Poll: Field of danger

The semester is already kicking my ass, but I have a quick hypothetical situation for your ponderation this morning.

The situation involves field work for your project, whether you be a PI with funding for an individual project, a grad student who has secured some funds to complete a project, or whatever. Anyone who has done field work knows that there is always a nature component to the work and my question today revolves around how much that controls what you do.

You've arrived at your field site and the conditions are not ideal. Weather has kicked up that makes the work you are planning a little more dangerous than the expected conditions. While you would not be prevented from doing the work, the added elements give you pause. You've spent the budgeted funds available to make the trip and the samples/data are critical to the work you proposed. Because your work is seasonally dependent, you would have to wait until next year to collect these data if you opt out of the work this time, assuming you could scrape the funds together to make the trip again.

What do you do?

19 responses so far

  • CoR says:

    I would not kill myself in the name of science.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    What if I promised to make you a really cool shrine?

  • HCA says:

    Given the already extensive overlap between "things that can seriously injure or kill me" and "my pets", a few fieldwork hazards aren't exactly a big deal.

    Worth extra safety precautions, of course, but as long as we're not talking "Tidal ecology during a Cateogry 4 hurricane", forge ahead.

  • SP says:

    I think it would depend on if students were involved. If it was just me, I would do it. If I had students with me, then no.

  • Heavy says:

    There is an element of danger in all of my field projects. Hiring folks with a strong track record of dealing with inclement weather is a must for me. If they can't hack it, they get sent home. Luckily that has only happened twice.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Heavy, there is a line, however, between dealing with bad weather and placing oneself in danger. I think it is important to avoid creating a culture where the latter is directly or indirectly encouraged.

  • FSGrad says:

    Marine ecologist here. If there's lightning nearby I don't work. Or yeah, tidal surge (no point in going out when your animals are suddenly several feet underwater), or hurricanes. Anything else is fair game. Luckily, the biggest danger to me is usually frostbite. I do most of my work in a pretty safe area of the world with generally very small waves and no great white sharks.

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    If I have to die or be seriously injured, I would rather it happened in a really awesome way while I was collecting data.

  • grad student says:

    When the field is the middle of the African savanna like mine is, a "normal" day still involves many risks: elephants, buffalo, lions, snakes, car issues, heat/dehydration/getting lost, accidentaly getting shot by people hunting (game or for stolen animals). You take precautions and don't go out if there is a good reason (ie, you know there is currently trouble in the local community). There's always risks though and you can't prepare for everything.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If I was out on an ichthyology field trip with students, and a thunderstorm with lots of lightning came up, I would cancel. I've also canceled because of heavy duty flooding. In South and Central America, I was often there for a limited period of time, and would move along unless it got more than usually dangerous to do so.

  • Geologist says:

    Fieldwork almost always include some danger (if nothing else there is usually loose rocks or potential landslides to worry about) so it is hard to be completely safe. If I'm seriously worried about an additional danger I step back if I think that I risk lasting injuries or try to take some extra precautions if I risk smaller injuries, assuming that I expect the data to be worth it.

    With students I am more careful then if it is only myself at risk.

  • Mac says:

    On my "other" vote - having faced this what I do involves moving forward while a) implementing more safety measures or see if there's another way to avoid the danger (e.g. it might cost more but rent a bigger boat than previously planned), b) keeping a watch on the situation and being ready to call it off if conditions get worse or pose a significant danger to life or health. Field work always involves risk it's how you balance it that matters and to me a huge issue is to stay flexible and keep evaluating where we are. When people die in wilderness accidents it often involves putting too much emphasis on sunk costs - i.e. I'm 2/3rds up the mountain so I might as well keep going rather than turn back now. So I try to keep that perspective - can we get safely back given the conditions, our energy levels, etc? We can't control everything - lightening from the blue falls out of my hands - but my goal is to mitigate the risks I do have control over. A big part of that for me has been always leaving the door open to turning around if the situation gets riskier - even if we're so close it hurts.
    And yeah - the level of acceptable risk is WAY lower with students than on my own. I know what the risks are but even with grad students they're looking to me to make that call and I have to be more careful. As little as I want to die in the field myself it's a risk I'm willing to take to do the work I want but I will do every thing in my power to never have to explain to a parent why their child died working with me. Again, we don't have complete control but I need to know that I've done what was possible.

  • I voted B, but I think this is very situation-dependent. My last field work, the greatest dangers involved sunburn - in England 🙂 - and falling in ditches. The next one, heavy rain and/or thunderstorms while working by and partly in rivers, on mountains. It's a bigger risk, but still extremely manageable with proper gear and weather alert monitoring.

    Now if you were out in Alaska, the difference with "inclement weather" might mean going from a reasonably comfortable experience to being stranded with limited food for two weeks. But on the other hand, if that was on the possible-scenario agenda, there should be measures in place to make that scenario manageable too. Maybe I don't have a point after all.

  • JaneB says:

    Like Mac, I voted other, for similar reasons. In my field areas, the climate/other risks tend to be highly variable, so I always plan a field trip on the assumption that we might not be able to do exactly what we want on any given day.

    Dealing with bad conditions - let's say a run of lousy weather - I begin by looking at my priorities. What could be cut if things don't improve? What's the minimum number of samples? Can I sample a smaller number of locations more intensively? Do I HAVE to get to the top of the mountain, or can I collect viable material from the foothills which can be accessed more safely? Remembering always that tomorrow may be great...

    I think seriously about the worst case - OK, we can't do what we came to do. Can we do something else that is valuable? Particularly if the work is linked to a grad student project, waiting a year just isn't a feasible option for them, so can we come up with a side project that can be completed under current conditions?

    I add precautions, and I also pay extra attention to not letting anyone get too tired or chilled or over-heated (when conditions are good one might push on through fatigue, risking mistakes. When conditions are not good, the risk is too large) - we might work half-days, or get up real early and then come back to base or otherwise take a long break in the heat of the day.

  • Namnezia says:

    I would only do fieldwork in fields of daisies on warm, early summer days, especially if it involved wine and nice cheese. Perhaps some smoked fish.

  • tideliar says:

    I'm with Nam... I actually assumed that was the issue here. We're out in the field, but someone left the Waterford crystal decanter in the Bentley...what does one do with the sherry after the cheese course!

    Alternatively, if I was scuba diving for samples off a reef with a 100 foot wall and a downdraft current had formed off shore there is no way I would risk my life or my students lives. (happened to a friend). Definite cancel.

    Likewise if i was tracking wolf kills in Alaska and a bad winter storm rolled in, I would seriously consider the safety of the catchment area and ask if I or my students were equipped for an extended in-field white-out (happened to a friend). Possible cancel.

    Likewise, if I were tracking permafrost methane deposits in Greenland and a storm came, I would... etc. (also happened to a friend - my grad school had a great ecology program)

  • Assoc Prof says:

    If anyone other than myself is involved, and I have to make the decision, then it's no fieldwork.

    If it's just me, well, then, that's between me and my family.

  • CoR says:

    I still think you people are nuts.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    You're in the lower 3%

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