Occupational Hazards Landscape Professionals Need to Watch For
Tools, heat and noise are just a few hazards landscape professionals have to watch out for.
- By Pat Woodard
- Jun 09, 2022
Every job has something that just “comes with the territory.” For most jobs, that territory doesn’t include razor-sharp cutting blades, slashing lines of monofilament plastic, shredders, mulchers, chippers, and more. When landscape professionals use the term “occupational hazard,” they mean it.
Besides the risks from working with tools that can hurt you if you don’t handle them properly, there are less obvious hazards. There's heat stress, hearing loss, vibration injuries, and exposure to dangerous chemicals. Let’s get a lay of the land to understand the dangers for the people who work it and how to safely navigate those occupational hazards.
By the Book
For even the casual gardener, a little preparation goes a long way when it comes to staying safe. For a landscape professional, there’s a lot more that can go wrong, so there’s a lot more that goes into preparing for on-the-job hazards.
Landscaping employers should have a safety manual covering policies and procedures for every hazardous situation. It’s not just a good idea to have such a manual; it’s often a necessity for worker compensation claims or to satisfy a client that the company operates safely.
Tools of the Trade
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 70,000 people go to hospital emergency rooms every year with lawn mower-related injuries. Half of those involve riding mowers. That’s just from one piece of equipment used by landscape professionals. Add leaf blowers, trimmers, pruners, shears, and chainsaws into the mix, and it’s obvious that workers need to be trained on the tools of their trade. Here are some safety tips for using both mowers and hand tools.
- Before mowing, check the site for holes and drop-off areas, obstacles like sprinkler heads, and debris such as tree branches. Remove the obstacles you can and flag the ones that can’t be removed.
- Inspect the mower before use, checking for loose or damaged hardware or missing safety guards.
- Drive a riding mower up and down a slope instead of across it to prevent the mower from overturning. Use the opposite technique if you’re using a walk-behind mower.
- Turn off the engine and let it cool before refueling. Vapors escape during fueling, and a running engine creates a potential source of ignition.
- Always cut away from yourself.
- Keep blades sharp. Dull tools require excessive pressure to make cuts, causing muscle strain, stress on the tool itself, and a possible loss of control.
- Keep your target within easy reach. Overreaching can cause you to lose your balance and fall.
- Wear goggles or other eye protection. Trimming and leaf blowing are close-in work that kick up a lot of dust and debris that can get in your eyes.
With all landscaping equipment, make sure operator manuals are available (and employees read them!) for the review of specific safety guidelines for each piece of equipment.
The Heat is On
You may not be able to do much about the weather, but there’s plenty you can do to keep yourself or your workers from suffering one of the leading, and increasing, causes of injury outdoors. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are both serious medical conditions. It's crucial for landscape workers and employers to recognize the distinction between the two.
Early signs of heat exhaustion include light-headedness, nausea, muscle cramping, and dizziness. Heat exhaustion can be alleviated by getting into an air-conditioned setting, applying cold compresses, and drinking fluids. Heat stroke often involves a headache, mental confusion, no visible perspiration, rapid heart rate, and a loss of consciousness. It is a medical emergency that requires a call to 911. Proactively, you can quench the heat stress with some relatively simple steps that essentially come down to three words; water, rest, and shade.
Over and Under
Landscape professionals face an obstacle course of potential hazards whether they look up or down. Overhead, there are tree limbs that can break and come down on an unsuspecting worker. Unpruned trees can also spread across power lines, and pruning tools can conduct electricity even without touching the line itself.
Electrocution is one of the leading causes of death among tree service workers according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Danger from electrocution isn’t limited to overhead power lines. Electric lines are also buried underground, along with natural gas, sewer, and other utility conduits. Never dig before calling 811, the national number that reveals the approximate locations of underground utility lines.
Not So Good Vibrations
The back pain after hours on a riding mower, the feeling of arm weakness after the prolonged pressure of holding a leaf blower, the hand numbness that comes after setting down a hedge trimmer: Those are all signs of vibration syndrome.
The steady vibrations coming from various landscaping tools can add up to shoulder, neck and back pain, poor circulation, even long-term muscular and nervous system damage. The advanced stages can come after as little as a year of repeated exposure. There are strategies to reduce the impact of vibration exposure, most involving limiting the amount of time landscape workers use the kinds of tools that can cause the problem.
Anyone using vibrating tools should take a 10- to 15-minute break each hour for as long as they’re using that tool. If possible, switch up periodically from a tool that vibrates to one that does not. Ease up on your grip: Holding a vibrating tool too tightly just increases the pounding your hands and fingers take. Something as simple as a dull blade or a loose part can increase vibration. Learn the early signs of vibration syndrome, such as pain, tingling or numbness, a loss of hand strength, and fingers turning white from reduced circulation.
Heard Through the Grapevine
It doesn’t take much. Just one full day of unprotected exposure to the noise from a chainsaw or leaf blower can cause permanent hearing loss. The CDC estimates that 22 million American workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise levels each year.
How do you know if noise levels are a tolerable nuisance or a health hazard? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers provide hearing protection when workers are exposed to an 8-hour average noise level of 85 decibels or more. That level is probably present if you have to raise your voice to talk to someone just three feet away. To know for sure, invest in any of a number of instruments that measure noise levels. Some can be downloaded as smartphone apps.
From fuel to fertilizer, potentially hazardous chemicals are a fact of life for landscape professionals. The staggering volume of chemicals used on the job includes pesticides, herbicides, cleaning solvents, and other chemicals that can cause fires, explosions, skin irritation, and acidic burns. Exposure over time can cause long-term illness.
OSHA requires employers who use hazardous chemicals to train employees in their safe use and storage. That means more than simply handing out a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for employees to read on their own time. Training must include explaining each chemical’s hazards and how workers can protect themselves. All training has to be documented in writing, and employees should sign a logbook confirming they were trained. Emergency eyewash stations should be easily accessible for workers who may get chemicals in their eyes.
Dress for Success
Working outside in the fresh air and sunshine can sound pretty attractive compared to being in an office. You don’t have to wear a suit or even business casual attire, but for landscape workers, what to wear isn’t a matter of style. It can be a matter of life and death.
Loose-fitting clothing and machinery don’t mix well. Dangling shirt tails, drooping sleeves, and baggy pant legs can get caught in gears, blades, and other moving parts of landscaping equipment. Even long hair and jewelry can be a hazard. Work clothes should be snug to the body, long hair should be tied up, pulled back, or kept under a hat, and jewelry should be kept from hanging loose, or not worn at all.
The right clothes can also protect workers from biting bugs, thorns, brambles, and other landscape nasties. Long sleeves and pants should be a requirement to protect against sunburn, along with sunscreen to slather on uncovered skin. Sturdy work boots with non-slip soles,and good work gloves should be part of any landscape worker’s wardrobe.
With personal protective equipment (PPE), landscape workers add extra layers of workplace safety. Hardhats, safety glasses, earplugs, dust masks, and hazmat suits may not put landscape professionals on a high-fashion list, but they could keep them off the injured list.