Risk management strategies for archaeological fieldwork

In a previous post on health and safety overload in CRM archaeology, I recapped how a certain archaeologist I know was forced to bring a life vest and inflatable raft to the desert in order to work on a project. This was due to a permutation of an Army Corps of Engineers regulation designed to protect folks that work near navigable bodies of water that had been adapted by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators. The result: fines levied for anyone that didn’t have a safety vest while standing near dry a river bed in Arizona.

I understand that MSHA inspectors are supposed to find safety problems at mining properties. I also understand that mining companies don’t want to get fined, which is pretty much impossible because MSHA inspectors get paid by levying fines, so they find “problems” in order to issue fines. But, the worst thing that is happening from this situation is the explosion of ridiculous rules and regulations created by mining companies that (they believe) are designed to prevent the fines.

A similar evolution can happen at cultural resource management companies. When somebody gets hurt on the job, it causes the CRM company’s insurance rates to raise and may effect future proposals with clients that emphasize safety. Some clients do not want to work with CRM companies that have too many accidents. These clients will think twice about hiring consultants that do not emphasize safety and have too many claims. Whenever a CRM company has a field accident, they are extremely likely to create a rule to address that specific accident (that is, if they even care at all). Oftentimes, it’s a snap edict handed down from the company supervisors that is made without a proper investigation or evaluation of the specific reasons why that accident happened.

How do we prevent CRM companies from getting sucked in to health and safety overload?

In the case of the rubber raft in the desert, there is probably no way to get rid of complying with that rule. Mines are forced into insanity by MSHA inspectors who are, in turn, forced to levy nit-picky fines in order to get a paycheck. Conversely, there is a lot we can do to address arbitrary, knee-jerk rules created by CRM supervisors that want to keep their insurance rates low but aren’t willing to take real measures towards cultivating an atmosphere of safety in the workplace.

As part of my ongoing quest to improve health and safety in cultural resource management and archaeology, I started thinking about other industries that expose their employees to so many different kinds of hazards and conditions. The military initially came to mind. The U.S. Army has a health and safety handbook that is loaded with many modules that are applicable to field archeology. The outdoor adventure tourism industry is one of the only other industries that places its employees in so many different environments where they can be exposed to the same hazards as archaeologists.

In order to manage the incalculable number of hazards in their industry, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has partnered with the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) to create a number of trainings and guidelines that help outdoor group leaders prevent accidents and mitigate hazards. The best books on outdoor decision-making, wilderness medicine, and outdoor leadership that I’ve read were all created by the NOLS and/or WMI.

Each year, the WMI holds a conference on Wilderness Risk Management (http://www.nols.edu/wrmc/). It’s pretty expensive to attend (early bird registration is $580; $270 for students), but there is a huge archive of previous presentations that you can access for free. The NOLS also has a YouTube channel that is loaded with instructional videos (http://www.youtube.com/nols1965?sub_confirmation=1). While I haven’t watched too many of these videos, the few that I have seen are excellent and full of useful information that archaeologists can use. The Wilderness Risk Management Conference YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwL3VNR0eGyxAnELYI03I-zWbj-5MpGom) is also loaded with presentations that can be really useful in our industry.

The WMI emphasizes decision-making making as a crucial element in preventing workplace injuries and promoting an environment of good health and safety. The central idea is: all employees should weigh the risks of their decisions in the field and use good judgment to prevent themselves and others from getting hurt. This is a really straight-forward way to approach injuries in the field that does not really require huge books full of company-specific health and safety regulations. Of course, CRM companies need comprehensive, well thought-out health and safety plans that address the most common job-specific tasks for both insurance and contracting reasons. But, we should take measures to emphasize good decision-making over rule making. We also need to properly investigate each accident in search of the root cause(s) for both prevention and data collection.

What do you all think? I’d love to hear from you. Please send me an send me an email or write a comment below.


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