offer this type of safety

Even if my employees all had perfect driving records and skills, our other revelation was that anything can happen on the road (e.g. we could have been hit by someone else). This is always true, but we had taken for granted that our important work was at the field sites and driving between them was a non-event, almost auto-pilot.  I looked at other universities’ safety guidelines for fieldwork and vehicular safety barely gets a mention (check out Duke’s – they literally give more attention to the plague than to car safety). Yet this must be somewhat common. In the past two years at my university, I know of two major fieldwork vehicle incidents. One involved undergraduates driving a car and losing control, skidding off-road and rolling the vehicle multiple times. Thankfully no one was injured. In a separate incident, a van of graduate students was in a head-on collision with another vehicle. This resulted in the driver of the other vehicle dying.   Neither of these incidents were reported in campus publications; I only heard of them through friends.

What gives? As someone who wants to be a good and responsible mentor to my undergraduate employees, covering this topic is important. Conversely, we’d had situations in our lab in recent years where technicians felt unsafe driving with a particular graduate student. They felt powerless to complain about their supervisor’s driving behavior, especially since there was no clear resolution. I wish my advisor would allocate money from each grant to cover participation for each lab member in driver safety (is that allowed? Would NIH or NSF or USDA cover that??). If that isn’t allowable, universities need to step up in a way that isn’t just publishing safety PDFs.  It’s reminiscent of recent demands for beefed up lab safety protocols after preventable accidents and insufficient (or nonexistent) training for students and other personnel. As someone who doesn’t use flammable or carcinogenic bench chemicals but had years of a trucker lifestyle in the name of research, we need to acknowledge that cars are just as dangerous – so that we as individuals and institutions can prepare and act accordingly to keep everyone safe.

If you do research that requires lots of driving, what’s your approach? How are you training your field crew? Sage wisdom and cautionary tales welcome in the comments. Hope everyone has a safe and productive field season ahead.

32 thoughts on “Field season safety: a tale in two parts

  1. At my institution, no student or employee is allowed to have the keys to a university vehicle- or even be reimbursed for a rental car! – without proof of having completed a certified defensive driving course (the university provides them for free every month) within the prior 2 years!

  2. I’ve been to a field site where someone regularly driving (within property bounds) did not even have a license – another who had to use a cushion to reach pedals on an old car. Low speeds – but isolation and poor cell phone or radio reception a big problem! In hindsight – a bit scary.

  3. From POV of former EMT Paramedic. Defensive driving courses are a good idea and requiring them to drive on a field trip is an excellent rule. So is some knowledge of what to do when things go wrong. Know what emergency response to call–and what resources that response has in hand. Know how to report an accident: where, when, how many injured, how severely, what training if any the people onsite have. Do not depend on your cellphone’s GPS to give response team an accurate location; you may be stuck between two hills and not get enough satellite signals. Someone should be assigned the task of monitoring your route (road names, numbers) and distance from easy-to-find points–towns, major intersections, where you turned off the big highway, etc.

    A good call-in: “This is Jane Doe, from Slumgullion University, and our geology van rolled over five minutes ago. Four passengers and the driver were injured; two have broken bones, one was knocked out briefly and still isn’t making sense, one says his back hurts, one says he can’t move his legs. We’re nine miles west of Hicktown, a half mile beyond the bridge over Stinking Creek, on county road 1143. A bad call: “Help! We need an ambulance right away. Right away! It’s a wreck! People are hurt–hurry! Bring oxygen!” Bad calls lead to questions which the upset person can’t answer because they’re panicky. “Where? Well, we left at six this morning and then we drove to this quarry and when we finished there we were headed for Wildtown for lunch, but we had this wreck…road number? I don’t know it’s some county road Barry took off on because he said it was a shortcut…” (And yes, we got calls like that.) Since you can’t know who will be conscious and able to call for help, everyone in the car should know how. (I taught a class of high schoolers what to do when they wrecked their cars–and several of them did a great job, except in avoiding the crash.)

    Everyone in the car should know and observe safety rules, which include (besides the usual “everyone in a seatbelt”) not overloading the vehicle, balanced loading of the vehicle (make sure it still handles normally), driving speed responsive to road conditions (not the need to be at another site by a given time), not distracting the driver with loud talk, loud radio, throwing potato chips at each other, etc. especially at critical moments (turning, passing, negotiating a narrow bridge.) Note that a safe driver in a light (compact, subcompact) car lightly loaded will not know how far it takes to safely stop a 12 passenger van with 8 big people and the back end full of gear. It’s a good idea to give those who’ve never driven anything larger than a small car a chance to get the feel of a pickup or van or even fully loaded big car on the football stadium’s parking lot. Those who’ve never driven off-road do not automatically know how to drive in mud, across shallow streams, on beach sand, up and down natural slopes. Unfortunately, defensive driving classes don’t usually get into “off-road safety” (or they didn’t back when I was more aware of them.) Decisions about who drives which portion shouldn’t be random, but based on the driver’s experience in handling the conditions of that phase.

    When a vehicle is involved in a wreck, assess each person involved for ABCS-LOC (airway, breathing, circulation, spinal cord, and Level of Consciousness.) Someone talking/screaming has intact airway and is breathing, but this can change. Obvious bleeding is, well, obvious, but internal bleeding isn’t. At least half the people on a field trip should know how to find a pulse and count it, as well as monitoring breathing rate. CPR certification is a good idea, too. Spinal cord injuries are always a possibility in a wreck…and so on. This is getting too long. But the thing is, what you need to know right after a wreck is pretty simple stuff: are they breathing, are they bleeding out, are they responsive, if conscious, are they oriented (know who they are, what just happened, what day it is) , can they say what hurts? The more the passengers know, the more they can do for themselves and the more seriously injured. And know what NOT to do.

  4. I’ve definitely thought about this. I don’t have my field techs drive, though; we drive little enough (4 hrs on the days to and from the field, ~1 hr per day while in the field) that I can do it all. But it does sometimes strike me how much responsibility this is, which no one ever mentions. People think about whether you’re taking them into bear country or onto high cliffs; they don’t ever seem to think, “I’m trusting this random grad student to drive me safely for a lot of hours this summer.” Or maybe they do think it, and just figure they aren’t supposed to mention it.

    • I had a lot of days when the driving was 8+ hours. Honestly, I didn’t want to do that all alone – especially since it meant my techs were just being paid to listen to the radio with me then. And I didn’t get into this in the post but I was even more conflicted about road safety and trusting drivers while conducting fieldwork pregnant last year… no easy answers there.

    • What other ideas do you have for proactive driver improvement / quality assurance for fieldwork and fieldcrew safety? Defensive driving courses are often offered all over the country and frequently.

      • Defensive driving is all about dealing with traffic on public roads. Rolling a car while off-road has nothing to do with traffic on public roads. If off-road driving is an issue, then people need off-road driving instruction.

        • I mentioned the anecdote to explain what brought me to think more broadly about driver safety; I did not say (nor think) that it would have prevented the incident.

        • It may be different here downunder, but the defensive driver course I once did had us on skid pads and other “dangerous” road conditions, and we learnt strategies to cope – useful strategies that I have used from time to time both on city and country roads.

  5. Off road operation of vehicles is WAAAAAY different than driving on a paved surface. Yes- roll overs are frequent when going off-road. I do a ton of field work, and i live very remotely- virtually on the continental divide. The skills you need to drive off road are a select set, and will not be acquired through any university safety certification process. You- as the PI, are responsible. My policy has long been that no student or employee operates off road until they at least have one field season under their belt. Every time an opportunity arises for a “teaching moment” I take advantage of it for just this reason. You also need to ensure all vehicles taken off road for research/ work purposes have received full recent inspections. Imagine breaking down 100 miles from the nearest human???

    As a PI, I am fully certified in paramedic trauma-related treatment. Yes- it was a four month course, meeting four times a week. Yes, it took a big chunk out of my schedule. Yes, I thought it was a pain in the ass. Then, I rescued a female graduate student from drowning and revived her. Yes, we both are delighted I received that training. Imagine how I would feel today if that young lady died???

    I once had an employee that did not understand the concept of the speed limit. He was from a country that does not post speed limits. Despite my best efforts, and plenty of discussion on the topic, it just did not sink in. So after 3 months of trying to change things, I simply informed he he would not be operating vehicles in the field. Sometimes, you do have to take steps to protect the greater good of the group.

    • That’s great that you have taken such steps to be trained. I am a graduate student on the project and can tell you that none of the 5 professor PIs on this grant have such training nor discussed road/driving safety with anyone on the research team. Glad to hear you took the worthwhile time and resources to get training that helped one of your students. Hopefully more labs will do the same.

    • And I appreciate you pointing out that taking safety courses takes time, energy, and resources. Even though I’m not the research PI, I would be happy to take that time to get safety certifications to keep myself and my team safe — if only the PIs would provide the resources (we have a large federal grant, do you know if these would cover the training that you had?)

      • I do not know if a grant would cover those kinds of costs. I paid out of pocket for my certification, but it was not cost-prohibitive. Often this kind of training is discounted when it is hosted by taxpayer supported institutions- like fire departments, university hospitals or police departments. You might check with your local department of commerce to find out who is offering courses in your area.

  6. Also, while this is more pragmatic than purely safety:

    Be aware of what your insurance, and your assorted student driver’s insurances say about them driving a vehicle as part of their employment, and what the state laws regarding drivers’ licenses say in your states of operation. I have not followed all of the rules recently, but a few years ago, in some states, driving a vehicle as part of employment, required a chauffeurs license (bizarrely, in some, except for when the driver was actually employed as a chauffeur – government – who knew?).

    Insurance companies aren’t your friend, and if there are similar laws where you operate, you could easily end up with an insurance company arguing that they weren’t obliged to pay on a claim, because the driver did not actually hold an appropriate license to operate the vehicle in the capacity of a paid driver.

    Stay safe.

  7. This post prompted me to look into whether off-road driving courses exist, and they certainly do. It’s likely (fun) overkill for students, but maybe worth it for folks that expect many field seasons in the future. It could be a good idea for a lab retreat. See the International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers’ Association ( for a list of providers.

  8. I have thought about it quite a bit as my lab logs a lot of km on gravel roads. Many of my students do not have experience driving large pickups and towing trailers. In addition, a few years ago, two of my students were rear-ended on a city street as they were returning to campus from from field work (no injuries fortunately, but a totaled vehicle).

    The lack of driving safety oversight at my University is frustrating. We have courses for every potential lab danger you can imagine, but raise the question of driver training (even a basic classroom defensive driving course) and you get a blank look. I mentioned this need in the followup to the rear-end collision mentioned above. My student was not technically at fault as she was hit from behind, however she had had to brake suddenly when traffic ahead of hear unexpectedly slowed. More defensive driving would likely have avoided her hard brake application, and thus given the car that hit her more time to react. Administrators thought defensive driver training was a great idea until I asked about whether the health and safety unit could offer the course.

    I only allow my lab members to drive once I ridden with them on several occasions and am satisfied that they are able to handle the vehicle. If they are a competent driver but need experience in heavier vehicles, I will turn the driving over to them as soon as we are out of town on a quieter road. I expect all rules of the road (including speed limits) will be strictly observed, and ensure that I also follow those rules. My standard is – if I think I could trust them to safely drive my children to school, then they can drive. I would have no hesitation in pulling driving privileges if that trust is lost.

    In response to the threads above describing one person doing all the driving…. I find those very concerning. Driver fatigue is likely a frequent cause of incidents (lets not call them accidents because they are not accidental). I have a 12 hour workday limit including driving time. That can be extended to 14 hours in unusual circumstances if the drivers are able to rotate every hour or so. Otherwise my crew is expected to book into a hotel (I cover the expenses including meals). I always tell my field crew their first job is to get home safe, and that I will never question a safety related decision.even if it means missed samples etc.

    • Agreed that safety is the first priority — since we have tornadoes occasionally in this region during field seasons, we do educate our field crews on tornado and severe storm safety

    • You might have already done so, but I advice caution when exceeding 8 hour days for your employees & students. I know the US BLM & US Refuge System apply an 8 hour rule to many employees- including seasonal & volunteer positions. Statutory requirements can be very complex. For example, in Colorado, the state legislature passed something on the order of 140 rules that must be adhered to for crews working in remote locations. So my advice is, if you, your company or university have not already done so- then find an attorney specializing in environmental health & labor law to figure it out for you.

      • This is a great and really important point you make – and there is enough to discuss there for a whole other post (or many). If I were to tell my PIs that workdays needed to conform to an 8 hour workday in the field (for my techs’ safety, etc.) – they would say no. They would (and have) wax nostalgic about working 18 hour days 6-7 days a week while doing their graduate fieldwork (who knows if they are telling the truth). They, and they are all men with stay at home wives who take care of their homes and children, would see that as a lack of commitment on my part. And unfortunately this trickles down to impressions they form about techs and undergrads — I had one PI tell me that he didn’t hire work-study students because those students clock hours and he views this as a desire for money instead of experience (I, on the other hand, think this is insane and classist and actively choose to hire work-study students). Personally, as a general rule I plan for 8 hour days for myself and my crew, with the understanding that it might run long (except for a few field routes that are just too long to accomplish in a normal day – but then I offer per diem and camping expenses to my crew out of my grant) and that they are paid for all of their time — so they bank hours if need be and then take the time off later in the week/field season.

        But broadly, I hope that what you mention is cracked down on for public universities and public grants — it hurts students and employees with responsibilities outside of field work to not adhere to a reasonable schedule, safe conditions, and compensation for all hours worked (or optional overtime).

        • Yes, I understand academia. Having attended 4 schools and earning 3 degrees, I know the rigors of it all. I usually clocked 14 to 16 hr days in the field as a grad student, in part because I also had all the fun of organizing the camp and preparing group meals. It is a frantic pace. And of course, like all doctoral students, I had those 3 day runs with NO SLEEP to meet everyone’s demands. I can’t speak for other states in the US, but Colorado has very specific rules concerning remote work, and yes, the universities here violate it in spades. But you can see one day the rubber will meet the road when litigation arises from a serious injury or death that resulted from unlawful practices. So it is really just a word to the wise… .

          • Interesting discussion. I am Canadian, so rules are a bit different. In addition, when driving 1-2 hours to a site, an 8 hour day is not enough to complete the tasks. With my employees overtime (time and a half) kicks in after 8 hours. We plan our long field days ahead of time, and generally the students and staff take the extra time off. It allows them to have lots of 3-day weekends through the summer.

          • The US certainly allows for extended work days, I believe up to 12 hours. Academic programs skirt these rules because large portions of a grad student’s work are thesis/ dissertation-related, and not employment-related per se. I worked in medicine for 11 years, and believe me, it’s even worse in terms of how residents are forced to lift that barge & tote the bale… . I encountered one experience from 2009 through 2011 where the PI imposed deplorable environmental health standards in the field- resulting in outbreaks of communicable disease and other really big red flag issues. Had she followed the rules passed into law by our legislature in Colorado, this never happens, so I think rules like this serve us well. After this experience, I polled many private consulting firms in environmental/ ecology work and asked them what they did to ensure worker safety in remote regions. The answer was almost universal: they adopted the rules and regulations published by the US Army for occupational health and safety in remote locations. This appears to be the industry standard in the US… while our universities make it up as they go along. The other word of caution I put out there for academics is: “what is your ultimate goal?” To me it seems the mission is that of the student- to matriculate competent and inspired professionals. This program I just mentioned where the PI violated many work rules also involved pushing everyone to slog out very long work days, in extreme heat of the desert, with no days off for weeks on end. At the end of each field season, few if any undergraduate employees & volunteers returned- simply saying they were burned out by the experience. Students are not robots… they are your most precious resource.

  9. The research funded by my NSF-BIO DDIG was on a remote island, so I included funding in the proposal for a Wilderness First Responder course for myself (~$600, I think). Unfortunately I couldn’t make the timing work to actually take the course (I do have other first aid training), but I don’t recall that any of the reviewers even mentioned it in their comments (positive or negative).

  10. Pingback: Field season safety: Part II | Tenure, She Wrote

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