Occupational hazards landscape professionals should watch for

Updated Jun 24, 2021

exit sign referencing 'occupational hazard just ahead'There are many dangers that exist out in the world and landscape professionals face them each minute of the workday. From the moment they step into the workplace until it is time to go home, precautions must be taken.

Take a look at some of the most common occupational hazards landscapers could face while on the job, as well as how to handle them.

Back injuryEditor's note: This article was written by a guest contributor

It was reported in 2017, according to the Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB), that in the previous five years, over a quarter of a billion dollars in back injury claims on behalf of the landscape industry have been paid out by carriers in California alone. The back claim is, by far, the most costly injury at $22,000 per claim over the previous five years and the second highest in terms of frequency. It is also the leading claim resulting in an employee’s time away from work.

Implementing pre-work morning stretches as part of the daily routine to encourage muscle flexibility prior to getting the day started will help. It is important that everyone involved in pre workday stretches understand their limitations. Use good judgment if you have had a recent muscle strain or restrictions from an old injury. This daily ritual only takes a few minutes and can be done at any location (yard or on-site) and will not only help employees warm up for the day, but also strengthen their back to help maintain a healthy career.

Pesticide use

Another widely used work source throughout the landscape industry is applying pesticides. Guidelines should be in place for all employees prior to using pesticides, as different pesticides have varying levels of toxicity. For example, they may have the inherent ability to cause injury, damage or death to biological tissue. They can be classified as acute toxicity, which is exposure over a short duration, or chronic toxicity, which is exposure over a long duration.

Symptoms felt by someone who has been improperly exposed to certain pesticides are nausea and headaches; signs seen by others are pinpoint pupils or loss of consciousness. It is extremely important to understand label directions for all pesticides prior to applying, and know that there are different levels of PPE requirements and precautions. Keep in mind that minimizing skin exposure helps reduce the amount of pesticide absorption into the body. When wearing a long sleeve shirt, long pants and shoes, exposure is significantly reduced.

When storing pesticides, make sure that all products are separated by classification: herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. It is important to never store pesticides with gas, oil or any kind of fuel product, and it is required they be placed in a locked, well lit and ventilated location that has the proper posting signs. Posters should indicate poison control phone numbers, no smoking, warnings and spill control measures. Eye wash stations, fire extinguishers and spill kits need to be adjacent to the storage facility.

Gasoline inhalation and fumes

Limited exposure to gasoline is usually low risk, however, gasoline and its vapors are toxic. Extended exposure has serious consequences on a person’s health. Some of the symptoms and signs of acute gasoline poisoning are dizziness or lightheadedness, headaches, coughing or wheezing, staggering, slurred speech, blurred vision, weakness, difficulty breathing and convulsions. Consequences of chronic exposure to gasoline fume inhalation include permanent organ damage, coma or death and is also a known carcinogen. In order to reduce exposure, it is important to add gasoline or petroleum products in well-ventilated areas. If you are required to work around these products in poorly ventilated areas, the proper respirator, safety glasses and non-permeable gloves should be worn when handling gasoline.

Slips, trips and fallsdanger sign with rusted edges

Slips, trips and falls are the leading causes of employee injuries, which in many cases can be serious and painful. Poor housekeeping in areas where equipment is maintained or stored may produce spilled liquids. These areas should be inspected daily and if needed, apply products that will absorb spills such as kitty litter and chemical absorbent spill pillows. Once the spills have been absorbed, they must be properly disposed of in heavy duty plastic garbage bags.


A typical landscape professional’s routine involves sharpening tools. Abrasions, cuts and lacerations on the hands can occur due to poor safety practices, and simple things such as wearing gloves can go a long way. Many companies require employees to wear company approved gloves when adjusting, sharpening or working on any type of cutting blade or handling other sharp objects.

Poisonous plants

It is inevitable that landscapers will come in contact with poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac. These plants produce a poisonous sap that can cause a skin reaction due to direct or indirect contact with the plant. Indirect contact can occur when the sap has rubbed off onto clothes or equipment then onto the skin. These three plants have key differences, such as leaf shape, that help identify them. Poison ivy may grow as a plant, bush or vine and has three shiny leaflets on a stem. Poison oak is similar in appearance except for the shape of the three leaflets, which resemble oak leaves. Poison sumac has a compound leaf (two rows of leaflets opposite each other) and a leaflet at the tip. There’s an old rhyme, “Leaves of three, let it be,” that will assist in identifying these plants. Crew members who come in contact with the plants must wash their hands thoroughly to prevent skin or eye contact. It is also important to avoid inhaling smoke resulting from burning the plants.

Heat stroke or cold exposure

The human body has heat-regulating mechanisms, which usually maintain a normal body temperature of 98.6 F, even when the body is subjected to extreme temperatures. Illness will occur when these mechanisms are overloaded, resulting in heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat exhaustion symptoms include heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, weak, rapid pulse, low blood pressure upon standing, muscle cramps, nausea and headache. Heatstroke is the most serious condition and can be life-threatening if left untreated. In this situation, it is important to call for emergency help and remove the victim from the hot environment. It is also crucial that you lower the body temperature as quickly as possible. The best way to do this it to remove all outer clothing, place wet towels or sheets on the victim and pour cold water over the victim. However, never pour ice directly over the victim’s body. If the victim is alert, give him/her cool water to drink.

Prolonged exposure to freezing or near freezing temperatures may cause two types of injuries: hypothermia or frostbite. Hypothermia is a condition where the body’s temperature regulating mechanism is overloaded and the body temperature falls. Symptoms and signs of hypothermia are shivering, decreased muscle function, slow pulse and breathing and unconsciousness. Sometimes, these can lead to death. If this occurs, remove the victim from the cold environment, then remove any wet clothing and cover with warm blankets or extra clothing. Provide the victim with hot fluids, such as warm broth or water to drink. Do not provide stimulants such as coffee, tea or alcohol, and monitor his/her breathing and pulse. When dealing with frostbite, parts of the body are exposed and damaged from the cold. Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form in body tissue, causing the tissue to become frozen, thus killing the cells. Symptoms of frostbite depend on the depth of tissue damage and may be superficial or deep.

Roadway work 

Landscape work puts people into areas where traffic may conflict with the work they are trying to accomplish. Areas such as medians and rights-of-way can create high exposure for workers to potentially dangerous situations. A plan must consider the movement of vehicles in areas where workers are present. It is up to the crew leader to evaluate the location, determine what controls are to be used, communicate the plan with the crew and see to it that the plan is followed through. This plan should be developed to provide safety for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, workers, enforcement and emergency officials and equipment. Factors to consider are the time of day, weather and road conditions.

Operating machinery on slick slopes, near bodies of water

Most commercial riding mowers are equipped with roll-overprotective structure (ROPS). When these mowers are in use, the ROPS should always be in a raised position. This is especially true when working in areas where a slope or body of water is nearby. Mowing on slopes with an angle of over 15 degrees should be avoided. If a slope is slick due to recent rainfall or morning dew, avoid the work until it is safe. If it is necessary to operate riding mowers near ponds, creeks, reservoirs, canals or lakes, evaluate the terrain and any slope conditions which may be present. Then, crews should establish a safety zone to ensure that the mower is operated at a safe distance from present hazards. Sometimes, a distance of two mower widths is enough.

All in all, many workplace injuries can be avoided when these simple precautions are taken. Always stay mindful of each job and its unique conditions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Manny Nassar and Christine Balk, Davey Institute, The Davey Tree Expert Company. 

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