Initial Publication Date: December 12, 2013

Reducing Risk in the Field

Van Safety

Most institutions have restrictions on who can drive vehicles on field trips, on the use of private vehicles, and so on. It is crucially important that you know and follow those rules. You may be able to "get away with it" if you ignore the rules, but you run a huge personal liability risk and may, depending upon the rule, seriously risk student health and safety as well.

Most institutions no longer allow the use of private vehicles on field trips. If your institution does not ban the use of private vehicles, you should seriously consider banning them for your own field trips. The liability of using vehicles of unknown condition, particularly with student owner/drivers, is simply too high.

Most institutions have also banned the use of 15-passenger vans. Even if your institution has not banned them, your department should find alternatives. There has been so much publicity about the dangers of 15-passenger vans that, in the event of an accident, a jury would have a hard time believing that you and your department were unaware of the risk you were taking. For liability reasons, 12-passenger vans are probably a better option.

Seat belts save lives. Be sure that there are enough seat belts for every passenger, and insist that everyone be buckled before the van moves. Having this as department policy helps with enforcement.

Be certain to have enough authorized drivers so that one person does not have to drive for long stretches. If your institution requires authorization of drivers, never, ever allow an unauthorized driver to take the wheel. Insurance at your institution will cover only those who are authorized. Some institutions prohibit the field trip leader from driving, with the rationale that someone leading the field trip and looking for stops can't have his/her mind fully on the road. Other institutions provide certified drivers for vans.

Never, ever drive through the night. The liability risks are enormous. Many institutions have adopted policies that limit not only the number of hours a person can drive but also the hours of the day when field trip vehicles must be off the road.

And last, always check to make sure you have everyone before leaving a field trip stop. It sounds silly, but not to the faculty member who left a student at a remote field site and didn't discover it until he was back on campus....

Field Safety

We could all make long lists of unsafe student behavior that has frightened and enraged us in the field, from rock climbing at outcrops to throwing rocks over cliffs to crossing deep, fast-moving water. While you cannot prevent every boneheaded act, your students should know that you will do more than grin and shake your head. They should know that you will not tolerate risky behavior in the field and that any willful behavior that endangers themselves or other students is cause for the student to be sent home at his/her expense. The student field trip policy agreement which we require all students sign before the trip requires that students acknowledge this policy.

Prevention goes a long ways toward helping avoid emergency situations. Students should never work alone in the field if they will be out of sight of others on the trip. Pairs are a good idea, and threes are even better. With pairs, if one person in a pair were badly hurt, they would have to be left alone while their partner went for help. If students work in groups of three, one person can stay with the injured person while the other goes for help. If all students carry and use GPS units, it is much easier for EMTs to find an injured person quickly. Marking the path out with orange flagging tape makes the path obvious.

Many road cuts, particularly in areas where freeze-thaw is common, are inherently unsafe. Do not hesitate to take hard hats with you in the field and to require students to wear them if they are working near a high wall. Never allow students to walk along the top of a high face if students are below, and ban rock climbing at outcrops and road cuts to prevent injuries both from falling and from falling rock.

Ideally, students should wear safety glasses when hammering on rocks. At the very least, you should encourage students who do not wear glasses to wear their sunglasses when hammering.

After-hours Safety

What can you do to limit after-hours incidents? Alcohol is a major culprit in after-hours incidents that can range from illness to injury to sexual assault to alcohol poisoning and death. A field trip leader may also be held liable if under-age or excessive drinking goes on in camp. Pretending not to know is not the answer. Many undergraduate institutions have policies stating that field trips are "dry" and drug free and that students violating the policy will be sent home at their own expense. Limiting what students can do in terms of driving field trip vehicles after hours can also go a long ways toward reducing after-hours risk.

Continue on to Protecting Self and Department.