Field safety and the grad student

The reality of the dangers associated with fieldwork research often go undiscussed within the academe. This is until tragedies occur, reminding us of what’s on the line. For graduate students especially, the onus of ensuring safe working conditions falls very squarely on the individual. In many instances you may be the only one looking out for your safety.

The paperwork hurdle

Health and safety committees often get branded as the enemy within many workplaces. They create silly rules, lots of paperwork and are really just covering their corporate backside. Or at least that is how they are often viewed. Should they really be considered as an opponent? While I can agree that some rules and regulations can be onerous without much useful outcome (WHMIS for the 14th time…), in the long run they are there to promote your safety. Why would we demonise someone that is looking out for our (collective) safety?

A collection of anecdotes

While the argument against many OH&S rules/regulations/paperwork is often that they are enforcing ‘common-sense’, as the saying goes “common sense isn’t so common…” This is further highlighted by the stories of field accidents and close calls.

From discussion with PI’s, post-docs and grad students at a variety of different universities, I have heard multiple first-hand recollections of unsafe practices in the field. While the majority have a happy ending, some end with significant injury and in rare instances, even death. Oddly, this topic of discussion is often only seems to occur in relaxed, informal settings such as over beers. In many instances there is little or no formal discussion within a graduate program around the importance of safety and the risks associated with fieldwork.

Why is this? Is it a blatant disregard for the students safety? I would wager that it is more a reflection of the training and experiences of PI’s. They learnt about field safety in the field with no formal discussion; so can you. This attitude is pervasive throughout academia (ie. “when I was a grad student… ____[insert story about life being harder than how you have it now, here]___”) but should raise alarm bells when that is how someone regards your safety.

My (and my supervisors) recent experience with the OH&S personnel at my current university highlights the secrecy around fieldwork, but also the willingness of these individuals to work with researchers to make things better. In short when we inquired, the university lacked specific procedures around certain common field practices (ie. firearm). I can guarantee that we were not the first individuals at this university to be conducting research where a firearm was a consideration for safety, however we were the first to consult with them around it.

They way they handled our inquiries reminded me that they are there for our collective benefit. Regarding our specific inquiries, they researched the options and provided us their suggestions and then they did something crazy – they asked for input. Since then my supervisor, a staunch supporter of the importance of field safety, has been working with them to provide input on new field safety protocols. Win-win for everyone! But I digress…


Many stories of close calls are humorous in 20/20 hindsight after no one is hurt by the falling tree-stump or the dangerous glacier crossing etc etc. There are however reminders that don’t end as well, such as the recent death of a University of Manitoba researcher, a helicopter pilot and an officer from a research vessel in the Canadian Arctic.

All of this is of particular importance to graduate students. They are often the ones who undertake the greatest risk in these situations due to lack of field knowledge and potentially a misguided trust in their supervisor. Ultimately, it is your own responsibility to ensure a safe working environment, wherever it may be. While this sometimes means telling a senior researcher, colleague or even supervisor, the word “NO”, it is up to you to make that decision. If you’re not looking out for your own safety, who knows who else (if anyone) is…


Other related posts and or news articles:

Arctic memories by Sarah Boon

– Scientist killed in Resolute Bay air crash

– Student plunges 300ft to death during university field trip in the Himalayas

– What Two Deaths Taught Me about Doing Fieldwork

1 thought on “Field safety and the grad student

  • Great post as usual. During my PhD work in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska (on an active volcano > 24 hours from help, no less), we spent half a day going over an 11-pager on things that can go wrong BEFORE headed out to the field. I didn’t realise how uncommon this was. But the same applies to field work being done closer to home base, too. But our protocols were mostly internal, and didn’t go through OH&S (who, to be honest, would prefer I didn’t work on an active volcano). Then again, they were so specific to our field sites in most cases, that they worked as an internal check.

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