Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (Part 2)

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With summertime coming around again, it is time for archaeologists to post photos of breathtakingly dangerous practice. I wonder sometimes if the digital age will eventually help improve practice at archaeological excavations through public censure and raised awareness. I’m not sure–my first Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (part 1) was posted in 2011 when I was shocked and outraged at stunning disregard for the wellbeing of workers displayed in photographs in the New York Times. But have things changed? Apparently not.

I was alerted to this particular instance from BAJR’s Facebook page, and there are nearly 100 similarly outraged comments below the link. The university backing the project has been notified by members of BAJR, but can we all agree to stop this now? This is not something that we should be teaching students. Projects that post photos like this should not be funded and should come under serious censure.

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We need to do better. We need to teach proper health & safety to the next generation of archaeologists. We need to require project directors and supervisors receive rigorous training.

This 2x1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.
This 2×1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.

Curious about health & safety on archaeological sites? A good start is the CIfA’s Risk Assessment documents:

Lest you think this is UK-only, you can garner a very handsome fine from OSHA:

OSHA guide for trenches & excavation:

OSHA Trench Excavation Fact Sheet:

* All trenches over 1.5 meters require a protective system.
* All trenches require safe means of egress at all times.

As I said in my previous post:

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.

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.