Essential Field Research during the COVID-19 Pandemic
August 11th, 2020

Guiding Principles for COVID-19 Fieldwork Safety Plans

This document provides the minimum framework required to assess and mitigate risks associated with resuming essential field research during the COVID-19 pandemic.  All general fieldwork safety requirements must continue to be followed, including development of a fieldwork safety plan covering general hazards. Additional measures may be required depending on specific characteristics of the planned operations, environmental conditions, current community public health situation, orders from the State of North Carolina, or guidance from Duke University. 

The general principles for conducting field research during COVID-19 are outlined below. Each principal investigator planning fieldwork must create a written plan justifying the need for the fieldwork, identifying risks for exposure to SARS-CoV-2, and outlining mitigation methods to minimize those risks. An outline for a COVID-19 fieldwork safety plan is included after the general principles.

Self-Quarantine and COVID-19 testing prior to fieldwork-associated travel

  • Those planning to travel for field research should self-quarantine for 14 days prior to fieldwork-related travel. This is particularly important if the fieldwork will require traveling in a vehicle or vessel with other people, lodging with others, or working indoors with others in poorly ventilated spaces.
  • The 14-day self-quarantine recommendation means that shopping for supplies, including food, should be completed prior to two weeks before departure.
  • Pre-travel PCR COVID-19 testing is recommended for those who will be traveling for an extended period of time and/or who will have limited ability to communicate with others outside of the field team due to lack of cell phone coverage. In these cases, check with Duke Employee Occupational Health and Wellness approximately 2 weeks before travel to ascertain the likely wait time for testing results and plan testing so that results will be available at least 24 hours prior to departure.

Self-monitoring and personal health risk

  • Those conducting fieldwork are expected to follow Duke's guidelines related to self-monitoring and reporting health status, just as they would for on-campus laboratory research.
    • Before leaving home for fieldwork, all field members must complete the online EOHW screening checklist here or through the COVID-19 Symptom Monitoring App for the two weeks prior to departure. Symptom monitoring must also be completed daily while in the field and for two weeks after returning home. If flagged by the screening checklist, field team members must contact the COVID-19 hotline at 919-385-0429 (option 1), as well as their direct supervisor, and act on their instructions. 
    • If a team member has tested positive for COVID-19, has been referred for testing by EOHW or is awaiting test results, that person must notify their supervisor immediately, and may not participate in fieldwork for any reason until approved by EOHW.  No researcher should participate who feels ill or has reasonable cause to believe they have been exposed to COVID-19. 
  • If a fieldwork team member believes that they are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and is concerned about participating in fieldwork, they should contact EOHW to discuss further. Contact EOHW by calling 919-684-3136, choosing option #2, and asking to speak with a COVID support team provider.
  • The COVID-19 fieldwork plan must include a contingency plan for what to do if a member of the team starts to feel sick. This must include a plan for transporting the ill team member so that they can be tested or receive medical care as needed. If the field team will not be operating within an easy drive from Duke, medical contact information for a COVID-19 testing facility and the location of the nearest hospital must be included. Additionally:
    • The ill person must isolate themselves as much as possible from the rest of the field work team and wear a mask at all times.
    • Contact the COVID-19 hotline at 919-385-0429 (option 1) as well as their direct supervisor and act on their instructions.

Physical distancing and minimizing contact with others

  • Fieldwork teams should include the minimum number of people required to carry out the work while ensuring safety in the field.
  • Researchers may not bring family members,  guests, or pets into the field.
  • Interpersonal distancing guidelines apply to all activities including transit to research sites, vessel and field operations, interaction with the public, procuring and consumption of food/beverages, and lodging (if needed)
    • Whenever possible, field operations should employ a crew size that allows for 6 feet distancing between personnel.
    • See section on “Considerations for Transportation”.
    • Whenever possible, plan fieldwork as day trips. If overnight lodging is required, minimize contact with others (for example, sleeping in separate hotel rooms and avoiding hotel common areas, booking a house with a washing machine instead of using a public laundromat).
    • Consider precautions to take when procuring food and beverages, to minimize contact with members of the public. Food and beverages must be separately maintained and handled by each member of the field team. Team members are encouraged to eat meals alone and outside if this is reasonable.
    • If social distancing cannot be maintained at all times, the research team must plan to  ameliorate the risk of transmission during periods of close contact. At a minimum, all personnel must wear a mask or cloth face covering over their mouth and nose if a distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained outdoors, and when they are in indoor common-use spaces. (Keep in mind that masks and cloth face coverings are not to be worn for more than one day; plan mask/face covering supplies and laundry supplies/facilities accordingly.)

Considerations for transportation

  • All fieldwork must comply with the Duke Travel Policy COVID-19 Addendum (July 2020 or more up-to-date version).  
  • Care should be taken to ensure physical distancing on travel to and from field sites by limiting the number of individuals in each vehicle. When multiple persons are in the same vehicle, they should wear masks or face coverings over the nose and mouth, sit as far apart as possible, set the vehicle’s ventilation to bring in fresh air (not recirculating), and consider cracking open the windows.
  • Use of Duke Vehicles for fieldwork must be approved by the Department/School and must comply with the Duke Vehicle Safety Policy; drivers must complete the required Vehicle Safety Training on the OESO website and the Defensive Driving Course in the Duke Learning Management System. The University policy on use of personal vehicles applies (https://finance.duke.edu/insurance/vehicle/personal).
    • All shared vehicles and vessels must be properly disinfected before and after use by the person using it. Those performing disinfection must wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and should pay attention to contact time. See below for more notes on disinfecting surfaces.
  • If personnel will need to use public transit or rideshares for any reason, they must follow CDC and OSHA guidelines and the above-mentioned guidelines for physical distancing on travel.

Handwashing, Hand Sanitizing, and Disinfecting surfaces

  • Appropriate materials must be available for handwashing/hand sanitizing, such as handwashing  soap (for when water will be available) and hand sanitizer containing at least 60% ethanol or isopropanol. Be aware that sanitizing hands requires 30 seconds of contact time – the amount of hand sanitizer needed may be greater than anticipated.
  • Appropriate disinfectants and PPE must be available for disinfecting common-touch surfaces including vehicles and field equipment. Be sure to plan for personal protective equipment appropriate for disinfectants to be used (such as gloves and safety glasses for 70% ethanol/isopropanol or gloves and safety goggles for 8% hydrogen peroxide) and to be aware of required contact time for the disinfectant to be effective. A disinfection schedule should be developed that is appropriate to the type of work being conducted.
  • Those conducting fieldwork are reminded to wash or sanitize their hands before and after touching their faces and to minimize touching their faces if it will be difficult to clean or sanitize their hands.
  • Disposable gloves may be used to limit transfer of infectious materials between hands and surfaces, but they are not currently recommended by CDC for this purpose. Gloves can transfer contamination from one surface to another as easily as hands. If gloves are part of the strategy to limit exposure to infectious materials,  they must be sanitized or changed frequently.

Planning and Communication

  • Those conducting fieldwork are encouraged to communicate with colleagues and supervisors while maintaining physical distance by one of the extensive forms of communication, e.g., video chat, phone, VHF radio, etc.
  • Virtual operational planning, briefing, and communications should be conducted prior to departing for the field site. A responsible party not at the field site (such as a lab manager, the PI, or an administrative contact within the department) should be made aware of the full details, including departure and return ETAs.
  • For individuals conducting approved fieldwork alone, a responsible party must be made aware of the full details, including times of departure, return and periodic check-in calls.

Other Considerations

  • If the fieldwork includes scientific diving, a Dive Plan must be submitted to Duke’s Dive Safety Officer and the Dive Control Board at least 30 days in advance of proposed fieldwork.  The Dive Safety Officer and the Diving Control Board will review each Dive Plan on a case-by-case basis and provide guidance on current dive-specific, COVID-19 safety requirements.
  • Collaborating researchers external to Duke must agree to abide by the COVID-19 plan developed by the Duke PI. In addition, external collaborators fall under the Minors/Non-Employees in Work Areas Policy.
  • All applicable safety policies must be followed including university policies related to Fieldwork Safety, Vehicle Safety, Minors/Non-employees in Work Areas, and Laboratory Safety, as well as school/departmental policies related to specific types of fieldwork activities (e.g., boating or SCUBA diving).

COVID-19 Fieldwork plans

  • Principal Investigator must justify the research as essential, based on school/departmental criteria.
  • The research team must create a written plan describing specific COVID-19 exposure risks and mitigation methods to be used.  This plan will be in addition to the general fieldwork safety plan
  • All fieldwork must comply with the Duke Travel Policy COVID-19 Addendum (July 2020 or more up-to-date version).  
  • The COVID-19 fieldwork plan must describe the fieldwork, personnel, and risks as follows:
    • The minimum number of people needed to complete the work safely
    • Status of research personnel (faculty, staff, graduate student, as well as any non-Duke staff who will be needed). If these personnel will also be conducting laboratory research, they must be listed as personnel in the Laboratory Safety & Waste Management System.
    • How personnel will travel to/from the field site
    • Arrangements to procure, store and consume food and beverages
    • Lodging arrangements if needed (day trips are encouraged). (Also address laundry arrangements and the purchasing of fuel and other supplies if needed.)
    • Whether the field site is frequented by the public
    • What kind of activities are necessary while at the field site
    • Anticipated duration of the fieldwork
    • The potential for close proximity between personnel (and others) during all of the above activities
  • The COVID-19 fieldwork plan must address mitigation steps to be taken, including the following:
    • Strategies to minimize the number of individuals participating in the activity
    • Strategies to minimize risk that field team members are sick with COVID-19 when the fieldwork project begins, including self-quarantine prior to departure and, in certain cases, pre-travel COVID-19 PCR testing.
    • Strategies to minimize contact during transportation to or from field site, while conducting the activity, during lodging, and while procuring and consuming food, beverages and other supplies. Be sure to describe
      • Procedures to clean vehicles before and after use with disinfectant (70% alcohol or 8% hydrogen peroxide or other accepted method).
      • Plans for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and community protective equipment (CPE), including masks, gloves, safety glasses/goggles and protective clothing to minimize exposure to the virus and to disinfectants while in the field.
      • Procedures for handwashing/hand sanitizing before departure, while in the field, and upon return to the lab (or field station)
      • Ability to maintain social distancing (minimum of 6’), both during research activities and when on breaks (meals, overnight lodging, etc.).  For situations where this is not possible, describe additional measures.
      • Procedures (including specific disinfectants to be used, PPE and contact time) for cleaning field equipment and common-touch surfaces. 
    • Strategies to identify if personnel become sick with COVID-19, including daily completion of the online EOHW screening checklist on days when working in the field or at the lab.
      • Procedures for how to deal with the sick personnel while in the field and how the team will return home while minimizing exposure to the sick person.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

These guidelines are adapted from guidelines created by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.