Conducting Fieldwork During COVID-19: Perspectives from a Field Biologist

Conducting Fieldwork During COVID-19: Perspectives from a Field Biologist image
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FCS is committed to prioritizing the health and safety of our staff and clients, while maintaining project progress and business continuity. Our staff biologists provide their perspectives on conducting fieldwork during the pandemic and share their insights on the lessons they learned.

The ongoing pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to businesses across all industries and disciplines, presenting unique challenges to environmental consulting firms like FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS). Since FCS’ technical personnel specializing in cultural resources, biological resources, noise, aesthetics, and air quality impact analysis are often required to conduct fieldwork, we revised our field safety measures and protocols to ensure they include current OSHA and CDC precautionary measures, and provide increased protection for our staff.

Below, our staff biologists share their unique, first-hand perspectives on what it is actually like conducting fieldwork during the pandemic and what lessons they have learned in the process of doing so.   

A Day in the Life of a Field Biologist During COVID-19

On a given day, biologists conduct simple habitat assessments and endangered species surveys, as well as undertake complex regulatory and endangered species permitting efforts. We are responsible for characterizing and monitoring environmental conditions and for conducting environmental impact assessments based on the findings of biological investigations, which often entails considerable fieldwork. In these pandemic conditions, my colleagues and I have faced particular challenges, necessitating fluid resourcefulness.

Masks

Conventional face masks can be hot and restrictive, and they may inhibit communication in the field. I switched from wearing a conventional face mask to a 2-layered buff scarf. It is easier to take on and off; and it provides protection against the sun, dust, and insects.

Shared Surfaces

Often, I have to touch surfaces such as doors, gates, gas pumps, and sign-in sheets which numerous other people have also touched. To resolve this, I carry disinfectant wipes in my vehicle and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket at all times. I also use my own pen to sign in rather than use someone else’s.

Vehicles

Riding in a vehicle with someone outside your household puts you at higher risk of infection, so I drive in a separate vehicle. Avoiding carpooling ensures employees’ safety, while it may increase environmental impacts of performing fieldwork as well as increase project costs.

Rental vehicles present another issue, especially off-road capable vehicles. Off-road capable vehicles  have become more difficult to acquire during the pandemic due to changes in services, including the need to comply with social distancing and sanitation practices, as well as decreased demand. While field biologists may not have a capable vehicle (or may not want to put the extra wear and tear on their personal vehicle), renting vehicles also increases the risk of infection and increases project costs. My approach was multi-pronged:

  • In the early stages of the pandemic, when I rented vehicles, I began visiting the rental office in-person. To ensure I received my preferred vehicle, I would choose from what was currently sitting on the lot. While they do take your preferences into account, they may not be able to guarantee you receive a particular vehicle when you reserve online. In this case, I was looking for a vehicle with 4-wheel drive which is not a standard feature on most available vehicles, and therefore hard to find. Physically visiting the facility allowed me to choose my exact vehicle.
  • I used disinfectant wipes to wipe down all surfaces in the rental vehicle.
  • I also booked rental vehicles for a longer term (several weeks to a month). Renting for a longer term can be cheaper because you often get a discounted rate per day. If you will be using the rental vehicle daily it can save money in the long run.
  • In the more recent months, I have begun using my personal vehicle for field work. Due to the pandemic and inherent risk of exposure, FCS changed its travel policy to waive the requirement to rent a vehicle for travel greater than 300 miles roundtrip. Using your personal vehicle may cost less because you are only being reimbursed for mileage. You can also save time and money with the logistics of picking up and returning a rental vehicle, which can be difficult to manage, especially when you have short notice to be onsite the next day, for example. As a personal decision, I recently traded my sedan for a more versatile vehicle (a pickup truck) that better meets the demands of my job and lifestyle.

Other possible solutions that may be feasible for you or for your firm include:

  • Requesting that a rental company provide drop-off and pick up services at your home so you can avoid visiting the rental office in-person.
  • Borrowing an off-road vehicle if one is available to you. For example, my colleague, FCS Senior Biologist Kevin Derby, offered the use of his personal ATVs for use during a field survey.
  • Encouraging your employer to revise “business as usual” policies regarding the use of personal vehicles to allow employees the flexibility to use their own vehicle as a precautionary measure.
  • Discussing your company’s policies regarding compensation for the wear and tear placed on your personal vehicle.

Social Distancing

Some people I encountered did not always follow social distancing practices and/or did not wear masks, stood too close, or even tried to shake my hand. I stayed 6 feet apart from others at all times, and I politely declined a handshake. Some alternative greetings I offered were elbow bumps or just simply kept greetings verbal. FCS' field specialists verbally establish safety protocols at the beginning of field meetings to explain the precautions that everyone will be required to take and to avoid any awkward situations.

Safety

In reflecting on my experiences in the field so far, do I feel safe while conducting field work while following these precautions? Yes! I have not yet been in a situation where I felt like I was putting my health at risk that I was not able to avoid or mitigate with a little extra care and a few readily-available supplies. FCS' proactive implementation of these measures and safety protocols, demonstrates their commitment to help ensure the health and safety of our team. Their robust protocols have also provided a great amount of latitude. For instance, if I were to feel unsafe or uncomfortable conducting fieldwork, I can decline to perform fieldwork altogether. 

How Our Natural Resources Team Can Help You  

FCS’ collaborative, problem-solving approach, combined with our in-depth understanding of local, State, regional, and federal regulatory compliance requirements helps us streamline the environmental compliance, permitting, and approval processes. Our in-house biologists can tailor a work plan to meet your needs, from the simplest habitat assessments to the most complex regulatory permits. Whether conducting field surveys for protected species, monitoring construction, or restoring habitat, FCS has adapted to complete each task safely and effectively.

 

FCS comprises over 100 individuals offering due diligence, technical analyses, regulatory compliance, and permitting services for public and private projects. Contact us for a free consultation to find out how we can help.

To learn more about staying safe while conducting essential fieldwork during COVID-19, check out our blog HERE.


About the author

Alec Villanueva

Alec Villanueva thumbnail

Alec Villanueva is a Biological Resources Specialist who has worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC), and as a student research assistant at the University of California Davis. He has experience conducting biological surveys across the state of California. He is knowledgeable of the environmental review process under CEQA, the California Fish and Game Code, and State and federal Endangered Species Acts. His experience also includes drafting biological reports, identifying plant and animal species, collecting water quality data, using the ArcGIS software and global positioning system (GPS) devices, as well as operating motorized watercraft, and all-terrain vehicles.

How we can help

In an ever-changing regulatory and sustainability environment, FCS understands the challenges you face. Our highly qualified environmental specialists, energy management consultants, and technical experts deliver integrated, industry-specific solutions that move your project forward—so that you can focus on what matters.