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Field Research Safety

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Photo: Ray Meese for Virginia Tech.

Field Research Safety Quick Links


Field Research Safety Program Summary

This program provides information regarding field research conducted by university personnel. Policies, procedures and guidelines are also offered to assist with pre-planning.

Fieldwork consists of activities authorized by the university for the purpose of study, research, or teaching undertaken by faculty, staff, and students at a location outside of the local campus or workplace. Field activities may involve isolated or remote locations where access to emergency services is delayed, or where participants may be exposed to hazards related to weather, climate, wildlife, or terrain. Fieldwork may need to be reviewed by Environmental Health & Safety for safety and health hazards which may require training and/or services.

Note: Field studies and use of wild (caught) animals must be reviewed by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). All Virginia Tech personnel who use or handle animals must enroll in Environmental Health & Safety's Occupational Health Assurance Program by completing the Health Survey Form.

Departments must ensure that a project-specific Field Safety Plan is developed by the researcher and reviewed by the principal investigator/project manager prior to the start of fieldwork. Hazard-specific safety training and personal protective equipment may be required in some situations, as well as appropriate medical surveillance and health services.

Field Safety Plans (template) should include the following information:

  • General description of fieldwork to be conducted;
  • Itinerary, including location(s) of fieldwork, arrival and departure dates, and mode(s) of transportation;
  • Team member names, addresses, phone numbers, and emergency contacts;
  • Local contacts who can reach you, if necessary;
  • Local emergency contacts and/or procedures (emergency medical services, local hospitals, fire departments, etc.);
  • First aid/CPR training for participants;
  • Location hazard assessment - hazardous plants, animals, insects, diseases, terrain, and weather conditions for the area;
  • Safety equipment and other provisions to be taken on the trip;
  • Authorizations for access to state, federal, and/or private lands; and
  • Permits for sample collections from respective agencies.

Field Safety Online Program

Introduction

To provide safety information regarding Environmental Health & Safety services and requirements for personnel conducting field research in remote locations where outdoor hazards may exist.

Each department conducting field research must ensure personnel are aware of related hazards, and that safe work practices and other necessary controls are implemented to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of injury or illness.

Note: Field studies and use of wild (caught) animals must be reviewed by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). All Virginia Tech personnel who use or handle animals must enroll in Environmental Health and Safety's Occupational Health Assurance Program by completing the Health Survey Form.

This program covers Virginia Tech personnel who conduct field research regardless of work location.

Fieldwork Review

The Safety Survey Tool can be accessed through the Safety Management System (SMS) by principal investigators and lab managers.

Note: Occupational health hazards associated with the research/location are reviewed separately and may require medical surveillance or immunizations. Field studies and the use of wild (caught) animals must be reviewed by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). All Virginia Tech personnel who use or handle animals must enroll in Environmental Health & Safety's Occupational Health Assurance Program by completing the Health Survey Form.

Field Safety Plan

The principal investigator, or project lead, should use the Field Safety Plan template to establish site safety procedures and protocols. Results from the Safety Survey Tool will also serve as a guide in identifying necessary training for work covered by OSHA. The plan should then be communicated to all members of the team and kept on file on campus. Planning should address the following areas:

  • Description of fieldwork
    • Will you be working alone?
    • Is there a potable water source, and are sanitary facilities available?
    • Are living quarters provided, or will sheltering have to be provided?
    • Will you be traveling or working in the backcountry during hunting seasons?
    • Are there environmental hazards that must be considered?
      • High altitude (over 6,000 ft)
      • Extreme heat or cold, or other adverse weather conditions
      • Rough terrain, or strenuous climbing/hiking
      • Wild animal, insect, or plant hazards
      • Caves or other "confined spaces"
      • Work over/on/underwater
      • Work at night or in poor lighting
    • Is there endemic medical disease, such as rabies, hantavirus, or Lyme's Disease, or other biological hazards, that would pose a risk to personnel?
  • Itinerary
  • Communications
    • Prior to traveling, the research team must establish a communication plan and all pertinent parties must be familiar with the contents. This plan includes the following information and considerations:
    • Properly informed, competent designated contacts - both within the fieldwork team, with family contacts, and at the university
    • Schedules and methods for maintaining contact with the university (and family)
    • Details (to contacts) regarding location(s) of work, expected duration, and at what point will the alarm be raised if the communication schedule is not met
    • How to activate the Emergency Plan (ex. protocols for missed communication dates/times)
    • Alternate means of communication
    • Training and licensing are required for use of certain types of radios. Where these are the main form of communication, all members of the fieldwork team must be trained and licensed in their use.
    • If cell phones are to be used, verify potential service interruption issues. Battery power for communication equipment should be sufficient to last beyond the expected duration of the fieldwork.
  • Local emergency contacts/services
    • At least one first aid kit must be available on site.
    • Review minimum stock recommendations.
    • Additional first aid supplies will depend upon the types of potential injuries that may be expected during the scope of work.
  • Risk assessment
    • Personal health risks?
    • Existing or potential safety hazards?
    • Environmental hazards or risks?
    • Locale hazards or risks?
  • Equipment
    • General :
      • Vehicle safety kit
      • Two-way radio, CB, or cellular phone (batteries, charger)
      • Water purification tablets or filter devices
      • Weather radio
      • Ax or saw
      • Shovel or pick
      • Water-proof matches, lighter, flint, or steel wool and a 9-volt battery
      • Bucket
      • Compass and maps
      • Flares
      • Flagging
      • Flashlight with extra batteries
      • Candles
      • Rope
      • Knife
      • Blanket or tarp
      • Whistle, mirror, or large bright plastic bag
      • Duct tape
      • High-energy food
    • Safety:
      • First-aid kit and first aid manual
      • Personal medications (i.e. prescriptions)
      • Allergy treatments or antivenums
      • Weather-appropriate clothing (hat, rain gear, winter gear, etc.)
      • Portable fire extinguisher
      • Orange reflective vest
      • Mask or respirator
      • Work gloves
      • Safety glasses or goggles
      • Face shield
      • Wet suit
      • Insect repellant
      • Sunscreen
      • Hard hat
      • Steel-toed shoes or appropriate footwear
      • Floatation devices
      • Personal fall arrest system (i.e. harness)
      • Hearing protection
      • Barriers for direct contact with animals
      • Flame-retardant clothing
  • Required training

Note: Multiple trips to the same location, for the same type of work, can be covered by a single plan. The plan should be revised whenever a significant change to the location or scope of work occurs. Environmental Health & Safety is available to assist with the completion or review of the plan.

Communications

Prior to traveling, the research team must establish a communication plan and all pertinent parties must be familiar with the contents. This plan includes the following information and considerations:

  • Properly informed, competent designated contacts - both within the fieldwork team, with family contacts, and at the university;
  • Schedules and methods for maintaining contact with the university (and family);
  • Details (to contacts) regarding location(s) of work, expected duration, and at what point will the alarm be raised if the communication schedule is not met;
  • How to activate the Emergency Plan (ex. protocols for missed communication dates/times); and
  • Alternate means of communication.

Training and licensing are required for use of certain types of radios. Where these are the main form of communication, all members of the fieldwork team must be trained and licensed in their use.

If cell phones are to be used, verify potential service interruption issues. Battery power for communication equipment should be sufficient to last beyond the expected duration of the fieldwork.

Additional Resources

Remote Locations

  • Field research often takes place in locations where native flora/ fauna/ parasitic and microbial agents can present novel health hazards, especially to non-native people. Medical care can be difficult to obtain, and/ or made more complicated to obtain due to language barriers, remote field locations, etc.
  • Consult with the Environmental Health & Safety Occupational Health Program on appropriate prevention and treatment strategies, vaccinations, and so forth at least several months before you begin your fieldwork. The Occupational Health physician can recommend specific first aid provisions, and supply medication such as antimalarials. Consultation with your primary care physician is also recommended.
  • Safety training that can be customized for your needs is available through Environmental Health & Safety for groups or individuals who will travel to remote areas for field research. Contact 540-231-3600.
  • Contact individuals in your field or department who have traveled/ worked in your destination area in order to gain critical knowledge regarding:
    • Local flora/fauna hazard awareness;
    • Routine and emergency communications, transportation, medical/emergency treatment available locally; and
    • Language and culture of local populations.
  • Review the important information provided at the Office of Export and Secure Research Compliance. This site includes links to the U. S. State Department.
  • Review the U.S. State Department's travel information about your destination area, and know the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy. Register your travels online using the Smart Traveler Enrollment program on the State Department's website. This registration will provide you with information updates on your destination.
  • Learn about current health risks that could be encountered at your destination by going to the "Destinations" page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
  • For students participating in study-abroad programs, register with Virginia Tech's Global Education Office. See their website for valuable travel advice and information, and review Virginia Tech's Global Travel Policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Virginia Tech Pesticide Programs (VTPP) provide pesticide safety information, training, and educational resources to pesticide applicators, Extension agents, and the public.  

In addition, the Office of Pesticide Programs under Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) provides certification and registration services. 

Yes. All relevant state and federal boating laws must be observed. Appropriate licenses and boat registrations must be obtained. Personal floatation devices are required for all persons on each boat.  

Virginia boating laws are available at Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Yes. You must abide by all state and federal laws, including any training or certification requirements. 

No. Only staff, students, and approved volunteers authorized by the principal investigator may assist with fieldwork. This includes researchers or other colleagues from other institutions.

Equipment that may be contaminated with hazardous materials must be cleaned by the user/owner before asking anyone outside the group to service, move, or pick-up for surplus sale. The Equipment Decontamination Form is used to prepare items for handling by workers including service personnel, moving teams and Surplus Property staff.

Working alone is strongly discouraged, particularly when remote or hazardous locations, high-risk activities, or other unusual conditions are involved.

In situations where solitary work is deemed necessary and unavoidable, a stringent code of practice must be established to address worker competency, procedures for regular reporting, emergency procedures, and other precautions and procedures appropriate for the type of activities involved.

All injuries incurred during fieldwork must be reported to Virginia Tech within 24 hours (or as soon as possible if in remote locations) via the Employer's Accident Report. Any illness or exposure that is related to fieldwork must also be reported in the same manner.

Any individual member of a fieldwork team may refuse to participate in any activitiy which they feel may endanger their health and safety, or that of another person, at any time.  The situation should be brought to the team leader's attention, and/or the prinicipal investigator.

Individuals may also reach out to Environmental, Health & Safety for guidance.


Contact Information

Robin McCall-Miller, Occupational Safety Program Manager

Phone: 540-231-2341
Email: rmmiller@vt.edu