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Safety first or safety cage?

Geoscientist 17.9 September 2007

Thanks to poor safety procedures, your editor owes his life to the Bedu. Ted Nield on the need for geologists to work with the new BS8848.

Earlier that day our Land Rover had bogged down to its rear axle about 20km from the nearest track, which we had left in the hope of finding an outcrop clearly visible on our 40-year-old USAF aerial photographs. Much can change in a sandy desert in 40 years. Old outcrops can become concealed; new ones exposed. Even the dirt roads themselves might not be where they were in the years just after World War 2. So, my colleague and I sat, wrapped in a blanket, waving our torches into the pitch black night of the Empty Quarter.

We had no satellite imagery, and had only just heard of mobile phones. Satellite phones were undreamt of; GPS a military secret. Yet we had posted neither travel plans nor return dates with anyone. The six jerry cans that I thought my companion was filling turned out to be the same jerry cans that he thought I was filling. Hence, during our futile attempts to dig ourselves out, we discovered that we had about a litre of water between us. In that fine sand one might as well have tried to dig a hole in the sea, so we decided instead to spend the rest of the day lying together in the shade of the Landie’s crank case. Meanwhile absolutely nobody - including us - had the vaguest notion where we were.

Barring a desire to see the fabled desert I had read about in Wilfred Thesiger, I also had no particular reason to be there. Having come to the end of a tour of mapping duty for my company, I was at a loose end and took the opportunity to accompany a research student, who shared our digs, on his final field visit before writing up. For three years he had made similar trips all on his own, and - unfit mother that she clearly was - his alma mater didn’t seem to mind one bit.

We didn’t worry either, because we knew that “Empty Quarter” is a misnomer. Light a campfire, and a Bedu in a Toyota pickup will soon roll up, just to see who you are. Sure enough, after about four hours of torch-waving, we saw headlights among the dunes, rising, diving back in and rising again, like a dolphin in the ocean. Our rescuer came with water, a feast of pancakes and goaty yoghurt (unappetisingly known as hufs and semen) superior driving skills, and a towrope. Grateful though we were, neither of us thought this in the least lucky.

The whole experience seemed then like just the sort of reason anyone would do a geology PhD – out on your own, face to face with nature, relying on your inadequate survival skills, taking your chances. Now, it seems nothing short of amazing that my colleague had been allowed to gad about like this all on his own.

Like the desert we were attempting to cross, today’s social landscape has changed beyond recognition. As Rob Butler discusses in his piece on the British Standards Institute’s new code of fieldwork practice currently in consultation (see p. ??), it is high time something of the sort was in place. To waste energy complaining about the consultation process so far would be to miss the point. Students may be adults, but institutions cannot avoid the fact that they owe their charges a reasonable duty of care. BSI 8848 should be embraced.