A British Standard is published next week laying out guidelines for 'good practice' in planning and safety management for fieldwork overseas. Nick Smith examines the implications for all involved
It was the field trip from hell. On the recommendation of his supervisor, post-graduate research student Adam Smith visited a politically unstable South American country to carry out a behavioural study on a remote indigenous tribe. Then long civil unrest flared up, leaving him stranded without food and water, while a communications blackout caused by an earthquake to which the region is particularly prone cut off contact with his family and university back home. When he eventually returned to the UK, he was unable to complete his PhD due to health problems that were a result of his horrific experiences in the field. He sued his university, alleging that there had been no risk assessment and that there was no contingency for evacuation in the event of trouble.
Although this is not a real case, it is frighteningly plausible. It is, in fact, a composite of scenarios similar to those used in the teaching of risk management in higher education, and it is designed to raise key issues about fieldwork planning and safety. While incidents on this scale and of this complexity are incredibly rare, there will be many students, supervisors and parents for whom at least part of this story is all too real. And while the biggest safety risk for field workers overseas is related to motor vehicle accidents, when disasters of this type happen, according to Shane Winser of the Royal Geographical Society, "the first question is: 'Where's the quality mark that says that this was well organised and well planned?'" In other words, whose fault was it? It is a question that has not always been easily answered.
A new safety standard, published by the British Standards Institution (BSi), will go some way to clarifying situations like this. The specification for the provision of visits, fieldwork, expeditions and adventurous activities outside the UK - BS 8848 for short - will provide unambiguous guidelines to venture providers as well as clearly delineating chains of responsibility and explicitly dealing with issues such as "informed consent". What this means, says Robert Schroter, a professor in Imperial College London's department of bioengineering, is that "students and staff involved with overseas ventures will be able to operate in the knowledge that significant issues relating to the safety and planning of the activity have been addressed".
Schroter, who sits on both the main technical and drafting committees for BS 8848, adds that one of the benefits of the guidelines is that those involved will then be free to "focus constructively on the purpose of the venture". BS 8848 derives its name from the height in metres of Mount Everest, one of the most challenging environments on the planet, associated with both extreme risk and the pursuit of excellence. But the standard is not solely about dangerous activities in remote places. According to Winser, BS 8848 "can provide support for many types of overseas activities as there are substantial generic issues relating to health and safety across a number of sectors. It is as applicable to the academic researcher visiting a document archive in Belgium as it is for gap-year expeditions and higher education fieldwork," he says.
David Petley, Wilson professor of hazard and risk at Durham University's department of geography, has sent PhD students to the Himalayas to study the region's vulnerability to landslides. He says that in the geographical community there is legacy of "if you're not taking some sort of risk then it's not proper fieldwork". This implies, he says, that there must also be an acceptable level of accidents. "I don't think that's good enough,"
Petley says. He says the standard will give students a much clearer understanding of the processes that have gone into planning their venture, including risk assessment. It will also give them "a clearer view of their responsibilities". This is particularly true for students doing "lone work", who will need to understand the degree to which they are the venture leader.
Despite the fact that the earth sciences community will be the most aware of BS 8848, it is not simply a geography fieldwork safety standard.
According to Schroter, it will have a positive effect on other sectors of education "where there is currently a degree of fear of punitive consequences of misfortune of any nature on ventures abroad". While BS 8848 is not health and safety law, British courts do have a reputation for taking seriously the recommendations of the BSi.
One of the objections to the standard is that it puts another obstacle between the field worker and the field, and that BS 8848 will mean fewer students getting practical experience. But this is a red herring, says Petley, because issues such as funding, large class sizes and time pressures on staff "are far more important in this respect". The truth, as with all voluntary standards, is that conformity will be claimed initially by those best placed to claim it, while those with more to do will lag behind. And for those who think that it is merely preaching to the converted, there are many institutions that will benefit from bringing their procedures into line with BS 8848. As Petley says: "It is much better that these issues are dealt with by a standard than by a court case."
Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and former editor of Geographical magazine.
Copies of BS 8846 can be obtained through the BSi website, www.bsistandards.co.uk , or through its order helpline, 0845 3670242.
GOOD PRACTICE SETS THE STANDARD
As with all British Standards, conformity is voluntary but need not be daunting for university departments with health and safety guidelines already in place.
Significantly, the standard refers to "good" and not "best" practice, and those responsible for drafting it see the wording as being "inclusive".
So, for example, in the case of Imperial College London, Robert Schroter does not see the standard as having operational implications for his department, because "traditionally, we have consistently followed responsible practice that reflects the ambitions and framework of the standard". The standard provides tangible guidelines by which organisations can measure their own procedures. They will be able to claim a certain amount of protection in law if they stick to it.
Schroter says: "Provided the good practice delineated in the standard is adhered to it will be possible for the institution or organisation to demonstrate with explicit evidence that all appropriate measures were taken and procedures followed."
With 30 years as chairman of the Imperial College Exploration Board, Schroter has vast experience in this area and is convinced the standard is workable. "It's based on a huge body of experience and has been crafted most carefully," he says.
BS8848: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
* When does BS 8848 become active and who can claim compliance?
BS 8848 is published on April 23 and is active immediately. Any organisation providing visits, field work, expeditions and adventurous activities for the purpose of research, education, training or recreation may claim compliance, providing they meet its requirements.
* How do I become compliant and who audits it?
Copies of BS 8848 are available from BSi. In higher education, an internal audit is sufficient provided it is carried out by a person competent to interpret the standard objectively and in an accepted manner.
* What protection does the standard give my organisation?
It sets out in clear language the actions and associated responsibilities essential to the provision of a risk-based safety management system for overseas visits. This allows venture providers the means to objectively verify that their activities are organised in accordance with good practice.
* What is "informed consent" and how does the standard interpret it?
The concept of informed consent is where participants (supervisors and students) are able to choose the level of risk they are prepared to accept.
The standard requires providers to inform participants of risks and what will be done to manage them.
* What is a "lone worker" and how does this apply to the researcher in the field?
A "lone worker" is a participant who is unaccompanied, such as a student on placement or a PhD or masters student working alone. In such cases BS 8848 requires the venture provider to make arrangements for them to undertake the roles and responsibilities of venture leader and participant in combination.
* Does the standard guarantee the quality of the academic research?
BS 8848 has no bearing on the academic judgment and quality of research.
* Isn't BS 8848 a charter to sue?
British Standards are not statutory instruments. But if a venture provider and a participant go to law, British Standards are one of the established reference points for judging whether organisations have behaved reasonably.