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Into the Woods

Having worked in the safety field for more years than I care to discuss publicly, I am frequently reminded of the continual need to adapt existing safety policies and procedures to ever-changing work environments. The safety field provides ongoing opportunities to learn and improve our work practices, with the important goal of making job sites safer for everyone. Prior to my current role within the safety industry, my boots-on-the-ground field time occurred either within four walls or during the construction of those four walls. Delving into the utility industry and experiencing the sheer isolation of some worksite locations were new experiences for me.

For the longest time, the environmental section of my tailboards looked like the cookie-cutter variety. In the summer, the section consisted of anything related to heat, including heat stress, heat cramps, heat stroke and dehydration. The winter section revolved around hazards related to cold and ice: hypothermia, frostbite, winter driving conditions and slippery work/walking surfaces.

And of course, ticks are mentioned seasonally in nearly every safety professional’s tailboard paperwork, including mine. But what about all of the other creatures that may be found in rights-of-way and other remote work locations, particularly bears, which can be found in the majority of U.S. states and in Canada? Are they being mentioned in your tailboards? They weren’t always mentioned in mine, but they are now.

It’s true that the probability of running into a bear may be lower than coming into contact with a tick; however, that doesn’t mean we can ignore the hazard. It exists in many areas, and a human-versus-bear incident can have a lethal outcome. We owe it to our workers to provide them with the appropriate awareness training and safety resources so that they have the best chance of successfully handling bear encounters.

A tragic example of such an encounter occurred last year when two contract employees hired to take geological samples from Alaska’s Pogo Mine were mauled by a black bear; one of the employees recovered from the attack, yet sadly the second individual succumbed to her injuries. While we may find it hard to believe that something like this could happen to us, it is imperative that we always remember that wild animals can turn on humans in an instant. Keeping that fear fresh in our minds will help us remain vigilant in our efforts to work safely and return home each day unscathed.

Precautionary Measures
So, what are some of the measures that we need to take to prepare and educate our workers about working in bear country?

First, it is necessary to know which types of bear – grizzly, black or both – are native to your region. That’s because there are key differences in both the bears’ appearance and in how to survive an attack, as each type of bear behaves differently in different situations. Distinct to the grizzly bear, with its light tan to dark brown fur, is its shoulder hump, which is the muscle it uses for digging roots and slashing prey. The average standing height of a grizzly is 6 feet 5 inches, and their geographical footprint is indigenous to Canada, Alaska and the northwestern region of the U.S., including Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Washington. Black bears, on the other hand, have fur that ranges from white to black. Smaller than grizzlies, they do not have the shoulder hump and their claws are shorter. Their geographical footprint is much greater than that of grizzlies; they are found in 41 of the 50 American states and in all Canadian provinces.

In addition to being familiar with what different types of bears look like and where they live, it’s critical that workers understand how to protect themselves in the event of an encounter. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, experienced hunters and law enforcement professionals suffered injuries 50 percent of the time when using firearms to protect themselves, while people who opted to use bear spray were able to escape injuries or incurred less severe injuries than those who used firearms.

Many survival experts recommend keeping bear spray with you when working in areas where bears may be present. There are several types of bear spray available on the market, and it is important to choose a brand with a longer spray range. These sprays can shoot bursts up to 16 feet away; they work by causing the membranes of the bear’s eyes, nose and lungs to swell. The result is a nearly total – yet temporary – loss of sight and severe restriction of the bear’s breathing. Important tips to remember when using these sprays are to steady your arm and aim toward the bear, making sure to adjust for wind direction; spray in two- to three-second bursts while the bear is approaching; and adjust the spray bottle so it is slightly above the bear’s head, as gravity will affect dispersion of the product.

In summary, task the safety professionals within your company with the regional identification of bears – and other wildlife – the hazards they present and the knowledge necessary to be prepared. Be an advocate for your personal safety. If your company needs to revise their identification of environmental hazards and incorporate additional policies and procedures to ensure the safety of their workers from wildlife attacks, push back to ensure this is done. It may save a life one day. As the saying goes, hope for the best but always be prepared for the worst.  

About the Author: Jennifer A. Martin works as a safety specialist for Syracuse Utilities Inc. in New York. She is an experienced safety professional with more than 20 years in the construction safety industry.

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