Summer 2018 – Frequently Asked Questions: Safety at Sea and During Field Work

(From Summer 2018 Newsletter) Safety at sea and during all field work performed by GoMRI researchers is of the utmost importance and is a priority for the GoMRI program. Having safety protocols in place and communicating them to researchers participating in field work and on research cruises helps everyone involved know what is expected and how to stay safe. Interestingly, protocols are highly dependent on the type of field work being performed, and the details may be contingent on whether live animals are involved, whether the field work is performed on a ship or on land, if diving in the ocean or other physical activities are required, and so on.

While each GoMRI-funded consortium and individual investigator’s research will require different safety protocols, typical protocols will include specific instructions for emergency situations, details on what to bring, and things to watch out for. Required items may include specific clothing like straps for hats and glasses, closed-toe soft-bottom shoes, and sun protection. Conversely, items like jewelry may be prohibited to avoid catching on equipment, slicing through work gloves, or injuring animals. The protocols may also indicate required items that might not readily come to mind, like puncture-resistant gloves. Further instructions may include what to do if there is an injury or heat-related illness, severe weather, or an emergency with a research vessel such as running aground or sinking. If the field work is performed where researchers are in contact with live animals, or in an environment where infectious disease transmission is possible, the protocols may also include information on preventing transmission and what to do if a researcher has potentially been infected. While in the field, researchers must be vigilant and stay aware of their surroundings, especially for things that can present a safety hazard like ropes on ships, power lines, or machinery. And if a situation arises that might include abandoning a research vessel, protocols include very specific commands of “no” (stay on board) and “jump,” as opposed to “go” and “no” which sound similar and may cause confusion.

Recently, researchers with the Consortium for Advanced Research on Marine Mammal Health Assessment (CARMMHA) have been performing field work in the Gulf of Mexico. CARMMHA’s research focuses on understanding impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the dolphin population in the Gulf, and their field work includes many weeks spent in the water capturing, assessing, and releasing live dolphins to perform health assessments. Lori Schwacke, Director of CARMMHA, and CARMMHA researcher Eric Zolman answered a few frequently asked questions about their safety protocols, including how they developed, why they are important, and how they ensure all of their researchers abide by them.

Question: How did your consortium develop its safety protocols for field work and/or research cruises?

Answer: The protocols that we use today were initially formulated in the early 2000s for a series of dolphin capture- release health assessments carried out along the U.S. east coast. Our current protocols built on previous documents and experience and were the product of a collaborative effort amongst several governmental, non-governmental, and academic entities. This iterative process continues today to account for changing conditions, different environments, and novel situations. So in this regard the protocols are a ‘living document,’ one that is regularly reviewed, modified, and adapted to the project at hand.

Question: Can you discuss the importance of maintaining clear and well-defined safety protocols during cruises and field work?

Answer: The safety of each and every person engaged in one of our health assessments is our paramount concern; everything else is secondary. Our safety protocols form the basis of every consideration we make while in the field. Although there are risks involved in our research that can’t be completely mitigated, we strive always to reduce such risks to the lowest denominator possible. By following the guidance put forward in the protocols, we endeavor to minimize the inherent risks.

Question: How do you ensure everyone is abiding by the protocols? If you’ve ever had an instance where someone didn’t follow protocol, what did you do?

Answer: We first disseminate the most current version of the protocols to all persons that will be involved in an upcoming project, and we strongly encourage each individual to familiarize themselves with the material prior to arriving for the project. Then, typically the day before the onset of a project, we hold a pre-capture briefing where we discuss what we are going to do, how we plan to do it, and what must be done to ensure the safety of all involved. Daily, once the project has started, we hold short briefings with the entire team to review our progress, look ahead to the day’s plan, and highlight things that have gone right as well as those that haven’t gone as well. Additionally, boat operators review the safety specifics of their vessels with their respective crews. Finally, rarely we have gathered the crew, or portions thereof, while actually in the field to review or discuss an unsafe event.

[Back to the Summer 2018 Newsletter]