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May 2005

Playing it safe


Steve Sadler. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

SaSS works to ensure the safety of the UCAR/NCAR staff. That’s no easy task when natural hazards and overseas criminals pose potential threats.

How do you make sure that researchers using ropes to climb trees in central Africa won’t encounter dangerous snakes?

That’s the kind of problem the UCAR Safety and Site Services office takes on all the time. As staffers travel the world, from the forbidding ice fields of Antarctica to politically volatile regions of the Middle East, SaSS is charged with keeping them out of harm’s way. The office also monitors safety proceducres and emergency contingency plans for UCAR and NCAR’s offices and labs in Boulder and elsewhere.

“I get paid to worry,” says SaSS director Steve Sadler, an industrial hygiene engineer. “It’s a never-ending job.”

The organization has a strong record when it comes to keeping staffers safe during field projects in remote places. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, SaSS also has stepped up efforts to secure the Mesa Lab and other buildings. That’s no easy job, given the collaborative focus of the organization.

“Our culture is so open that we want to open all doors all the time,” Steve explains.

Steve works closely on safety issues with two other SaSS staffers: Liz Kriete, the office administrator; and Milenda Powers, who oversees health, environmental, and safety services. The office also collaborates with Ron Wicker of Allied-Barton, Inc., the contractor that provides security services for UCAR facilities, as well as with administrators across the organization.

Dangerous places

Researching climate means going to places that are distant and potentially dangerous, and where little atmospheric data have been collected. That’s why NCAR scientists like to do research in places like remote Pacific islands and Antarctica. Another priority for UCAR and NCAR—transferring technology to less-developed countries—means that staffers sometimes travel to violence-prone cities.

One of SaSS’s most interesting assignments was putting together a safety plan for a possible project by RAP (now RAL) in Bogota, Colombia—known as the kidnapping capital of the world. Steve got a first-hand look at interesting and sometimes inconsistent security arrangements, such as a hotel that employed armed guards for protection, but also had an open and unguarded kitchen door off an alley.

After meeting with U.S. embassy personnel, Colombian government officials, and private security experts, Steve and a RAP team concluded that staffers generally could work safely in the city. But they drew up a list of precautions: travel in pairs, book a flight that arrives in daylight, use prearranged transportation instead of hailing down taxis on the street, stay in a hotel recommended by the U.S. embassy, and don’t walk around in unguarded areas.


The 1992-93 Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere Program's Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE), with an operations center in the Solomon Islands, was among the many field projects that have involved UCAR safety personnel. Coordinators contended with issues ranging from emergency evacuations to malaria.

Working with Karyn Sawyer and her staff in JOSS, Steve has toured hospitals in developing countries to determine whether they provide appropriate medical care in case a staffer gets sick or injured. If the health care facilities seem inadequate, his next step is to figure out an emergency evacuation plan—no easy task if the project is in a remote area, such as the Amazon rain forest.

In some cases, UCAR has set up its own field clinic, hiring doctors and nurses to make sure staffers don’t contract malaria and other diseases. At other times, the organization has had to make sure staffers weren’t spreading communicable diseases once they returned to Boulder. During the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Steve and his staff helped find an infectious disease expert to examine staffers returning from Beijing and other areas where SARS cases had been reported.
One of Steve’s more unusual tasks was providing safety advice to staffers who were using ropes to climb trees during a field project in the Central African Republic to quantify chemical emissions from leaves. Oil from the hands of climbers attracted snakes overnight. His recommendation: pull down the ropes every night and set them up again the next day to keep snakes off them.

“I’m kind of the canary,” Steve says of these scouting missions. “If I come back alive they can send in more important people.” He commends Karyn for her concern about safety. “She makes our jobs much easier and projects much safer,” he says.

Karyn gives high praise to Steve and the SaSS group as experts on safety issues. “Steve also brings a great deal of humor and good cheer to something that can be viewed as onerous,” she says.

Closer to home

Field projects aside, Steve and his SaSS colleagues keep an eye on the organization’s buildings in Boulder and elsewhere. Since the Mesa Lab is a government building and a major Boulder landmark, Steve has some concerns about a possible terrorist attack—although he emphasizes that iconic structures in other parts of the country are more likely targets.

Key Telephone numbers

Here are four important safety numbers for all staffers:

  • Any emergency: ext. 1911
  • For the latest information on a UCAR closure
    or a major event like a fire: ext. 1100
  • For escort service to your vehicle: ext. 1139
  • The main Safety and Site Service (SaSS) number: ext. 8550

Security precautions include round-the-clock video surveillance and regular officer patrols. Visitors are required to sign in. Steve, who meets regularly with the FBI for briefings, stresses that an attack on the Mesa Lab is highly unlikely and there’s no need to close the building to the public.

One simple security tool is a set of dice. Allied-Barton officers roll dice to determine which way they should walk on their rounds. This ensures their rounds are random. “It takes the human predictability out of our patterns,”
Steve explains.

Then there are natural hazards. Staffers have become accustomed to Milenda sending out e-mails about sightings of potentially aggressive wildlife on the mesa, including bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes.

UCAR and NCAR have contingency plans in case of some major disaster, such as a flood or fire. Steve, who has a police scanner in his office, meets regularly with administrators across the organization to develop “what if” scenarios. The scenarios can get complicated, given that the organization is spread out over three campuses in Boulder, and staffers also work at Jeffco, as well as in Washington, D.C., and at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Solar Observatory.

Still, Steve is confident that the organization is prepared to deal with a crisis in the unlikely event that one materializes. “Compared to most of the corporations in the world, we’re at a good point,” he says.

• by David Hosansky

Staying safe

Travel. Staffers must contact SaSS if they plan to travel to a potentially dangerous area. The office maintains a list of travel advisories and hazards.

Chemicals. SaSS should be notified immediately in the event of a toxic chemical spill. Staffers should not attempt to clean up the chemical.

Safety equipment. At-risk staffers may obtain standard safety equipment at no charge from SaSS. The equipment includes safety glasses, computer glasses, safety shoes, ear muffs and plugs, first-aid kits and supplies, fire extinguishers, and respirators.

Accident investigations. SaSS should be notified in the event of an accident at a facility or field site.

Training. Staffers may take safety-related courses through SaSS on such topics as first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, safety in confined spaces, respiratory protection, fire extinguisher use, hazard communication, emergency response, prevention of falls, electrical and mechanical safety, and back-injury prevention.

Hazardous waste. SaSS is responsible for collecting, packaging, and making arrangements for the proper disposal of all hazardous wastes, including batteries.

Ergonomic evaluations. SaSS will provide a one-on-one consultation with a staff member on how to work on a computer while avoiding the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries.


Also in this issue...

Playing it Safe

Spring Fling '05

SERE news

UCAR casuals

Taking the LEAD

Delphi question

Just One Look


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