Each field work scenario is different. The following three scenarios suggest some of the ways in which a researcher might consider organizing field work activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The names and scenarios are fictional but draw on real cases. These scenarios are not safety plans and should not be read as prescriptive but rather as suggestive of the level of planning required to ensure team and community safety during field work.
Scenario 1: Field work at sites close to Vancouver where no overnight travel is required
Dr. Smith wishes to conduct four one-day field visits over a one-month period, leaving from Vancouver and returning on the same day. The data to be collected is seasonal and essential for the completion of a Master’s student thesis project; without it the student’s degree completion will be delayed by a year. While Smith might ordinarily lead a field group for some of this research, given the circumstances, she proposes that the crew be limited to two individuals, the MSc student, who has limited field experience, and a more senior graduate student who can offer guidance. Both have the appropriate level of first aid training and both will be trained in the special COVID-19 protocols attending this project. Prior to the field work, the two students will monitor their health. They will not conduct the work if they experience COVID-19 symptoms including a dry cough, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell/taste, sore throat, tiredness, or fever at any time in the two weeks prior to the first field trip, or at any time during the field trips. In this event, they will immediately self-isolate and consult health authorities.
The plan includes the crew travelling to the site in a two-vehicle convoy, with one of them in Dr. Smith’s research van and the other in their own personal vehicle. This ensures physical distancing. Further, the personal gear and field equipment to be used by each of the field crew members will be kept stored in their own personal backpacks, transported in their own vehicle. Both field crew members will carry cell phones and first aid kits, and sufficient food and water for 24 hrs. A safety protocol will ensure check-in with the supervisor. One member of the field crew will text Dr. Smith: (1) when they leave Vancouver; (2) when they arrive at the field site and leave the field vehicle (which in this case is within cell phone range); (3) when they finish their field work and return to the vehicle; and (4) when they return to Vancouver. The second text message will contain the GPS coordinates of the research vehicles. Each text will be acknowledged by Dr. Smith within 5 minutes of receiving the text, and the field crew will not leave the vehicle to begin the day’s work until they receive the confirmation text from Dr. Smith.
To make the one-day schedule feasible, the crew will schedule their travel so that they are in the field, ready to work by 7 am, and will leave the field by 3 pm. Dr. Smith will initiate the agreed upon emergency location plans by 5 pm if she does not receive a text confirming that the field crew has completed their work and returned to the vehicle by then. During the fieldwork, the crew will not share any handheld equipment, will maintain a physical distance of at least 2m and will wear non-medical masks if distancing is not possible. The research vehicle will be sanitized prior to departure, and upon its return to UBC. The field crew will both keep all their personal gear and field equipment with them between field trips. Once all four trips have been completed, the field gear will be sanitized and returned to UBC.
Scenario 2: Field work to an isolated site involving a research team
Dr. Wang’s research group has a long-term biodiversity monitoring project at a field site on a small Southern Gulf Island, and needs to collect data over one three-week period to maintain the continuity of data collection. The research facilities on the island include four sleeping cabins and a small cabin for cooking. Individuals in the four-person group include Dr. Wang, a postdoctoral fellow, and two graduate students.
These individuals will practice physical distancing with others outside of their immediate household, practice good personal hygiene, and monitor their temperature daily for two weeks prior to leaving for the field. They will not go on the field trip if they have any possible COVID-19 symptoms during that two-week period including a dry cough, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell/taste, sore throat, tiredness, or fever. The safety protocols will be discussed with the team in advance and the team members will confirm their understanding.
The crew will use two vehicles to travel to the ferry to Swartz Bay, with two people per vehicle, a driver and a passenger in the opposite rear seat. All passengers will wear non-medical masks. The crew will stay in the vehicles while on the ferry to minimize contact with others, unless they are placed on a lower car deck. They will drive to the boat launch, then take an open boat to the island. Once on the island, the group will share a kitchen and bathroom, but maintain physical distancing and good personal hygiene. Each individual will have their own sleeping quarters, but the kitchen and bathroom will be shared. Meals will be shared, but careful hygiene (hand washing and sanitizing) will be practiced. They will be outside most of their waking hours. The kitchen, outhouse and shared equipment will be cleaned and sanitized daily. There are no other people living on the island, but if there are visitors to the island (which are not anticipated), strict physical distancing will be observed. The crew will stay on the island for the duration of the three weeks, then return to Vancouver Island by boat and to Vancouver by vehicle and ferry. They will check in daily with the research group’s lab manager by cell phone.
If any individuals develop any of the above symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or any other medical problems, they will return by boat to Vancouver Island. If their symptoms are mild, the individual will take one vehicle and drive to an empty, available apartment on Vancouver Island, where they will stay for 14 days. If they are seriously ill, they will sit in the back seat of one of the vehicles and be driven by another team member to the hospital in Victoria, with both team members wearing gloves and masks. The other members of the field crew will monitor themselves for symptoms.
Scenario 3: Modifying plans at a remote site
Dr. Shahbaz has conducted a series of studies in a remote location in the interior of British Columbia for the past ten years. This work involves sensitive equipment running off batteries at the site. These require annual maintenance in addition to any field experiments scheduled. Without maintenance, the sensitive equipment, valued at $500,000, will be lost and the longitudinal study will end.
Before the curtailment of research, Dr. Shahbaz had planned on a 6-week field season, involving a crew of ten students on rotating shifts, both undergraduate and graduate. In light of the new circumstances, she reframed her plans to focus on critical maintenance and data collection. This involved scaling back the field season from 6-weeks to five days, and reducing the field crew from ten undergraduate and graduate students to five graduate students.
Dr. Shahbaz planned this reduced level of activity within the guidelines set out by WorkSafe BC for forestry field work (see here: https://www.worksafebc.com/en/about-us/covid-19-updates/covid-19-industry-information/forestry).
Although the field crew consists of five members, one will serve as an alternate in the event that another cannot participate. Only four members will travel to the site. The team will self-isolate for two weeks in advance of the trip, conduct symptom tracking, and take additional precautions to maintain physical distance traveling to the site and in housing and eating arrangements. Before the field work commences, Dr. Shahbaz will hold a virtual team meeting to discuss the safety protocols for COVID-19 and ask all team members confirm their understanding in writing.
Vehicular travel will involve an eight-hour drive from Vancouver with daily drives to the site of one hour each way. The plan involves two vehicles traveling with two field crew members per vehicle, in which the passenger sits at the opposite side of the vehicle in the back seat of the truck. Since the crew will be traveling on remote gravel roads, single person vehicles present unacceptable safety risks. All crew will wash hands with soap and water (or with hand sanitizer) prior to entering the vehicles each day. The interior (e.g. seatbelts, headrests, door handles, steering wheels, and hand holds) and exterior door handles of both trucks will be wiped down with sanitizing cleaner at the end of each day. Both trucks will be outfitted with Gerry cans to reduce the frequency of fill-ups. At filling stations, precautions will be taken to clean gas pump handles and pin pads. When in vehicles and in transit, all members of the team will wear non-medical masks.
The crew arranged housing at a rural motel which has shut down for the season and at which there will be no other guests. Each crew member will take separate quarters to facilitate distancing. They will share a common kitchen in shifts and sanitize the same after each individual use. They will bring groceries from Vancouver to cover the five-day period to reduce the need for stopping in local communities. Access to the motel will be pre-arranged with the owners to allow for contactless key exchange, payment and entry.
At the field site, the crew will work along a river and will have to retrieve equipment from defined points on the river bottom, using large inflatable rafts. All of this work will be accomplished while maintaining 2 meters distance between crew members. In addition, the rafts and paddles will be wiped down daily with sanitizer. Based on the experience of ten field seasons, Dr. Shahbaz is confident that the crew will not encounter others in the field. In the unlikely event that they do, the crew will maintain strict physical distance.
In the event that a crew member exhibits COVID-19 symptoms (e.g. sore throat, fever, sneezing or coughing), Dr. Shahbaz has developed the following safety plan. The affected individual will be put into the far back seat of their truck, and will put on a protective face mask and gloves. Another crew member, if not already the driver, will become the driver and will also put on a protective face mask and gloves. The inside of the vehicle (e.g. seatbelts, headrests, door handles, steering wheels, and hand holds) will then be wiped down with sanitizing cleaner. The vehicle will be designated a field Emergency Medical Vehicle and will immediately head back to Vancouver, not stopping along the way (possible because of the extra gas in Gerry cans in the truck bed, and food/water). During the drive, the person with symptoms will continue to monitor their situation using a thermometer and tracking other health metrics. All crew will hold Level 1 First Aid training and thermometers will be placed in both vehicles. The vehicle interior and exterior door handles will be wiped down with sanitizing cleaner upon completion of the drive.
Following the protocols set out by WorkSafe BC, both the person with symptoms and the driver will both go into self-isolation in their homes for two weeks and notify health authorities as well as the management of the field accommodation to ensure that necessary cleaning can be conducted.
common ‘take-aways’ from these scenarios
They all had clear plans to track symptoms and/or self-isolate in advance as appropriate; they all made clear that no team member would travel if they experienced COVID-19 symptoms; and they all had evacuation plans tailored to their particular travel circumstances. Before travel, all PIs discussed the safety plan with their teams and team members signaled their understanding and acceptance of the plans.
Each in different ways determined the best ways to maintain physical distance as much as possible, to don non-medical masks when appropriate and to avoid contact with local communities. While single occupancy travel in vehicles might be preferable for short trips on established routes, for those travelling in isolated areas, the balance of risks suggested the value of following Work Safe BC forestry field work guidelines for two people per vehicle and emphasizing physical separation, cleaning protocols, non-medical mask use and hygiene.
Each also emphasized the importance of communication while in the field should the team need to reach a supervisor or health authorities.