Cultural Resource Management Archaeology Safety Overkill

That’s right. You read the title correctly. I’m talking about the times when there’s too much safety in CRM. I know I spoke about the lack of safety coverage in most companies and almost all university field programs, but, recently, I learned about a situation where a company is being forced to comply with client requirements that have created an accelerating slope towards too much health and safety requirements. As with all things, moderation is key. And moderation is almost a thing of the past in this situation.

Health and safety has recently become an important aspect of construction and manufacturing industries. I’d like to say this was part of a paradigm change amongst management in these industries, but its more likely a result of exploding insurance and health care costs and fines. It has simply gotten too expensive for manufacturing and construction companies that are trying to pinch their pennies to keep having a high number of workplace injuries and deaths.

Deaths in CRM archaeology are rare; however, work-related injuries are ubiquitous. The toll on our bodies resulting from the many hours we spend sitting, digging, and hiking take years to become so bad that our livlihoods suffer. We don’t get sore backs and cancerous skin blotches until we’ve been doing CRM for years, so it’s difficult to link those illnesses with a specific project or employer. Because we rarely suffer immediate injuries, most companies treat health and safety like it’s a nice bonus but not a necessessity.

Fortunately, safety is moving to the forefront in our industry and CRM companies of today are more safe than they used to be decades ago (although, you could argue work in the United States in general is becoming more safe). Part of this newfound emphasis on safety among construction companies, many of whom are clients of CRM companies, has rubbed off on many of the most successful CRM firms because we want to stay on the good side of our clients and not lose contracts.

However, I recently realized that there can be too much of a good thing. Companywide health and safety regulations can become so onerous that they start severly impeding work flow and greatly increase field time. These rules can also become so ridiculous that they are virtually meaningless.


What do I mean?

The mining industry is, in my own opinion, the epitome of health and safety taken to extreme lunacy. In the United States, we all work under OSHA, but mining operations also have to comply with the Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (also known as MSHA). I recently heard from an archaeologist I know in Arizona that, due to a combination of OSHA and MSHA, she will have to wear a life jacket whenever working within 10 feet of a “navagable river.” Aside from the Colorado River in the extreme west of the state, there is almost no actually navagable waterways in Arizona anymore. But, the definition of a navagable river is dictated by the Army Corps of Engineers. A river does not have to actually be navagable, it just have to fit the judicial description of a navagable waterway, which can only be made by the ACOE.

Additionally, the waterway doesn’t even have to have water anymore, which is the case for most rivers in Arizona. It just has to have historically had water, which makes it have the capability to be navagable. Per the ACOE:

“It is the waterbody’s capability of use by the public for purposes of transportation of commerce which is the determinative factor, and not the time, extent or manner of that use…[I]t is sufficient to establish the potential for commercial use at any past, present, or future time. Thus, sufficient commerce may be shown by historical use of canoes, bateaux, or other frontier craft, as long as that type of boat was common or well-suited to the place and period.”

The Federal govenment, in their infinite wisdom, has mandated that all “employees working over or near water, where the danger of drowning exists, shall be provided with U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket or buoyant work vests.” (29 CFR 1926.106) ( This is a very good rule for people working at dockyards or on boats, but it makes little sense for archaeologists in the desert…unless you interpret this regulation as applicable to people working near navagable waterways. If you interpret “water” as meaning “navagable waterway” and follow the rule of law that says a navagable waterway doesn’t even have to have water, it just has to have had, at one time, the capablity of being navagable, then you realize that your mine employees should probably have lifevests and access to water rescue supplies even if they’re simply standing next to a dry riverbed.

I don’t know if any mine has gotten fined for this nuanced interpretation. Whether they have or have not gotten fined, this particular mine realized that it’s better to mindlessly follow a regulation rather than get hit with a fine. After all, it’s cheaper to buy a raft, some life jackets, and life preservers than it is to get an MSHA or OSHA fine. Since the CRM companies are your consultants and you are partially responsible for their activities on your property, I can see how this ridiculousness is passed on to them.

This is an egregious case of safety overkill. Part of the situation has been caused by the mining industry that needlessly sacrificed workers for centuries before the Federal government cracked down on them with MSHA. Part of the situation is caused by MSHA inspectors actively searching for violations under the addage, “there’s always something wrong at a mine.” Either way, we’ve got archaeologists wearing life preservers in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. I wonder where this will all end?

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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