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Cave and Karst Management

Exhibit 3 - Health and Safety

Caves are natural features, which inherently pose potential dangers to those who choose to visit them. The following are recommended guidelines to be used when traveling through undeveloped caves. Due to the wide variety of terrain found within caves, knowledge of accepted practices and techniques is necessary for assessing the requirements of individual situations. In most cases, unsafe situations can be avoided by enforcing good off-trail policies and insisting on qualified trip leaders. Trip-leader criteria should be established and training provided.

Group size: This should normally range from three to six people. A large group is difficult to manage and can result in resource damage or personal injury, especially through miscommunication. A group size of one or two greatly reduces the ability for cavers to deal with emergency circumstance. Any SAR activity will result in unnecessary and frequently heavy impact on the cave and usually can be avoided by ensuring prudent caving practices.

Search and rescue: Cave-related search and rescue activities and tactics should be outlined in the park’s search and rescue plan, as an appendix to the emergency operations plan. It should address protection of cave resources to the extent possible. The plan should also address the park’s interaction with outside cave rescue groups. They may be critical to successful efforts, especially if the park has no staff with cave expertise.

Radon: Levels of alpha radiation within some caves are sufficiently high to warrant setting limits of exposure based on the highest monthly readings recorded within the cave (29 CFR 1910.1096 Airborne Radiation Hazards). . The radiation is caused primarily by the radioactive decay of radon 222. Some additional radiation is generated by the radioactive decay of radon 220 (thoron). Working levels of alpha radiation are measured from the radon and thoron decay products (particulates), and exposure records are maintained for all employees routinely exposed to the cave atmosphere. Backcountry caves are monitored when feasible. In managing alpha radiation hazards, the park must follow the procedures specified in DO/RM 50B Occupational Safety and Health Program. Due to brief exposure times, alpha radiation is not considered a threat to park visitors. The only known health effect associated with exposure to radon and radon decay products is an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Due to the potential hazard of exposure to radon and radon progeny to NPS employees, special use visitors, and contractors of the NPS, radon exposure records and monitoring should be done in accordance with guidance described DO/RM 50B. As required by 36 CFR 2.21(B), smoking by employees and visitors in caves is prohibited, because of the synergistic health effect of smoking and exposure to radon decay products and to preserve cave resources.

Bad air: The most common problem associated with air in caves is the buildup of CO2 in low-lying areas of rotting vegetation. Cavers should be able to recognize the effects of elevated CO2 concentrations and must immediately leave the affected area.

Rockfall: Rockfall is usually the result of caver activity. To avoid injury, cavers should move carefully, and should always wear an approved helmet and stay out from under others who may be climbing a rock or a rope. Natural rockfall occurs most frequently near entrances where weather rates are higher.

Flash flood: Individuals should not enter caves that are known to flood or those that appear to serve as drainage for large areas if rainfall is expected.

Infectious disease: Most infectious diseases associated with caves involve the animals that live in caves. Avoiding contact with animals and their feces will offer the best level of protection. In order to prevent possible health problems, anyone entering caves containing large numbers of bats, particularly during summer months, should take appropriate precautions. These precautions could include rabies pre-exposure shots, use of a respirator with a HEPA filter, and clothing that will prevent invertebrates from coming in contact with the caver’s skin. However, anyone who is bitten or scratched by a bat needs to get rabies shots, even if they’ve already had the pre-exposure shots. It is also wise to avoid visiting caves when contaminated water is flowing through them.

Getting lost: Some cave passages involve a multitude of junctions and possible travel routes. In such situations, it is best to always have a member of the caving party who is familiar with the cave and to devise memory methods for retracing your steps. Foodstuff, strings, etc., can attract animals and may not remain in place. If lost, it is best to remain in one place. If this is not possible, carry a watch and paper and leave notes with the time as you travel; this will be of great assistance in helping searchers know where you have been and when you were last there.

Getting stuck: In most cases, an individual can get out of any passage that they can get into. (One exception may be a narrow slot in the bottom of a keyhole passage). Problems occur when gravity or apprehension become a factor in the situation. Calming the person down and/or removing some of their clothing can alleviate most situations. When in doubt, do not try to squeeze through a tight hole.

Darkness: Caves are dark. Backup lights should always be carried. Carry enough light to last longer than the trip’s expected duration.

Hypothermia: Proper clothing should be worn when entering a cave. Hypothermia can become a problem when water is encountered or when the group moves too slowly. It is wise to carry spare clothing.

Dehydration: Dehydration can lead to many other complications, including hypothermia. Sometimes trips can run longer than expected. Carry enough food and water to last longer than the trip’s expected duration.

Cave and Karst Management Table of Contents | RM#77 Table of Contents
update on 02/05/2004  I   http://nature.nps.gov/rm77/caves/Exhibit3.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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