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Five Surprising Landscaping Hazards

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Steve Schaffer, Industrial Hygienist

Last year, a landscape worker in Missouri suffered a traumatic brain injury when a tree collapsed on him. In Pennsylvania, firefighters had to save a landscaper whose leg was pinned between a running piece of equipment and a tree. Two Florida landscapers were electrocuted when their ladder touched a power line. Accidents like these are common in an industry that uses heavy machinery, sharp blades, ladders and boom trucks. But this coming season you can add five more hazards to the list: heat stress, overexertion, hearing loss, hand-arm vibration syndrome and chemical exposures.

1. Heat Stress

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified heat as the No. 1 weather-related killer countrywide, claiming more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. Although you can’t control the temperature, you can control how much exposure workers have to hazardous heat conditions. OSHA’s Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers recommends establishing a complete heat illness prevention program that includes:

  • Providing workers with water, rest and shade
  • Gradually increasing workloads and allowing more frequent breaks to build a tolerance for working in the heat
  • Modifying work schedules as necessary
  • Planning for emergencies
  • Educating workers about appropriate clothing when working in the heat
  • Training workers about the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them
  • Monitoring workers for signs of illness

OSHA’s Heat Safety App and NIOSH Fast Facts: Protecting Yourself from Heat Stress provide even more valuable information and tools to prevent heat-related illness in outdoor workers.

2. Overexertion Injuries

With constant lifting, digging, twisting, turning and carrying, landscape workers are prone to overexertion injuries. EMC loss control professionals recommend the following measures to successfully reduce the incidence and severity of these types of injuries:

  • Optimize storage practices by storing heavier equipment and materials in the lifting “power zone” between the knees and the shoulders.
  • Invest in tools and equipment designed to minimize or eliminate manual handling.
  • Instead of focusing on safe lifting techniques, train your employees to think before every lift by asking, “What would have to change so I didn’t have to lift this at all?” Then, have them submit their ideas.
  • Rather than telling employees to be more careful the next time they lift heavy objects, take time to investigate the root cause of each injury. Finding a permanent corrective action is much more effective than simply telling employees to be careful.

3. Hazardous Noise Exposure

A Colorado professor recently found 95 percent of urban tree service workers worked in conditions that exceed the OSHA or the NIOSH limits for on-the-job noise exposure. EMC recommends the following tips for good hearing health:

  • Have the appropriate hearing protection on hand.
  • Require an annual hearing test for workers exposed to over 85 dB over an 8-hour shift.
  • Make sure protective equipment fits and maintain it properly.
  • Train employees to alert supervisors if they experience humming or buzzing in their ears.

4. Vibration Injuries

Many tools used in landscaping present vibration hazards. Repeated exposure to vibration over time can cause damage to muscular, nervous and vascular systems. OSHA offers the following strategies to reduce the impact of vibrations on landscape workers:

  • Replace high-vibration tools with low-vibration tools when possible.
  • Maintain machines in proper working order. Unbalanced rotating parts or unsharpened cutting tools can give off excessive vibration.
  • Arrange tasks so workers can alternate between vibrating and non-vibrating tools.
  • Restrict the number of hours a worker uses vibrating tools during the workday. Allow employees to take 10- to 15-minute breaks from the source of the vibration every hour.
  • Train workers about the hazards of working with vibrating tools. Instruction should include the sources of vibration exposure, early signs and symptoms of hand-arm vibration syndrome and work practices for minimizing vibration exposure.
  • Instruct workers to keep their hands warm and dry, and to not grip a vibrating tool too tightly.

5. Hazardous Chemicals

Lawn care chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides can be safe when handled and applied correctly. However, improper handling and application present risks to landscape workers and to those who live and work near the chemical-exposed property. Immediate injuries from caustic or acidic chemicals include irritation and burns as well as damage to internal organs. Over time, unsafe exposures may create long-term illnesses. Before handling any chemical, always read the label and the SDS. The label includes information about proper mixing, PPE, application instructions and warnings. It also usually contains first aid information in case of accidental exposure. Remember to take precautions when storing chemicals as well. Every chemical is different, so it’s important to read all labels. OSHA has two resources to assist organizations with keeping their workers safe from exposure to hazardous chemicals:

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