A pack of wild male elephants and an inadequately designed form get the credit for inspiring the dissertation study done by The University of Texas School of Public Health alumnus Dr. Scott Patlovich. The study recently made the cover of the April issue of Applied Biosafety, the peer-reviewed professional journal of the American Biological Safety Association.
[Photo: Dr. Scott Patlovich]
Dr. Patlovich, now director of Environmental Health and Safety for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), encountered the risk assessment form in question as a safety manager for the National University of Singapore. He was reviewing a research project involving infectious disease agents being collected in the field.
“This form is terrible,” wrote the investigator. Dr. Patlovich could only agree. It focused on safe work practices, containment equipment, and biosafety level designations specific to laboratories — and was adequate for that purpose. However, it had no place to list safety risks in the field, especially not the wild elephants the investigator thought his research team might encounter.
“Clearly there were a lot of issues related to field work that we weren’t considering,” Dr. Patlovich says. “And I knew we weren’t the only ones. Other institutions have similar challenges assessing field safety, and many biosafety professionals are asked to review protocols involving areas of safety in which we aren’t traditionally trained. I honestly couldn’t tell you what controls are appropriate for encountering wild elephants!”
Depending on the geographic location, field research exposes investigators to hazards not typically encountered in the lab, such as disease-carrying insects, wild animals, and extremes in temperature and altitude. Field researchers may also face danger during travel to and from remote locations, and from political and social unrest. And, as we have learned with the most recent Ebola outbreak that infected many health care workers, working with infectious disease in the field can be perilous without proper personal protective equipment and exacting safety protocols.
Patlovich kept field safety in mind when he returned to Houston to complete his doctorate in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, ultimately choosing the subject as the focus of his dissertation project with the backing of advisor, Dr. Robert Emery, professor of occupational health and UTHealth vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management.