I’m particularly ashamed of having once jumped out of a car. It had stalled near the top of a very steep and very tall hill, the brakes appeared not to be working, and it was beginning to accelerate backwards. Luckily, this car also lacked doors and seatbelts so jumping out of it was easy. Unluckily, I forgot that my boss was in the passenger seat until I was on my ass in the dirt and desperately yelling for her to jump out too. Thankfully she also managed to jump to safety although her bruises ended up being worse than mine were, which didn’t help my feelings of shame at having behaved in such a decidedly unheroic manner. When an employee from the NGO that loaned us the car came to extract it from the ditch it ended up stuck in, he took the opportunity to mock my driving skills and contemptible cowardice, but not to apologize for the state of the car’s brakes. Such is life, such is field work.
It is well known that ecology and conservation frequently financially mistreat their youngest participants. Unpaid internships and “pay for the privilege of working for us” internships abound and all but the poorest, luckiest, or most gifted of young conservationists have usually participated in at least one of these. The fact that young conservationists frequently put our bodies as well as our bank accounts in danger is less frequently discussed, but no less of a problem. It is also something that all ecologists and conservationists should work to address.
Some element of risk is inherent in ecological and conservation field work. The woods or the ocean will always be less-controlled environments than offices and certainly feature more unmarked hazards and wild animals. When things do go wrong, definitive medical care may also be far away. This means that the people drawn to this type of work will probably always be more risk tolerant than the general population. This does not mean, however, that young employees could not be made safer with good risk minimization plans, even if we don’t always realize we need them. Known hazards should be considered and planned for accordingly so employees and volunteers don’t find themselves doing things like walking the beach in a lighting storm or trying to contend with an aggressive guard-dog occupying their bed. Equipment should also be properly maintained to avoid catastrophic failures and “car rolling backwards down the hill” type situations. Employees should also be informed of probable hazards and trained to properly respond to them. Finally, if employees do not feel safe they should be encouraged to say so and these complaints should be handled with compassion rather than disdain or indifference.
Operating within a research or conservation project can sometimes lead to a toxic distortion of priorities where risk and discomfort are seen as necessary or even desirable sacrifices in the name of scientific discovery or “saving the Earth”. There is no reason, however, why we cannot conduct science and save species without taking unacceptable risks. Even if those of us who now have supervisory roles cannot be motivated to make this changes by compassion for our subordinates, perhaps because we feel we endured worse ourselves, we should do so for our own self-protection. None of us would enjoy having to explain how a subordinate came to be injured (or worse) to the public, their family, or a cross-examining attorney. A guiding company I once worked for advised me to “picture myself on the witness stand” when making decisions that affected participant safety. Ecologists and conservationists would also do well to heed this advice.
 I am aware that both of these examples are dramatic, but it’s also true that I have experienced them both personally.