Danger, Will Robinson? Safety in scientific field work

Interesting discussion over at The Spandrel Shop and Cackle of Rad on doing field work in the sciences--and the potential dangers that might be encountered. Now, Prof-like Substance and Cackle of Rad are discussing field work along the lines of biological sample collection, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, which isn't something I've ever done. However, we have our own issues when carrying out our epidemiological field sampling; more after the jump.

For new readers, my lab works on emerging infectious diseases, and zoonotic diseases (which can pass between animals and humans) in particular. As such, we spend a lot of time around animals and out field sampling--mostly on farms, but we've also done some work looking at bacteria in wildlife.

While PLS reports carrying a gun (!), for our work, typically we go out armed with little more than questionnaires, cotton swabs, and a cooler.* However, we also don't go out solo wandering through the wilderness (though driving through rural Iowa on twisting gravel roads sometimes seems equivalent). Our risks are much different. When we sample people, there's always a (small) risk of acquiring some kind of illness from them if we're not careful. As such, we always wear gloves when sampling, just to be on the safe side.

Working with animals is a lot more difficult than human field work. On some of the farms, we get a great cardio workout (Rule #1), catching and lifting pigs for swabbing. (And while you may think a 12-week-old pig sounds cute and adorable, try catching and holding one of those, with the realization that it's approximately the weight and strength of a year-old pit bull, just without the jaw power). There's always the danger of being scratched or even bitten by a pig, which can be really nasty. Luckily, to date no one in my group has been bitten (to my knowledge...) and scratches have all been fine with a thorough cleaning and antibiotic ointment as a precaution.

I also worry about my students catching something from inside the barns. One study previously showed that veterinary students out sampling did, indeed, become colonized with MRSA, but that colonization was short-term. My students typically don't spend a lot of time inside the confinement barns so hopefully, even if we're dealing with positive farms, our short time there won't present much risk, but one student will be in barns for an extended period of time when his study ramps up here shortly. He wears both a suit and a mask to protect himself (as well as protect the pigs from anything he may be bringing in). Is a mask enough to protect him? Don't know, but right now it's the best combination of protection + practicality we have.

We've also done some cattle studies; it's been awhile, but we have more coming up soon. Obviously the little guys (like here) aren't all too dangerous, but sticking swabs up the nether regions of an adult animal is somewhat nerve-wracking--I don't want to lose any teeth to a hoof. Next up will be turkeys--who also aren't exactly tiny and docile. (Think about the size of your Thanksgiving turkey--the big ones, Tom turkeys--but with feathers, a beak, and claws, and not exactly happy to see hands and a swab coming at it).

Now, I come from a rural farming area and grew up downwind of a pig farm, so it still feels a bit weird to me to don gloves and sterilized booties to go traipsing around a farm, and as PlS and CoR note, we're probably more inclined to take risks when it's just ourselves than when others are with us. These are my students, and some of them can be pretty green (as in, never seen these animals anywhere but on their plates before we head out on the farms), so it's my responsibility to do what I can to protect them (even if the farm owner, in their coveralls and boots, looks at us like we're nuts, as they often do).

*Our lab work certainly carries its own dangers, but at least they tend to be a bit more predictable than our field work.

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It's funny what falls under the broad umbrella of field work and the inherent dangers of each. You have to worry about domestic animals and disease, I worry about wild animals and abiotic forces, and CoR is more concerned about unsavory characters or getting lost in isolated areas.

Depending on the ventilation systems in place, quite a number of barns (at least in the South) also have high levels of ammonia, which can irritate airways.

Thomas Joseph--yep, that's a factor as well. We're usually in & out fairly quickly so that's usually not an issue for our sampling, but longer exposures can definitely bring potential problems, especially for anyone who already has an airway condition (such as asthma).

I was on a sin nombre hanta virus project back a few years ago in the Great Basin when it was BSL level 3 (I heard rumblings it might get down-graded based on some recent work). I can't help but wonder what the locals thought of us, running around with rodents, wearing respirator masks in the hot badlands at dumb hours. If we were just there for riding ATVs around instead of science, it would have been just shorts and sunglasses. :) We definitely gave the locals something to talk about!

A good point about most folks from urban backgrounds having little or no experience with farm animals, let alone wild ones. Shreve Stockton (dailycoyote.net, honeyrockdawn.com) has made some interesting observations in that regard.

Love the description of the turkeys. I've watched them in the wild as well as on farms. Definitely not something I would want to have to tackle without stout gloves and clothing. Hopefully you don't have to take samples from emus...

Back during the SARS scare I flew to China. Before they let us off the plane, health officials came around using an infrared thermometer (no contact!) to check for folks with fever.

The officials were dressed in full haz-mat suits with face shields which seemed a bit of over kill for me.

I always find it amusing when non-herpetologists talk about 'dangers'. Oh noes, ammonia fumes. Let me just extract my hand from the jaws of a 14 foot python which is trying to constrict me* and I'll give you a pat on the back in sympathy.

* Yes, this has actually happened to me. It was actually one of the *less* dangerous injuries I've received or narrowly escaped while working with these animals. And I don't even work with venomous species (yet).

Mokele: My undergrad advisor was a herpetologist, and while he didn't have any real horror stories, his friends had some great ones. "I was sliding off a bolder before I realized there was a copperhead where I was going to land, so I just pushed off hard and ran." And he wondered why we were so slow and cautious catching our lizards. We were busy looking for snakes!

My current PI did undergrad work eye bleeding rodents in the Nevada desert (in the summer) looking for Sin Nombre virus. So he was out in full get-up (respirator, gloves, etc) wrangling disease-ridden animals. There's a reason I stay in the lab!

By JustaTech (not verified) on 28 Sep 2010 #permalink

Just a quick note regarding herpetologists and comparing that to the dangers from inhalation of ammonia or many other toxic byproducts from various substances present in abundance on large industrial farms. In today's huge intensive livestock production (and smaller farms as well), the inhalation of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide or any number of toxic gases have resulted in the death of workers.

Not sure how the implication that this is somehow overwrought non-herpetologist's being hysterical is legitimate. Or maybe I just misread the intention. If so, my bad.