Research fieldwork comes with safety challenges

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

Prairie Research Institute (PRI) researchers and technicians may not know exactly which hazards they’ll face when they conduct fieldwork to study the natural world. What they do know is that there are plenty of dangers to prepare for as they start another field season.

“The safety aspects of being in the field are so different from laboratory work, where, for the most part, you can control your environment,” said Shari Effert-Fanta, PRI assistant director for facilities & safety.  “Staff can be working in very challenging environments where the hazards are likely out of their control, so it takes a lot more planning to prepare for fieldwork.”

Mosquito bites, thunderstorms, extreme heat, and rough terrain are just a few of the general threats that anyone can face, but there are also the dangers inherent in the research activities. PRI staff may be working along roadsides and in caves and mines, diving into rivers and lakes, and boating in remote areas.

Effert-Fanta and the PRI Safety Team provide education, research, and tools to help staff plan, prepare, and implement best practices in the field. A safety plan should include such things as the location of the nearest hospital and an alternate communication system besides cell phones. Staff also need the education to be able to adapt and adjust to new challenges that are presented to keep the team safe.

For archaeological field technicians who serve as excavators and surveyors under the direction of a research archaeologist, their primary safety concerns are dehydration, heat stroke, sharp tools, and deep holes, according to Tamira Brennan, curator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

Supervisors hold weekly safety meetings in the field, reminding staff about hazards and how to prevent them. Supervisory staff also receive training in CPR and first aid and Occupational Safety and Health Administration training on trenching and shoring.

In the Havana, Illinois area, technicians from the Forbes Biological Station contribute to studies on the relationship of migratory birds to their habitats. Some of the primary safety concerns technicians face in the field are the weather—extreme temperatures and wind when staff are on the water—and the use of boats, ATVs, and large trucks, said Auriel Fournier, station director.

Principal investigators or team leaders ensure that technicians are trained on the equipment they’ll use and can use it safely. Technicians are also trained on spotting the signs of weather-related distress in themselves and in other field staff.

“We make it clear how they can raise concerns if they don’t feel safe, either in terms of their own comfort with a tool, or because of someone else,” Fournier said. “Sadly, safety issues aren’t just limited to boats and ATVs, but include people, both on the team and in the community.”

Preparation for fieldwork includes contacting law enforcement and conservation officers to let them know where and when technicians will be working, especially when night work is expected or in remote areas. Technicians also have permits to authorize their work in efforts to reduce the potential for negative interactions.


Media contacts: Shari Effert-Fanta,, 217-244-2192; Tamira Brennan,, 217-244-8965; Auriel Fournier,, 217-300-8698

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

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