Safety in Science: How We Prep For Volunteers

As a Program Coordinator for Earthwatch, one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of my job is the opportunity to go out into the field. Visiting one of our expedition sites is thrilling because we get a firsthand chance to experience the research we support, and have the opportunity to travel to beautiful parts of the world to work with our world-class scientists. Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to Cortez, Colorado to visit our Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Ancient Basketmakers expedition in preparation for this summer’s volunteers. These visits happen before volunteers arrive and are to identify potential risks, manage those risks and train the scientists, in this case archaeologists Dr. Shirley Powell and Susan Ryan of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in Earthwatch policies and procedures.

Group of volunteers excavating at the location I checked for snakes

Group of volunteers excavating at the location Sarah checked for snakes

Volunteer Safety: One Of Our Top Concerns

We thoroughly train the scientists on what to do in the event of an emergency and work together to highlight potential risks while mitigating whatever risks we can, and minimizing the risks that are inherent to the work being done. On this expedition, volunteers dig to uncover clues about a 1,500 year-old agricultural society in Colorado.

I first headed to the project’s dig sites on the 1200-acre Indian Camp Ranch, where Earthwatch volunteers will spend most of their days. I evaluated the tasks that volunteers will be participating in to make sure they are suitable for all ages and physical fitness levels. Volunteers will be digging on the ground, lifting up to 100 lbs of dirt a day, sifting through ancient artifacts, and trekking through various landscapes. I have to make sure all of our volunteers are adequately prepared to participate in these tasks to eliminate the risk of injury and make sure we are safely able to complete the research.

Scientist Steve Copeland demonstrating volunteer tasks

Scientist Steve Copeland demonstrating volunteer tasks

One danger that was highlighted by the scientists, is the presence of venomous snakes in this region. Each of the staff on the expedition reiterated that it is essential and mandatory to brief volunteers when they arrive in Colorado on this danger and come up with a viable plan in case snakes are encountered.

Sleeping In The Bunks: Testing Volunteer Accommodations 

My time in Colorado also included a thorough assessment of the volunteer living accommodations to make sure they comply with our safety standards. Because this expedition is based in the U.S., I didn’t need to conduct a visit to the local area hospitals, but depending on the nature of the area’s medical services, it is common practice for us to visit local hospitals and embassies, in the rare case that we need to use those services. I stayed in replicas of the primary traditional home of the Navajo people, the same accommodations where our volunteers will stay to make sure the huts were safe and secure.

Replica of a traditional Navajo home where volunteers stay

Replica of a traditional Navajo home where volunteers stay

It’s no surprise that as an Earthwatch employee I am also a huge wildlife enthusiast, and Crow Canyon did not disappoint. During my stay I saw prairie dogs, mule deer, black-tailed jackrabbits, turkey vultures, marmots (there is a particularly curious pair living in the rock wall next to campus headquarters) as well as coyote and raccoon tracks. Scientists Dr. Shirley Powell and Susan Ryan are both fantastic scientists who, aside from being incredibly knowledgeable about their work, are wonderful hosts. One day, Dr. Powell treated me to a personal tour of the town to showcase all of the local amenities available to volunteers. The visit to Colorado, both highly productive and very enjoyable, left me feeling excited and reassured that the upcoming teams of Earthwatch volunteers will be in great hands this summer!