Fieldwork always has a number of potential dangers associated with it. If you can identify and be aware of these before you start, you will be less at risk. We have outlined here some of the main hazards that you may meet when you do fieldwork, and suggested how you could best avoid them.
As most fieldwork will take place in a rural outdoor environment, you will be constantly exposed to the weather, often with few opportunities for shelter. Fieldwork is often quite a static activity, and you get cold surprisingly quickly when not moving around. You will need to compensate for this by wearing more clothes than you think necessary, and always include a windproof layer. Hypothermia is a real danger when working outside and it is very easy to ignore the symptoms. These include hyperactivity, mood swings and irrational behaviour. Be aware of the symptoms in yourself and in those around you.
Plan when to do your fieldwork to avoid the coldest and shortest days of the winter. March to May and September to October are the best fieldwork months, but only if the weather is suitable. Recording in the wind and rain is difficult and not much fun. Also bear in mind that days are very short in the winter, so start your fieldwork early enough to make the most of the light.
You will almost certainly be working in areas of rough ground, and possibly where there are other hazards such as steep and slippery terrain, bogs and burns, rabbit burrows and tree roots, in other words places with the potential for you to fall over or into. You need to be aware of these hazards in the landscape and avoid them where possible.
You will use a range of equipment for your fieldwork. Some of this will be heavy and cumbersome. Don’t carry too much – this can lead to tiredness and possible injury, especially if you are moving across rough ground.
Fieldwork may involve working close to derelict buildings. Unroofed buildings standing above shoulder height can often be very unstable and can easily collapse. If it looks unstable – for example, if the walls are bulging outwards – then do not go near it. You could record it using an appropriate technique such as photography. Even low remains may be prone to movement or collapse if you walk on them, so take care and be sensible about how you approach the buildings.
Fieldwork may take you into areas with farm animals. Be aware that some animals can react aggressively toward people, especially if challenged or scared. You will have discussed access and land use with the landowner or land manager, but always make sure that you know of and avoid stalking or shooting in your fieldwork area.
Remember that it is not just risks to group members that need consideration; you should think about the potential risk posed to equipment, property and the immediate environment in your plans too.
Volunteers will generally be working as part of a team – in fact, lone fieldwork should be avoided. You are responsible for your own safety and the safety of your team members, so avoid putting them in a potentially dangerous situation by being sensible, being aware of the dangers and taking appropriate measures to avoid them. These include:
Be aware of your fitness levels – fatigue can often cause accidents
Check the weather forecast – fair in the morning can be foul by midday!
Move around as much as possible when doing fieldwork to keep warm
Tell the rest of your group if you have any illness or disability
If you are receiving or carrying any vital medication tell the rest of the group how it should be administered in an emergency
Avoid working alone – work as a group and stay in visual contact
If you start to feel really cold, tell other members of your group and go back to your car or base with at least one other person
Carry spare clothes and a survival blanket
Carry a first aid kit, know its contents and how to use them
If you are leading a group, you have an additional responsibility for the safety of your team. The following points are good practice for all team leaders:
Ensure that you and your team are appropriately equipped before you set out
Be aware of any group members’ physical limitations
Use the buddy system. - Tell a reliable person where the team will be going and when you will be returning in the event of a delay or an accident; remember to contact them on your return
Keep your team members together and in visual contact
If you feel it is safe to do so leave details of where you are going on view inside your vehicle
Record the grid location of your vehicle before you leave in case it needs to be located in darkness or poor visibility – this is best done with a GPS
Carry some means of contacting the emergency services (mobile phone or radios if possible)
Carry a torch or head torch in case you get caught out by fading light – the ground can be treacherous in the dark!
Be aware of the behaviour of your team members. If they are acting strangely or are not enjoying themselves, they may be showing symptoms of hypothermia. If you are concerned, take them back to the car or base and get them warmed up
If a team member is injured or becomes ill and can't be moved, phone for help or leave at least one person with the victim and send at least two team members to get assistance
Even if you know an area well, don't be complacent about the potential hazards.
If you are leading a group, you might consider producing a Risk Assessment for your fieldwork. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) considers it good practice for volunteers to always have the same level of health and safety protection as they would at work.
For further information on health and safety visit the HSE website www.hse.gov.uk or call the HSE Infoline on 08701-545500.
A Risk Assessment is a simple and common sense approach to identifying and recording any significant hazards, and specifying the measures you will take to reduce the risks (i.e. the likelihood of being harmed by the hazard) to yourself or others when you do fieldwork. It helps make you and your team more aware of the dangers and how they might avoid them.
There are two levels of risk assessment
1) general – this details risks that you will already know about and can do something about (e.g. wear appropriate clothing to avoid cold and wet).
2) on-site or particular risks – this details possible hazards (e.g. a bull in a field you need to cross). There are countless possible risks, so be sensible about how you assess them.
We have provided a blank Risk Assessment form that you may like to use for your project. Have a look at this and then look at the example we have put together to suggest how this form might be completed.
Where the level of risk involved is moderate or high you should detail what measures you take to control the risk. Preferably, avoid the risk completely.
Having completed the Risk Assessment, the team member putting together the assessment should sign and date the form. The form should be read and agreed by all team members before starting fieldwork.
Download the risk assessment template here.