In television dramas, crime scene investigators often wind up in harm’s way as they work to catch criminals and bring them to justice. Real-life crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians aren’t nearly as likely to be threatened or abducted by the perpetrators of the crimes they are analyzing. However, like many professions, the role of crime scene investigator does come with certain legitimate occupational hazards. Knowing these risks can help you stay safe by taking precautions to prevent harm.
Distinguishing Between Police Detective and CSI
Many of the moments when a crime scene investigator faces danger on the small screen involve taking risks during detective work. In real life, though, CSIs and forensic science technicians don’t do this work at all. Rather than tailing a suspect with a volatile temper or infiltrating the criminal underworld to question a person of interest, the role of crime scene investigators is limited to the collection, preservation and analysis of the evidence acquired at the crime scene.
The detectives and other police officers, rather than crime scene investigators, are the ones who apprehend suspects and execute warrants. Police and detectives see some of the highest work-related injury and illness rates among all occupations, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, often due to the dangers that can arise in “high-risk” situations like encounters with criminals. The analysts who work in the crime lab and even those who gather evidence from the scene after a crime are generally not in these high-risk circumstances or in close contact with suspects. As a result, CSI careers are less dangerous than those of police officers and detectives.
That said, crime scene investigators who work in the field to preserve evidence may face some risks, especially if they arrive at a scene that has not yet been secured. It’s especially important to use caution if there is reason to believe that the scene poses ongoing threats, such as yet undetonated bombs or the presence of a biological weapon, like anthrax, or another biohazard.
Dangers may take the form of less dramatic – but still serious – situations, like a downed electrical line that could lead to electrocution. In the field, crime scene investigators should use all of their senses to evaluate a scene and use protective equipment when needed.
The Real Risks of Forensic Analysis
Although the crime scene investigator isn’t the one likely to be in the direct sights of an angry suspect, the evidence you work with in this role is itself potentially hazardous. Blood and other bodily fluids constitute biohazards that could potentially spread diseases and infections if the analyst doesn’t take safety precautions, according to The Houston Chronicle. Likewise, chemical agents used to poison a victim are just as dangerous in the lab as they were at the crime scene. When analyzing strange chemical substances or suspected toxins, forensic science technicians must be careful not to touch or even breathe in the fumes of these chemicals. In the study of firearms ballistics, analysts work with loaded guns that, if not handled with extreme care, could cause serious harm if fired accidentally.
Hazards in the crime lab generally are more predictable than the unknown potential dangers you might encounter in the field. To avert these dangers, forensic science technicians may be expected to follow strict safety protocols.
The Impact on Crime Scene Investigators’ Mental Health
The risks of working in crime scene investigation extend beyond dangers to your physical safety. Stress, burnout and other negative impacts on your mental and emotional health are very real possibilities for those who work in crime scene investigation, forensic science and criminal justice.
As you encounter the real-world scenes and evidence of violent deaths and the worst imaginable human suffering, it can be difficult to cope with the emotional impact. Unlike fictional crime scene investigators, real CSIs have a difficult time shutting off or compartmentalizing their emotions. Sensory cues like smells can often trigger memories of particularly grisly crimes or scenes, according to The Washington Post.
In the most severe cases, it is possible for crime scene investigators, along with police detectives and others in similar occupations, to develop symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This phenomenon is sometimes called secondary traumatic stress or criminal investigator stress. Researchers have learned that purposefully integrating strategies to enhance resilience, including appropriate sharing of emotions and professional responsibilities, can help crime scene investigators cope with this stress.
In addition to the extraordinary factors that make crime scene investigators vulnerable to emotional strain and stress, situations like long hours, overburdened facilities and large case inventories can add to the potential for burnout.