Safety in the field

We have had an excellent record of safety at Camp Branson.  However, safety in the field requires an understanding of the hazards, attention to your environment, and knowledge of what to do in case you or one of your partners gets in trouble. This brief summary is designed to acquaint you with some of the potential hazards, symptoms of problems, and simple precautions you should take in the field.

The information that follows comes primarily from three sources: our own long history of experience working in the field with students, and two excellent books on the subject of field safety, which are references at the end of this handout. If you would like to read more about any given field hazard, please contact one of us and we can make these books available for you. However, this handout summarizes most of the safety hazard that you are likely to encounter, and it provides you with recommendations for minimizing those hazards and steps to take in the case of a medical emergency. The most common hazards you face are heat-/weather-related hazards, animal/plant hazards, and terrain hazards. A key concept in this respect is to paying attention to your environment at all times; “think before you do it, and think while you are doing it” (Oliveri and Bohacs, 2005). You are completing projects in three-person groups for both pedagogical and safety reasons. We expect you to work as a group for these same reasons.

Medical emergencies in the field

  • In case of a medical emergency while you are in the field, contact a TA or faculty member as soon as possible with information on the emergency.
  • If you and your group are not near a faculty member or TA, one person should stay with the injured person while the most able-bodied person finds a TA or faculty member. Be prepared to give the name of the injured person, the nature of the injury to the best of your knowledge, the exact location of the injured person (you will have a map with you), and the circumstances associated with the injury.
  • Each TA and faculty member will have an FRS radio and a cell phone in the field for communication and will work immediately to organize efforts to assist the injured person.
  • A large red first aid kit is stored in the oldest white van under the seat just behind the driver’s seat. A listing of materials in the kit is taped to the inside of the lid of the kit. Each faculty member and TA will be verse in the use of materials include in the first aid kit.
  • Lander is close enough to all of our field areas that a seriously injured person will be evacuated from the field as determined by the nature of the injury

Heat-/Weather-Related Hazards

The weather in Wyoming during the summer can be quite variable. You may experience a variety of conditions even on the same day, combinations including snow, hail, violent thunder/lightning storms, cold wet winds, to extreme heat and hot dry winds are possible. Be aware of weather forecasts and dress accordingly. Your best approach is to wear several layers of light to moderate weight clothing that can be shed as the day warms. Always take light rain gear with you in the field, as late-afternoon thunder storms are common.

Dehydration is the main cause of heat-related illness. In the dry air of Wyoming you will lose fluid at a rapid rate but not be aware that you are becoming dehydrated. Signs of dehydration include dry mouth, headache, fatigue, and reduced and darker colored urine. To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of liquid before you leave in the morning, and continue to drink at frequent intervals throughout the day. Drink before you become thirsty; thirst is not a reliable indicator of your fluid status. You should drink at least two quarts of water a day if you are active (and you will be). We suggest you take two quarts of water with you in the field. Extra water will be available in each van. Do not drink from streams in the field. Giardia lamblia is a common bug in water even in the high country and apparently "pristine" streams.

Heat exhaustion is caused by prolonged physical exertion in a hot environment. At the time of onset, the victim feels faint and is usually aware of a rapid heartbeat. Nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, restlessness or even loss of consciousness may occur. Most important from a diagnostic standpoint, the victim's temperature is not significantly elevated and may even be below normal. Sweating and skin color are variable. Treatment consists of rest and the administration of salty fluids.

Heat stroke is a true medical emergency. The onset may be quite rapid. The victim may be previously unaware of extreme heat but quickly becomes confused, uncoordinated, delirious, or unconscious. Characteristically, body temperature exceeds 105 degrees F, the skin is hot, and sweating is completely absent. Treatment must be immediate. The body must be cooled as soon as possible. Cover the victim with wet cloths and fan to promote evaporation. Vigorously massage the victim's limbs to prevent stagnation of circulation in the extremities and to accelerate cooling of the vital organs.

Because of the low humidity and consequent evaporation, you may feel quite cool. However, the atmosphere is thin at the high elevations you work at, leading to a higher penetration of ultraviolet rays and potential for sunburn. The effects of the sun increase about 4% for every 1000 ft of elevation. Recent studies suggest that even moderate exposure to the sun can significantly increase your risk of skin cancer later in life. Be aware of your resistance to sunburn and wear clothing and apply sun screen accordingly. A sun block of at least 15 is recommended for exposed skin.

Thunderstorms may come up quickly, especially in the mid to late afternoon, and move quickly out of the high country and into the basins. Keep your eye on the weather. If a lightning storm catches you in the open, take immediate steps to make yourself a poor lightning rod. Get off mountain tops and below the tree line as quickly as possible. If you are caught in an open field, head for the surrounding woods, if possible, or crouch down in a depression until the storm passes over. Don't lie down; you should minimize your contact with the ground while making yourself as low a target as possible. Never stand under a prominent object such as a tree in the middle of a field. Stay at a distance at least twice the height of such objects. Stay away from metal objects. In general you should stay away from overhanging ledges; lightning will commonly bridge the gap between the ledge and the ground and will pass through anyone standing in the way. If you are in a vehicle that is struck by lightning, you will not be harmed while you are in the vehicle. However, residual charges may remain on the vehicle surface; when disembarking the vehicle, jump from the vehicle rather than touching the vehicle at the same time you touch the ground.

In the rare event that someone in your group is struck by lightning, perform CPR if necessary. Continue CPR as long as you are physically able; victims of severe electrocution have been known to show no response for several hours and then make a full recovery.

Animal & Plant Hazards

In the 100+ years of operation of this field course, we have had two cases (non-fatal) of snake bites. Rattlesnakes are the only poisonous snakes you are likely to encounter; however, rattlesnakes are numerous, and you will see one or more during the summer. Snakes are technically deaf, but they are highly sensitive to vibrations. If you are concerned about snakes in an area you are traversing, announce your approach by talking loudly and treading heavily. In the early part of the day, snakes may be slow if the sky is cloudy and the air is cool. Under these conditions they are most common in sunny areas. In the afternoons, snakes are more active and more likely to strike. They tend to be in shady areas, under rocks or ledges, in crevices, tall grass or other sheltered areas. If you are climbing along a ledge, always watch where you put your hands. If you are walking past low rock overhangs, keep alert for rattling sounds. Don't turn over rocks with your hands or feet. Instead, use your hammer, rolling the rock toward you, putting the rock between you and whatever may be coiled beneath. Don't step over fallen logs without checking for snakes on the other side. If you come across a snake near you, stop; don't make any sudden moves that may cause the snake to strike. Back away slowly until you are out of the snake's striking range (no more than the snake's length). Give the snake a wide berth when you continue on, and watch for other snakes in the area.

Avoiding snakebites is much easier than treating them. If you or someone in your group is bitten by a snake, don't panic. It is quite possible that the snake didn't inject venom. Have the victim relax in the shade until a course of action is determined. Rattlesnake's envenomation will become obvious almost immediately, as indicated by pain, local swelling, and perhaps a metallic or rubbery taste or tingling sensation in the mouth. If these symptoms do not occur within about 15 minutes, it is generally safe to assume that envenomation did not occur. Regardless of the presence or absence of such symptoms, we will always evacuate the victim to a medical facility for antivenin treatment or observation and infection prevention. Ideally the victim should be transported by party members, as any movement on the victim's part will speed the spread of poison throughout the body. If the victim must walk out, do so slowly, keeping the victim cool and making frequent stops. If you have an Extractor ™ you may want to consider using it before transporting the victim, if not, do not try to treat the snakebite in the field. We are typically within a 30 to 60 minute drive of the Lander Hospital where antivenin can be administered by a professional if necessary. Never give a snakebite victim alcohol in an attempt to calm him or her; alcohol accelerates venom absorption. Never apply ice to a snake wound in an attempt to reduce swelling. This causes venom to concentrate in one spot, increasing the risk of severe tissue damage. Be aware that snake venom is often more concentrated in the spring, when snakes are fresh from hibernation. Snakebites this time of year can cause more severe reactions.

Ticks may be locally abundant in some of the grassy parts of your field areas. You can minimize your exposure to ticks by wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts. Light colors are best for spotting crawling ticks. Check your body and clothing frequently for attached ticks if you are in tick habitat areas. Make a thorough "tick check" in the afternoon upon return from the field, especially the groin area, the base of the neck and behind the ears. If you find one tick, carefully recheck for others. If you find a tick embedded, gently remove it with tweezers by pulling it straight back and off the skin. Be careful not to leave the head embedded, as the head may still transmit disease or lead to infection.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be transmitted by ticks and is potentially fatal if not treated. Symptoms include persistent fever, headaches, chills, and rash. Lyme disease may also be transmitted and can cause a crippling arthritis, usually of a single joint.

Scorpions are not abundant in your field areas, but you may find one lurking under a rock. The sting of a scorpion is typically no more serious than a bee sting, causing intense pain and local swelling, not death. Only one species of scorpion is potentially lethal and it occurs only in parts of New Mexico, Arizona, southern California and Mexico. During the day scorpions seek shelter from the sun in the sand, under rocks, or under dry leaves. Turn over rocks with your rock hammer, don't stick your hand into any crevices, and watch where you sit if there are a lot of dry leaves around.

Leave the livestock alone. Many of your projects are on private property and we want to maintain our reputation as good neighbors. If you encounter a heard of sheep or cattle that are being driven, stay in your vehicle or freeze until they pass. Livestock are not used to the sight of a human on foot and you may spook them. Some pasture areas may contain bulls; be able to spot them and give them a wide berth.

Poison ivy occurs locally in some of your field areas (for some reason it is most commonly associated with the Tensleep Formation). If you know you are allergic to it, you are probably already aware of what it looks like and can avoid it. If you have never encountered poison ivy, have someone point it out to you and try to avoid determining if you are allergic. If you touch poison ivy, you should wash the affected area as soon as possible. If you are allergic to the plant, you may want to carry cortisone cream, calamine lotion or some other treatment with you.

Terrain hazards

Don't do anything that looks dangerous to you. Your chances of an accident will be greatly reduced if you stay within the range of your physical abilities and climbing experience. Members of a group should never force another member to do anything he or she is afraid of doing.

This is beautiful country and many of you will want to walk in the mountains above the camp. If you do, always go with at least one other person (groups of three as a minimum are preferred). Be sure to sign out, so we know what your plans are. If you are not an experienced climber, we prefer that you get your experience at another time. Even if you are an experienced climber, you must keep in mind that a climbing injury may well keep you from completing and receiving a grade for this course.

Falling is often caused by loose footing, so avoid hiking on loose rock in areas where a slip could result in a serious injury. Be careful not to dislodge rocks that may tumble down to unsuspecting students below you. If you do dislodge a rock, shout “rock” to warn those below you. Do not run down hills; you can easily lose your footing while running on uneven terrane. If possible, avoid crossing scree slopes and be aware of adjacent cliffs that may contain loose rock or debris. Don't jump or bound from rock to rock, especially when rocks are wet or lichen covered. Avoid wet rock slopes. Avoid crossing log "bridges" unless necessary, and stay off fallen logs. Be aware of your abilities and do not take chances where you are uncertain of your abilities in a given situation. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Very few of your field experiences during our course will involve road-cut outcrops. However, such outcrop visits can be more hazardous than many of the perils that you face off-road. We visit road-cut outcrops in advance to understand how best to approach the site, and van drivers are given specific instructions about the sites and associated precautions in advance. Please be sure that you follow all instructions from our van driver. If we must park along a roadside, we always park on the right side of the road with flasher lights on. You will always be exiting the van from a side door away from the road. While you are at the outcrop, keep an eye out for cars, and warn each other by shouting “car”. In the case of a steep road-cut, see “avoiding falls” in the previous section.

Resources on Field Safety

  • Planning for Field Safety (1992), American Geological Institute, 197p
  • Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments, a process-based guidebook (2005), Oliveri, S. R., and Bohacs, K., AAPG, DEG, ExxonMobil, 150p