20 June 2008

How safe is too safe?

Posted by Jessica Ball

As many of our posts suggest (see A Carnival of Death-Defying Geologists), we can sometimes be a little lax in our safety standards. I have yet to meet a geologist who hasn’t at least gotten sunburned or a little dehydrated on a long hike, or bashed a finger with a rock hammer, or spilled dilute HCl on themself in lab. Geology is not a particularly safe job, although we do take precautions to keep it from being truly life-threatening.

That said, when we’re teaching it to young ‘uns, exactly how stringent should those precautions be? Naturally, if I’m showing a bunch of third- or fourth- or fifth-graders how to identify limestone, I’m going to use vinegar instead of HCl, and make sure they (and I) are wearing those geeky-looking splash goggles because I KNOW they’re going to get something in their eyes. Or if I’m out on a field trip with intro geo students, I’m not going to let them swing the hammer or stand near me when I’m trying to knock a hand sample off an outcrop. Common sense. You don’t let little kids mess with something that could hurt them, and you don’t let older “kids” do something until you’re sure they know the proper technique.

One of my projects at the moment is to put together images for a publication where children “doing geoscience” are prominently featured. Because I work for a non-profit, we try to avoid purchasing images from stock photo sources if we already have something public domain or that the organization owns. Free images get used first, and often these have been recycled many times from past years’ publications. So we’re a little limited in what we can use, and the images can be kind of old. The main point is, we’ve used the images before, and we’ve gotten them from places like the USGS, NOAA, NASA, NRCS, USDA, and a hodgepodge of other official letter combinations. And those organizations have seen fit to publish the photos, and in the past, no one’s complained about us using them.

Recently, one of the groups to which this particular publication goes (it’s a yearly one) has told us that the images don’t meet their safety standards, and they can’t distribute the publication unless the images are changed or eliminated. Some of their concerns were valid – one person needed to be wearing splash goggles, for instance. But others went completely beyond the realms of reason. If the children were depicted outdoors, the image was unacceptable if they were not wearing long pants, long sleeves, hats and sunglasses (because they might be exposed to UV rays). If a child was collecting water from a stream, they were doing “chemical testing” and needed to be wearing gloves, boots, goggles, a HazMat suit, etc. If the children were anywhere near rocks or dirt and tools, they had to be wearing safety glasses and NOT touching the tools, because something might get in their eyes or they could scratch themselves and get an infection.

The changes, which they requested very late in the publishing process, would have required a great deal more work and money to make, and required us to either stage new photos, or buy them from stock photo sources. Not only that, but some of the same images had been used in previous years in publications that the group has distributed without complaint and without comment from their safety office. But suddenly, this year, the images are not acceptable.

The main point of the publication is to get kids interested in geoscience and get them outside. You know, in the sun and the dirt. I wonder what kind of images would have been acceptable – should we show children rolled in bubble wrap, covered in buckets of sunscreen and locked in a room with walls covered in undyed organic fabric made from non-GM cotton picked by free-range nuns? Sheesh. It’s the same attitude that the “disinfect everything” cleaning products companies are espousing: protect the children from every possible danger, because god forbid we should let them develop immunities or common sense. When I was a kid (not very long ago), if I went outside and played in the dirt or climbed a tree or picked up rocks, I got a bath and some band-aids and maybe a little antibiotic cream afterwards, not a disinfecting routine worthy of a cleanroom airlock. If I tripped and fell while I was running, or scraped myself on a tree, or got dirt in my eyes at an excavation (later on in life), I learned from it.

There’s a point when the Cover Your Ass attitude has to be balanced out by common sense. Yes, you can be sued if you don’t let people know that you should wear goggles when using acid and someone’s kid burns their eyeballs after copying your publication. But rejecting an image because there’s a faint possibility that someone could interpret it a certain way and potentially do something dumb is just ridiculous. Wow, there’s a kid sitting under a tree. If a storm comes along, he could get hit by lightning or a branch could fall on his head or he could be attacked by rabid squirrels or the tree could be cut down by a crazed chainsaw-wielding neighbor, so obviously we can’t publish that photo. In fact, all photos of children near trees should be accompanied by a government warning that trees are highly unpredictable natural phenomena, and should be approached with extreme caution.

You can’t plan for every idiotic thing that someone could potentially do. Naturally, you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks, or let children do obviously stupid or dangerous things. But when you start saying that kids shouldn’t be depicted running around in sunlight, or digging in the dirt, or wading in water at the beach, you’re just being silly and alarmist. We can’t raise a generation of people who have no idea how to handle themselves in the real, dirty, messy, natural world, because they’ll just spend their lives inside. And you can’t do geoscience from a bubble.

The group ultimately opted not to distribute the publication, which was just fine with us, since it saves us money and the hassle of printing X many thousands of copies. But it’s a shame that thousands of teachers and students won’t get to see a really great product that encourages them to embrace the geosciences, and get the darn kids outside to do the same.