Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Accretionary Wedge 55: Avoiding Geo Injuries

Avoiding Geo Injuries: this is not the way to do it.
Maitri is hosting Accretionary Wedge 55 on the topic of geo injuries: injuries acquired while doing geology. Now I had, from the outset, intended to not participate in this one, for two reasons. First, I couldn't recall any significant injuries, and second, as mild as Maitri's injuries have been, just reading that post made me a bit queasy. Yes, I'm extremely squeamish, and averse to blood or any other injuries. When faced with an emergency situation, I respond calmly and appropriately. As soon as my role and responsibility are relieved, though, such as by the arrival of emergency responders, I'm likely to vomit, and even approach going into shock myself. I can't really explain the mindset, though it basically comes down to "If I'm honestly needed, I'm there. Otherwise, HOLY FUCKING SHIT GET ME OUTTA HERE!" Overdeveloped empathy, I guess. I'm very sensitive to pain in others.

A short story: my favorite part of every term was after buying my new texts, taking them home and paging through them. I decided, toward the end of my undergrad years, that if I was going to go into education, I should get a first responder course under my belt. I didn't know if that was the direction I'd go yet, but it was one I was considering, and such a course couldn't hurt, no matter what I decided to do. So I signed up for one, and at the start of the term, took my spiffy new text home, and started paging through it. Bad idea. About half way through, I had been treated to photos of a pencil through the cheek, a horse bite, and a lawn mower injury. Then I got to the section on avulsions, a term which, up to that point, had applied in my mind only to fluvial geomorphology.

I woke up with my forehead planted firmly between two pages. I closed my eyes, raised my head and shut the book before opening them again.

I don't cope well with injuries unless I have to. (I actually coped pretty well with the class, and aced it, but there was plenty of discomfort in the process)

It occurred to me that I *have* been injured in the course of fieldwork. I rather badly cut the back of my left thumb with a machete while surveying in the boundary of a study area for a project called Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) at the HJ Andrews Research Forest, east of Eugene in the Western Cascades. Oddly, my own injuries don't bug me as much as those of others. That particular one was a barrel of laughs (Yes, there were a number of times I actually laughed at the ludicrousness of the situation). We had almost completed the rectangular plot, and had cut over a mile of line at that point. Rather than trudging back up the mountain side, across, then down the mountain side, then across the other direction, then back up the mountain side to the spur where the car was parked, we simply set off through the brush, down the mountain side- the car was only a hundred yards off or so. But we missed the car, and only barely noticed when we crossed the lower traverse. So we hiked back up the cut and surveyed line to where we were parked, then drove over an hour into the closest town, Blue River. In all, it was nearly two hours before we got to the doctor, and the gauze in which the wound was wrapped was a solid mass. I had been holding it tight, keeping pressure on it, so the bleeding had long stopped. And the wound itself didn't really hurt all that much. But getting the gauze off was hellish.

However, it was for ecology and forest soils, so while the skill sets overlap, it really doesn't count for geology.

I had considered yesterday posting on why my safety record, despite spending somewhere around two thousand hours in the field with hundreds of middle school and high school age kids- a demographic not known for their attentiveness to safety or common sense- is so clean. As I commented on Geotripper's post yesterday, "I've been incredibly lucky (and I hope preemptive) in terms of clearly explaining safety issues, and not having to deal with anything requiring more than a squirt of antiseptic and a band-aid." Then, when I saw Callan's submission this morning, I knew I felt like I'd be dodging my responsibilities as an educator, a geologist, and a contrarian, if I didn't.

It's mostly about awareness, alertness and common sense, but here are some guidelines:
  • When visiting a spot for the first time, be especially alert, and actively look for potential hazards. These may include bad footing, danger from falling material, steep or precipitous drops, traffic, rough or cold water, and any of many other potential dangers.
  • If taking someone else to a potentially hazardous spot for the first time, point out hazards you've previously identified.
  • Keep a close eye on, and strong awareness of, your surroundings. This is more difficult than it sounds; we all know how easy it is to get focused on an outcrop, spot a feature of interest, and start toward it without looking at where your feet are going to step. This is a fine way to trip, or step on a snake, or some such disaster. 
  • When taking groups out, especially young people, set a minimum number of of clear, specific, and simple guidelines, so it's easy for them to remember those rules. If possible, do this *before* you go to the field- once you're there, learners are eager to get to the sights, and not really focused on paying attention to you. The Quartzville trip, which I did something like 35 times with middle schoolers, had a pretrip meeting of about 2 hours. It had some teasers, to get excitement up, but the whole point of the meeting was to prep the kids to be comfortable and safe. It included instructions on how to dress, what to bring, how to behave, but most important, the ground rules. These were, 1) No climbing; 2) When you hear a car coming, yell out "Car!" to alert the rest of the group, and get well off the pavement; 3) Be aware of what's over your head, and stay back from cliff faces as much as possible; 4) If you're holding a rock hammer, I expect to see goggles over your eyes. If you have them over your forehead or neck, I will ask you to put on another pair to PROTECT YOUR EYES! 5) When all else fails, pay attention to the leader. (These, by the way are pretty good guidlines overall, but in some cases, I would delete one or two on other trips, and add one or more others as needed.) I would then warn them that we would not leave the motor pool (Where we convened, the day of the trip) until THEY could recite these simple rules back to me. Then at stops that had their own specific problems, I would point those out when we got out of the car. I also built an expectation that at each stop, they would wait for information and instructions before I set them loose on the outcrop. Another tidbit: I know it's not easy with large groups, but try to get every individual's name down: it's much easier to get their attention when you can address them by name. "Hey, Dan!" Get down off there!" is much more effective than "Hey, you!"
  • Be prepared with a first aid kit, and know how to use it. The only thing I ever used it for were a few band aids and antiseptic, but I felt better having it along.
  • Again, for groups, a second responsible adult is pretty much a must, in my mind. First, it makes it much easier to keep an eye on the muchkins. My attention was often diverted by people asking questions; having another adult along meant that between the two of us, we could pretty well keep an eye on the group at all times. Second, what if *I* got injured? Who would drive? Who would fetch help? Likely less of a problem with college-aged students and up, but definitely something that weighed heavily on my mind on occasions when I was alone with a group of kids.
  • Try to make sure someone knows your general itinerary back home. When I did extended camping/natural history tours in central/SE Oregon with high schoolers, I gave parents a list of routes, destinations and where we were expecting to stay each night. We didn't always adhere strictly to the list, but we kept pretty close.
  • Pay attention to weather. This is both a safety and comfort issue. Snow in remote areas is a killer. Heat and dehydration in hot weather are killers. The planet isn't actively trying to kill you, it just doesn't care. Which brings me to...
  • Always carry extra water, food and gear to deal with getting stuck, whether in a ditch, or with vehicle problems.
  • Be aware of the closest location where help is likely to be found. This may be quite some distance if you're in a remote area.
  • Don't over-rely on technology. Many areas in eastern Oregon have no cell phone coverage. You can't just pick up your phone and call 911. More to the point, never, repeat, NEVER rely on GPS routing in remote areas with which you're unfamiliar. Ideally, you should carry decent topo maps of the area you're visiting. I used to have a dog-eared DeLorme atlas/gazetteer of Oregon. Not very expensive, and plenty detailed enough for navigation. And if you don't know how to use and navigate with a topo map, learn to. It's not just a useful skill, but a matter of life and death. We in the geoblogosphere have the phrase "Death by GPS," which refers to tragedies that occur several times a year, when a bot instructs a driver to turn off on some remote road, they get stranded and die. It's sad and preventable. Don't be one of those people, please.
  • As Callan pointed out, try not to spend time geologizing alone. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but no responsible employer should expect solitary fieldwork, in my opinion.
Finally, I'll repeat: "It's mostly about awareness, alertness and common sense." Also, take the time to help companions and students develop those same habits and skills by pointing out known hazards. Anyone who has been following my geoblogging for any period of time knows that I'm compulsive about explicitly noting dangers in specific spots- as recently as yesterday, in fact. It's due to my training as a teacher: keep the kids safe. And it's because I care about the people, even those I don't know, who may follow my directions to some of our wonderful geology without any further advice, and NOT notice hazards. I wouldn't likely know if they were harmed or killed due to following my recommendations, but I kind of feel that heightens my responsibility. I can proactively alert them there are things they should be cautious about.

I think it's an internalization of that set of values, paying attention to everything around me while, at the same time, allowing myself to get lost in the wonderful landscapes and rocks, that has kept me pretty much geo injury free for all these years.

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