Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fieldwork Dangers

Via Twitter, I discovered that a few -ologists (I think of the bushes & bunnies variety) were discussing the hazards of fieldwork, so I decided to do a super-special, off-topic blog post about it. I've been a geologist for say 12 years and I've never done much (any?) fieldwork alone. During school, my fieldwork was always accompanied by other profs or students (some more safety savvy than others) and for my job, we always have a field partner. The hazards I've encountered are probably fairly typical for someone doing fieldwork in remote or foreign places:

High Temperatures: Death Valley in May and New Mexico in July ring a bell. In Death Valley the rocks would get hot enough to hurt to touch. In New Mexico, I vaguely remember stumbling around, trying to crawl under bushes less than 2 feet high for some shade. Not my finest moment.

High Altitude: I've done fieldwork/tripping in some pretty high places, and usually just have a pain-in-the-ass headache for the first 2 or 3 days. However, I've got office-mates who've come down with a few pretty rad cases of altitude sickness at elevation on the Tibetan plateau. But they were mostly ego-driven alpha-males who had something to prove. I mean that in the nicest possible way. FWIW, my advisor made us all read this news article about the grad student who died of pulmonary edema while doing fieldwork on Mt. Everest before a field season. He'd issue some sage warning & make sure we knew to get out of any dangerous situations. But then I thought I could see the pride when he had a student who'd climb some peak to get a key sample, puking the whole time from altitude.

Encounters of the Wild Kind: I think of one fieldtrip in eastern California where we encountered 10+ rattlesnakes in a single weekend. It was spring so they weren't quite on their A game yet, which was both good & bad for us, and the snackable-undergrads we had with us. Recent fieldwork near a nuclear power plant in southern Florida meant we saw 20+ salt-water crocodiles in a single day. Consequently, we stayed in the car a lot.

China-itis: In the middle of a 2+ month field season in western China, I had a horrible, please-kill-me, stomach bug. Fever, nausea, diarrhea. I thought I was going to die terribly far away from home, and never see my family or friends again. Within about 24 hrs, I was feeling waaay better, but still, for those hours, it was awful. I mean, if you find yourself on all fours, simultaneously vomiting & crapping while naked from the waist down in front of your field assistant, a skeevy Chinese colleague and a stranger you don't know, its pretty bad, right? And, the whole being sick while camping thing is exacerbated by having to dig a hole every time nature calls.

I Didn't Inhale: While in Asia, my Ph.D. advisor once found himself puking and hallucinating because the cooks & guides for the field campaign were smoking something harder-core than wacky-tobacky in a nearby tent.

Cliffed Out: While on a series of field trips in the Mojave of southern California, I often found myself perched on a scary cliff, frozen with fear. Basically, I realize now, that I was an idiot to be on some of those ledges and easily could have fallen to my death, or really disgusting injury. That strike & dip is just not that important! Back away from the compass!

Now that I work as a consultant, often on projects in the oil or nuclear power industry, things are a little different. They are may be overly concerned with safety. We have pictures of Safety SAM, the handy mascot of work-related safety posted in our office to remind us that safety is a priority. In practice, for fieldwork involving easy hiking in the woods (like that my grandma could handle), field protocol for some clients required me to wear steel-toed boots, a high-visibility safety vest, and a hard-hat. Seriously? But, their intentions are good -meaning the lame-ducks who have to worry about safety-related paperwork. While mapping on active construction sites, that equipment does not seem like using a musket for a mosquito. Also, this uber-safety-conscious culture is balanced by having a coworker (and field partner) with a sense of humor. If I fall in the field, and find myself sprawled out beside a fence I was climbing or a stream I was crossing, his first words are usually something like "Wait, let me get my camera out."


Silver Fox said...

Nice post! I like the "Close Encounters of the Wild Kind" phrase. Did a couple close encounters posts myself, so far just a couple mountain lions.

Garry Hayes said...

Nice stories! Reminds me of an attempt a while back to list all the hazards of the field in one place:

Lorna said...

This post made me think of my classmate who was killed in a close encounter of the wild kind on a co-op job after our first year. Be careful out there.