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No Bears Here…. Risks in Fieldwork

October 17, 2012

The work many of us do in the field carries inherent risks. Yet, risk alone may not be enough to suspend field operations. After all, there is risk when simply crossing the street. Our challenge is to find the right balance between the hazards we face and the jobs we need to do, and to properly manage the risks they present.

One step is to identify hazards. Each national park has a unique set of hazards. In the Pacific islands we do not, for example, worry about running into bears. And some hazards, like hot lava, are real but occur in such localized areas that it is not usually a concern. Some hazards are particularly important to certain crews, like flash floods when sampling in streams. Other hazards are shared by nearly everyone, like isolation in the back country.

Another step, evaluating risk, is more subjective. One tool we can use to evaluate risk is to assign it a score that incorporates categories including the task’s complexity, and the crew’s ability to communicate. After tallying the score, the task could be deemed low risk (Green), moderate risk (Amber), or high Risk (Red), hence the name for this exercise; the GAR model.

Safety Plans serve as a central reference covering whole programs. But documentation means nothing if our behavior in the field is not positively affected.

Some safety behavior changes are small, like reviewing safety each morning before going into the field. Some changes are more substantial, like the removal of certain field sites deemed unacceptably risky due to the difficulty of evacuating a potentially injured person. Safety is a primary concern for all field leaders and crew. Ultimately, no scientific sample is worth taking if it means an unreasonable risk of injury.

–David Raikow, Aquatic Ecologist, NPS Pacific Island Network

Science and Safety

A National Park Service biological technician samples water at Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

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