Health and Safety for Academics

I was excited to read what an archaeologist had to say in the New York Times as part of their science blogging special–there’s been a decent amount of buzz regarding the series on Twitter and on other blogs. I wasn’t prepared for this:

A 2×2 meter pit dug 6.5 meters deep. This is breathtakingly dangerous and her hard hat is laughable. The next blog entry mentions that the soil layers “have an almost cementlike quality” and that the pit had been consolidated with lime mortar.  Sadly, in the same blog post that protests about the safety of the excavations, we get this image:

Professors can write health and safety assessments that put themselves down at the bottom of a pit, but this guy looks like a workman standing at the bottom of a section that’s three times his height. No amount of wire fencing, lime mortar or hard hats is going to save this man’s life if the section collapses on him.

But nothing bad ever happens, right?

Just last December, Mario Bergeron, an archaeologist of 25 years, died after being buried up to his waist down a 4.5 meter hole.

The rule of thumb is for every 1 meter you go down, you should step back 1 meter. I don’t care how expensive this makes excavations, you are risking the lives of your crew.

To give you some idea, this properly stepped pit is about five meters deep from the fence line.

I’ve taken fairly breathtaking risks myself (not the least in posting this as it is potentially lethal to my career) but these kinds of practices are deeply ingrained in archaeology and someone needs to say something.

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

26 thoughts on “Health and Safety for Academics”

  1. In a show of solidarity I will stand behind you on this, and brazenly put my name on the comment. This is a very serious issue that desperately needs highlighting – especially in the academic/research sector. Commercially led archaeology has tended to be better at recognising this problem for sometime (although not without exceptions), but my experience the quality of research led work has tended to be highly variable, especially on digs outside of the academics country of origin, where unfamiliarity with health and safety is often compounded with a lack of local awareness or care regarding the issue…

    Well done for bringing it to general attention – and no-one’s career should be at risk for speaking out about this. The bottom line is use your head. If it looks dangerous it may well be – don’t jump in a hole because the supervisor says you must.

  2. Also putting my name. There is never any excuse for putting workers’ lives at risk. My husband worked for the state CRM company in France, and they are very good about that. Then he went to Central America with academic archaeologists and found workers who were potentially digging their own graves. He told the workers to get out of the telephone booths, and read the director the riot act. He works in the US now.

  3. Good for you. In theory, the rules are well known in Britain, but even I’ve had to refuse to go down holes that flagrantly disregard concern for health and safety, and a geologist was killed near here in a trench collapse in 2008 (the company that employed him were convicted of corporate manslaughter earlier this year).

  4. Good for you!

    A hint: That NY Times photo is very likely to be exhibit A in the liability trial if anything goes wrong in the excavation, even if it’s not a collapse of a section. It’s evidence of shoddy safety practice.

  5. Dude.

    Not a new story, but I will certainly never forget my supervisor talking about his first archaeological experience: 15 years old, a volunteer at the local site, such excitement! But of course the day he reports to site, there’s crime scene tape all around– the professor died in a trench collapse earlier that morning. I wish there was some sort of ‘this is your spine on trench collapse’ educational video series…

  6. If this Problem has to be addressed, here the two most dangerous situations I have witnessed in Germany:
    working in mud, the fundaments of a three story buildung were not standing on solid ground.
    Grabung Schwedenstraße Osnabrück
    And this wall collapsed into a trench after working hours:
    Grabung Bierstraße 12.10.2005

  7. I have more experience with CRM than academic archaeology, and although most companies I’ve worked for have been pretty safety conscious, there have been a few where, looking back, I shudder to think how close I came to getting killed. However, I’ve only seen one non-trivial injury on a dig, and that was the individual’s own fault: he didn’t pay attention to where he was walking, and fell off a 20 foot bluff.

  8. Your first responsibility is always the safety of your staff, never mind how important you think the archaeology is. Also, that is indeed a very nicely stepped trench.

  9. Hear hear! We do get safety briefings on bigger sites, however, so often the safety rules are disregarded because people are not really aware of the risks (e.g. because they come from a different professional backgraound) or because “we just do it quickly without too much effort/cost” . People’s safety always comes first!
    (nice to see so many people agree!)

  10. Oh dear,

    After the news of Japan’s earth quake and how close sites are to the coasts where Tsunamis will be close by enclosed trenches . .. wow.

    Though you are safe there from the upcoming Tsunamis, one never knows when enclosed ditches, trenches or even Overhead builds after many many centuries of neglate.

    Ms Morgen, your fandom begs for you safty . . . okay back to work in in Iraq on my dangerous bit of ordering parts, helmet at my side . . .

  11. Amen! Amen! Amen!

    Now, can we talk about WHY we are pushed to do these stupid things? the emphasis on “moving dirt” never went away– it just became less gendered.

  12. Thanks to everyone for your comments, especially to those who made it a point to sign your names. While the OSHA standards can seem overly harsh, it would seem worth it for the SAA to come up with a standard guide for OSHA compliance regarding health and safety in the field, and for people who do not follow these standards to have serious professional repercussions.

    I think what is most shocking about this utter disregard for safety is that the directors could go to jail if anything happens on the dig. While we speak about indigenous outreach and community-based archaeology, we put workmen in these deeply dangerous situations.

    @Rosemary – I think a lot of people just have no idea of the issues involved. If I knew either of the professors I might be inclined to drop them an email.

    All – I guess I would just hope that the commenters and the readers of this blog won’t let this slide any longer with their friends and colleagues.

  13. Also, many digs foster the sort of culture where anything the might happen is due to your own stupidity, and if you won’t do anything you’re not a “hardcore” archaeologist. When I worked CRM in southern Ontario we were required by law to wear steel-toed boots (though I know of several fellow workers who didn’t anyway), which just seems like common sense when you’re working with pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. None of the friends I’ve talked to who have done pickaxe-style digs have ever said they wore steel-toed boots (and I’ve seen pictures of sandals!). And if you get stung by a wasp while swinging the pickaxe, lose control, and break all your toes? Well, you’re probably just a moron, and the more experienced diggers are going to roll their eyes and snicker at lunchtime once they’ve gotten you to the hospital (assuming there’s one nearby.)

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