Left to right: Mohamed Farhat, MSc student Metal Earth; Gabrielle Fouillard, MSc student Metal Earth; Dr. Bruno Lafrance, Structural Geology professor at Harquail School of Earth Sciences, and Metal Earth Associate Director; and Khadija Kadu, field assistant from the University of Waterloo.

Since its inception in 2016, Canada’s largest mineral exploration research project, Metal Earth, has developed and improved upon an extensive field crew health and safety program for new and experienced researchers. Typically, up to 50 geoscientists are engaged in summer fieldwork for four months, across 13 transects in the Superior Craton. The coronavirus pandemic impacted both the duration of the 2020 field season and the number of researchers involved. Under new provincial and university health and safety guidelines, 18 researchers cautiously continued essential research activities, with only half of the usual field season.

Researchers had to self-isolate for 14 days before departure. This delayed plans but was necessary to protect communities, individuals, and crews from possible viral exposure and illness in the field. New protocols including symptom assessments, regular hand-washing and sanitizing vehicles were added to the daily safety routine involving a toolbox meeting, equipment and vehicle checks, and emergency communication planning.

International travel restrictions meant fewer tourists in remote towns and lodges, making it easier to book accommodations. Nevertheless, interactions with people outside the crew “bubbles” were inevitable and occurred periodically to acquire gas and provisions. However, acting safely and complying with protocols, e.g., wearing masks, was consistently enforced. The shorter field season meant no room for error because our projects depend on gathering necessary field data.

The successful implementation of new pandemic protocols was possible because of dedicated crews and our safety culture. This begins with our extensive training program, modelled upon the Ontario Geological Survey safety manual and the Occupational Health and Safety Act Green Book. During a full week of health and safety training, crews are exposed to off-road vehicle driving, first aid, ergonomics, sexual harassment and assault awareness, and modules on fatigue, forest fires, and wildlife encounters.

Some researchers experienced incidents like heat stroke, sunburn, or strained Achilles tendons, but crews dealt with these issues in the field. Minor incidents act as a test to the system, ensuring protocols are working.

Moving through this shortened field season built our crews’ confidence in handling evolving situations and demonstrated that they could put training into practice. This is an essential skill, and we are proud of how our new and experienced researchers performed. Two crew members near Rainy River even helped others in need, finding and returning two lost and exhausted beagles to their owner.