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Field Laboratory Safety Protocol


The same general safety considerations that govern work in indoor laboratories must govern work in field situations (hereafter considered "field laboratories"). In addition, specific hazards exist in the field which are not encountered indoors. Thus, work in field laboratories involves safety considerations not addressed in the usual laboratory safety plan. The following guidelines were prepared for use in a course entitled "Plant Community Ecology Laboratory," offered at North Carolina State University.

Emergency Contact Information

It should be possible for safety personnel to locate any student in case of an emergency. Since field laboratories are, by definition, away from the normal laboratory meeting room, there should be information on record in the responsible departmental office noting the location of such laboratories. A syllabus listing local, well-known destinations (Yates Pond, Swift Creek Bluffs, Crabtree Creek, Mitchell's Mill, etc.) should be adequate in most cases. For overnight or longer trips, a detailed itinerary with emergency telephone contacts should be filed in the departmental office. Students should be advised to leave a copy of the itinerary with roommate or relatives before the trips.

Motor Vehicle Safety

The use of motor vehicles represents the greatest potential hazard experienced by field laboratory participants. Since many field laboratories involve transporting students in University vehicles, certain precautions must be observed.

1. All drivers must be State employees with valid NC driver's licenses. Each driver must have a photocopy of his/her license on file with the University Motor Pool.

2. All North Carolina traffic safety laws must be observed at all times. All drivers should exercise the utmost care. No driver should be under the influence of alcoholic beverages or any intoxicating drug, prescription or otherwise.

3. All passengers are required to wear seat belts when in University vehicles.

4. Since field laboratories often involve frequent stops along busy roads, special care should be taken to alert students to traffic hazards when leaving or boarding vehicles, or when walking along highways. In general, trips should be planned to minimize exposure of students to highway traffic.

5. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will provide transportation to and from field trips, and students are encouraged to use it. The University assumes no responsibility for mishaps that occur when students provide their own transportation.

Safety in the Field

1. A "buddy system" should be used for every field laboratory, such that each individual has a partner who knows his or her whereabouts at all times.

2. A small first-aid kit should be carried by the leader of each field laboratory. The leader should be familiar with basic first aid. Advanced training in first aid and CPR is encouraged.

3. Each field laboratory leader should be aware of the nearest location of emergency medical care (clinic, emergency center, park ranger station, etc.).

4. Students should report any special medical problems they may have to trip leaders prior to participating in field laboratories. Examples are allergies to insect stings, diabetes, asthma, physical disabilities, etc.

5. In addition to staying alert to environmental hazards (some of which are listed below), it is also important that students keep in mind that field laboratories are meant to be educational experiences, not endurance tests. Any student who is uncertain about the types of hazards that may exist should consult the laboratory instructor. Also, any student who feels that a particular activity exceeds his/her physical capabilities should alert the instructor of this IMMEDIATELY.

6. Students should be alerted to environmental hazards they are likely to encounter. These may include, but are not limited to:

a. Stings from venomous insects, such as bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. Medication for immediate relief from stings may be carried in the first aid kit, but students who know they react severely to such stings should be advised to carry any special medication they might need.

b. Bites from venomous snakes. Although far less likely to occur than insect stings, snake bites are a risk. Care should be taken to note and avoid venomous snakes in the field. Leaders should instruct students on field recognition of common snakes. In case someone is bitten, the best plan is to return to the vehicle and seek medical attention immediately. Even if medical assistance is many hours away, such field treatments as tourniquets and cutting should NOT be applied by amateurs. Suction may be of some use, but other "common knowledge" treatments often do more harm than good. Healthy adults almost always survive bites from the venomous snakes found in our region.

c. Poisonous plants. Students should be shown how to identify common poisonous plants and should be instructed to avoid them. This precaution includes plants that can cause contact dermatitis (poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac) and plants that might be poisonous upon ingestion (some mushrooms and berries). In general, students should be instructed not to eat plants or fruits collected in the field.

d. Ectoparasites (ticks and chiggers). Tick-borne diseases constitute a serious threat to individuals conducting field work during warm weather. Students should be instructed to inspect their entire bodies carefully after returning from a day in the field, and to remove any ticks found. It is a good idea for individuals to note the date they found a tick firmly attached, in the event that symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme Disease appear later. A physician should be consulted if suspicious symptoms (fever, joint aches, swollen glands, reddish flushing of skin) occur in the weeks following a tick bite. Chiggers are annoying, although not likely to threaten health. In areas known to have either ticks or chiggers (practically any wooded or shrubby area in our region), students should be advised on means of avoiding contact (tucking and taping pant legs, using repellents, frequent tick checks, etc.).

e. Endoparasites. Students should be instructed to exercise care to avoid contact with water- or soil-borne parasites (Giardia, tapeworms, etc.). Never drink untreated water. Always carry enough drinking water for anticipated personal needs. Water obtained from sources in the field should be boiled, filtered, or chemically treated before consumption. Wash hands after handling soil, especially before eating.

f. Lightning. North Carolina experiences frequent electrical storms, especially during the warmer months; the state has one of the highest frequencies of lightning-caused fatalities in the U.S. If a thunderstorm threatens, the best response is to seek shelter in a building or vehicle. When this is not feasible, care should be taken to minimize the risk of being struck by lightning. Avoid open areas and exposed portions of the landscape (peaks, hilltops, ridges). Boaters should seek shelter on shore immediately. Never stand near or under isolated tall objects, such as trees or power poles. The safest places outdoors are in topographically protected areas (valleys or ravines), away from the tallest trees. Avoid sheltering under rock overhangs or in other situations where an individual could become part of the shortest path of lighting to ground.

g. Steep topography. Some trips may involve hiking in areas of steep topography, where a real risk of injury caused by accidental falls may exist. Each field laboratory leader should remind students to exercise caution when hiking in steep terrain (such as rock outcrops). Similar precautions should be exercised in other areas where falls could occur (overlooks, observation towers, waterfall areas, etc.). Even wet or mossy rocks on a path can be a serious hazard. Students should also be cautioned not to dislodge rocks or other objects that could endanger those below.

7. Aquatic field exercises. Special precautions should be taken for any field laboratories around or in water. Non-swimmers should identify themselves and wear appropriate personal flotation devices (PFDs) at all times. On trips using boats, all US Coast Guard regulations must be observed. Appropriate numbers and types of PFDs must be supplied and must be worn by trip participants. If hip or waist waders are in use in water greater than 1-2 feet deep, PFDs must be worn also.

8. Cold weather trips. Since many field laboratories take place in later fall or early spring, special precautions should be observed to avoid hazards of frostbite and hypothermia. Leaders should instruct students on the symptoms of these two hazards and the field treatment should someone be affected. The field first aid kit for cold weather trips should include specific directions for determining and treating hypothermia, and needed supplies to do so.

9. Hot weather trips. For field laboratories conducted during the summer months, special precautions should be observed to avoid hazards of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Leaders should instruct students on the symptoms of these two hazards and the field treatment should someone be affected. The field first aid kit for hot weather trips should include specific directions for determining and treating heat stroke, and needed supplies to do so.

Prepared by Thomas R. Wentworth, Department of Botany, NC State University - updated June 16,2000