Environmental Hazards

As outdoor workers, landscape crew members face many environmental hazards and associated risks: extreme temperatures can lead to heat- and cold-related illnesses, sun exposure can cause skin cancer, encounters with certain plants and wildlife can result in reactions/diseases, and severe weather threatens overall safety.

The checklists below can help crew members and company managers reduce risks stemming from environmental hazards.

Checklist for Employers and Supervisors:


  • Follow the law. Abide by federal OSHA’s general duty clause and any other federal, state or local regulations related to environmental hazards, including extreme heat and cold, sun exposure, severe weather, and poisonous plants and wildlife. The general duty clause requires employers to provide workplaces free of known safety hazards.

  • Create a written program. It should outline steps for protecting workers from environmental hazards.

Heat-related illnesses and skin cancer:

  • Understand and use the heat index when managing workers. Heat and humidity raise workers’ risks for heat-related illnesses, and the heat index takes both into account. See OSHA’s heat index guide for employers here: osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/pdfs/all_in_one.pdf. The OSHA Heat Safety Tool, an app available in English and Spanish for Android and iPhone, allows supervisors to calculate jobsite heat index, displays a risk level for workers and generates reminders about protective measures such as providing fluids, scheduling rest breaks and adjusting work operations. Get the app here: osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html.

  • Be aware certain workers should take precautions beyond those warranted by the heat index. This group includes employees performing strenuous activities, those using heavy or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment, crew members who are new or have been away from outdoor work a week or more, those with particular health conditions (diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, kidney or heart problems) and those who are pregnant, overweight or taking certain medications.

  • Train employees to prevent, recognize and respond to heat-related illnesses.

  • Acclimatize new and returning crew members. Allow them to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they build tolerance for working in the heat – a process that takes weeks. The human body slowly builds up heat tolerance through changes in blood vessels and in sweating, and those who are not acclimatized are most at risk for heat illness.

  • Allow all crew members to take frequent breaks in the shade. In full sunlight, heat index values can increase 15 degrees F compared to a shady spot on the same site. If a shady area is not available on a jobsite, you can provide an outdoor canopy, sold at most sporting-goods stores. Employees can even work under these canopies in some cases, reducing their skin-cancer risks.

  • Schedule tasks with temperature and sun exposure in mind. Arrange strenuous work and tasks involving direct sun exposure for early morning or evening hours.

  • Provide workers with plenty of water. Consider purchasing low-profile hydration packs, which are worn like backpacks and hold up to 2 liters of liquid. Workers drink from the packs, available from safety-supply and outdoor-recreation stores, via plastic tubes they pull over their shoulders.

  • Teach crew members to protect themselves. They should wear appropriate clothing, PPE and sunscreen when exposed to heat and UV radiation. Consider providing company shirts made from materials meant for outdoor workers or athletes. You can even find clothing with embedded sunscreens since lightweight clothing usually doesn’t provide full sun protection.

  • Encourage employees to check for skin cancer. Crew members should examine their bodies often for skin-cancer signs and consult a doctor about anything suspicious.

Cold-related illnesses:

  • Watch for signs of cold-related illnesses (hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot) in employees. Allow them to interrupt their work if they experience any symptoms. Know some people have increased risks for cold-related illnesses (those who are older, have cardiovascular disease, diabetes or hypertension, or take medication that inhibits the body’s response to cold).

  • Ensure work schedules allow appropriate rest periods in warm areas.

  • Provide warm, non-caffeinated liquids to workers.

  • During cold months, schedule outdoor work for the warmest part of the day.

  • Reduce the physical demands of workers when weather conditions create a risk for cold-related illness. This is because energy is needed to keep muscles warm. Use relief workers or assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs.

  • Ensure crew members wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This could include warm hats, jackets, gloves and boots (waterproof when necessary).

  • Train employees in cold-related illness risks, prevention, symptoms and treatment. (and the importance of monitoring themselves and co-workers for symptoms).

  • Watch for signs of cold-related illnesses (hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot) in employees. Allow them to interrupt their work if they experience any symptoms. Know some people have increased risks for cold-related illnesses (those who are older, have cardiovascular disease, diabetes or hypertension, or take medication that inhibits the body’s response to cold).

Severe weather:

  • Know landscaping crews must secure jobsites and take shelter before severe weather strikes. This is for the protection of workers, customers and the public. Hardscaping materials, tools and equipment can become projectiles capable of endangering lives and damaging property. Chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers pose hazards as well. Failure to take precautions could result in loss of expensive assets, lawsuits, fines, loss of license and/or other penalties. Review your insurance coverage to learn what is and isn’t protected from storm damage at jobsites.

  • Develop a storm emergency plan. This should be part of a general emergency-action plan that addresses all emergency situations your company and employees could face. Under federal OSHA regulations, most firms with more than 10 employees must have a written emergency-action plan meeting requirements under 29 CFR 1910.38. The agency allows smaller companies to communicate their plans orally. For assistance creating general emergency-action plans, see OSHA’s Emergency Action Plan Checklist and ready.gov/planning.

  • Include OSHA-advised components in severe-weather emergency plans: information on conditions that will activate the plan, an outline of your chain of command, details on suitable places to take shelter or evacuation procedures and routes (floods and hurricanes), methods for ensuring all personnel are accounted for, and procedures for addressing hazardous materials on the site. Also, include instructions for securing other materials, tools and equipment in advance of storms and descriptions of conditions calling for suspension/resumption of work activities.

  • Review the plan with employees when it’s put in place, at least annually thereafter and whenever it’s updated (regularly evaluate the plan and make necessary changes). Employees should know the overall plan as well as their specific roles in it. Make learning the plan part of new employees’ training.

  • Give all employees a copy of the plan and make sure it’s available at all jobsites (copies could be carried in company trucks).

  • Ensure jobsites are kept neat and clean all the time and store only a week’s supply of materials at each site.

  • Assign storm safety areas for every jobsite and make sure all crew members know these locations. Both residential and commercial jobsites should have a basement or protected area where workers can take shelter, if permitted by the property owner. In the event this is not possible, workers threatened by lightning should take cover in a fully enclosed motor vehicle. If a tornado is possible, the American Red Cross advises driving to the closest sturdy shelter. Check with local officials on its location.

  • Be aware of weather forecasts and consider appointing someone on each crew to be a weather watcher. If you are a supervisor or crew leader, this could be you or you could assign this position to a crew member. The weather watcher should:
    • Review forecasts on the radio or through the Internet (NOAA weather radios and smartphone applications are available for this). National Weather Service advisories, watches and warnings can be monitored at https://www.weather.gov/. Thunderstorm and severe-weather forecasts are also online at spc.noaa.gov.
    • Keep a constant eye on the weather. Be on the lookout for dark clouds, increased wind, thunder, lightning and heavy rainfall.
    • Know that floodwaters can rise rapidly and lightning can strike out of a sunny sky 10 miles or more from a storm. Many lightning casualties occur as a storm approaches or within 30 minutes after it has passed.
    • Notify the crew leader or supervisor of predicted weather hazards. The supervisor/crew leader should notify all employees on the jobsite.
    • Notify crew members when hazardous weather is imminent, especially if the supervisor/crew leader is not on site.
    • Continue monitoring the weather and updating management personnel, after crew members have moved to a safe place, so they can make an informed decision about when to resume work.

  • Know when it is safe to allow crew members to resume work following a thunderstorm. Generally, this is 30 minutes after the last observed lightning or sound of thunder.

    • Dangerous plants and wildlife:

      • Teach crew members to identify poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac.

      • Provide rubbing alcohol to each crew. It removes the poisonous sap from skin up to 30 minutes after exposure.

      • Educate workers about dangerous wildlife in your area. Make sure they know where stinging insects and ticks are likely to be found. Teach them to identify poisonous snakes and spiders, and advise them about appropriate measures for avoiding bites and stings.

      • Know the risk for Lyme disease in your area. It could be high, moderate or low. See https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_LymeFacts/lymefac.pdf.

      • Train employees to recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Encourage them to seek medical attention if they experience these symptoms.

      • Ask workers with known allergies to keep an EpiPen on hand. These auto-injectors dispense epinephrine, which can save lives in the event of a severe allergic reaction by treating anaphylactic shock.

      • Supply each crew’s first aid kit with an antihistamine such as Benadryl. A person can develop an allergy at any time, so workers who have not had reactions in the past are still at risk.

      • Call 911 if an employee experiences a severe allergic reaction (symptoms include difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, and swelling). Do this even if epinephrine is injected, since the medication will wear off.

Tips for Crew Members

Heat-related illnesses and skin cancer:

  • Give your body time to acclimatize to hot environments. It takes your body weeks to build up tolerance for working in warm temperatures. You should gradually move toward a full workload when new to such work and after being away from the job a week or more.

  • Know whether you have a condition or are taking medication that increases your susceptibility to heat-related illnesses. Be especially careful if you have hypertension, high cholesterol, or diabetes; are obese; or take anti-inflammatory medication as this increases your susceptibility to heat-related illness,

  • Tell your employer about medical conditions you have and medications you are taking.

  • When working in hot environments, drink water every 15 minutes. Do this even if you are not thirsty.

  • Take frequent breaks in shade or air conditioning, if possible.

  • Move to shady areas during breaks. The temperature can feel up to 15 degrees cooler.

  • Dress for warm weather. Wear lightweight, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a loose hat with at least a 4-inch brim and a drape to cover the back of your neck. This will keep you cooler and help protect your skin from sun exposure.

  • Apply sunscreen. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and sun exposure causes more than 90 percent of skin-cancer cases, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. To help prevent skin cancer, apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day you work outdoors. You should apply 1 oz. of sunscreen, which is about a shot glass full. Most people apply only a quarter to half the required amount.

  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Also reapply after sweating a great deal or toweling off. Since lightweight clothing doesn’t provide full sun protection, consider wearing clothing with embedded sunscreens or using laundry detergent that increases your clothing’s ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

  • Know the symptoms of heat-related illnesses:
    • Dehydration – decreased perspiration; thirst; a cool, clammy feeling; headache; poor appetite; dark-colored urine
    • Heat exhaustion – dizziness, headache, sweaty skin, weakness, cramps, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart beat
    • Heat stroke (a literal stroke that can be fatal) – red/dry skin, high temperature, confusion, convulsions, fainting

  • Monitor yourself as well as fellow workers for signs of heat-related illnesses. Remind co-workers to replenish fluids.

  • Tell a co-worker or supervisor if you experience symptoms of heat-related illness. Go to a cool, shaded area and rehydrate with water or sports beverages if you are dehydrated. You can return to work when you feel better. If symptoms are still present after 30 minutes, seek medical attention.

  • If a co-worker displays signs of heat exhaustion, call 911 and guide that person to a cool, shaded area. Take off the person’s hat, shoes and socks and provide a sports beverage while waiting for medical attention.

  • Know how to handle heat stroke. If a person displays signs of heat stroke, take the steps noted above for heat exhaustion and spray or wipe the person’s skin with cool water and fan the person. If a seizure occurs, turn the person onto the side, tilt the head back and thrust the jaw forward in order to keep the airway open.

  • Examine your body regularly and schedule an appointment with a doctor if you notice spots on your skin that change size, shape or color. Skin cancers often appear as:
    • Pale, pearly, wax-like nodules;
    • Red, scaly, sharply outlined patches;
    • Sores that don’t heal; or
    • Small, mole-like growths (melanoma, the most serious form of the disease).

Cold-related illnesses:

  • Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.

  • Layer your clothing. Wear an inner layer of synthetic fiber such as polypropylene that wicks perspiration away from skin, a middle layer of wool or synthetic fabric that absorbs perspiration and retains warmth, and an outer layer of nylon that protects against wind and allows ventilation.

  • Wear headgear that also covers the ears and neck.

  • During cold months, schedule outdoor work for the warmest part of the day.It should be made of wool or a knit material with a wind-proof outer shell.

  • Drink warm, non-caffeinated beverages and take short, frequent breaks in a heated space.

  • Change into dry gear immediately if water gets on your body. Store a plastic bag with extra gloves, hat, socks and a coat in the vehicle that takes you to jobsites.

  • Know what hypothermia is (abnormally low body temperature) and its symptoms: shivering, blue lips, trouble speaking, confusion, lack of coordination, and fatigue. Be aware hypothermia can occur even when temperatures are above freezing, especially if you are wearing wet clothing or are exposed to brisk winds.

  • Know what trench foot is (an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold or cool conditions) and its symptoms: reddened skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling and tingling pain. Be aware trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 F if your feet are constantly wet. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet, causing skin tissue to die.

  • Know what frostbite is (injury to the body that is caused by freezing) and its symptoms: numbness, tingling or stinging, aching and bluish or pail, waxy skin.

  • Notify a supervisor immediately if you experience any symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite or trench foot.

  • Use the buddy system and alert a supervisor if you notice any signs of cold-related illness in a fellow worker.

  • If you experience early signs of hypothermia, go to a warm place and drink something warm.

  • If a co-worker’s hypothermia symptoms progress beyond shivering and blue lips, call 911. Take the person indoors, if possible, or inside a warm vehicle, remove any wet clothing, and cover him or her in layers of blankets.

  • If you or a co-worker experience symptoms of frostbite, move to a warm, dry place and remove any wet or tight clothing that might cut off blood flow to the affected area. Don’t rub the skin; this will cause damage to the tissue. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

  • If you or a co-worker experience symptoms of trench foot, remove shoes and wet socks, dry the feet and avoid walking on them (this could cause tissue damage). Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Severe weather:

  • Know and follow your company’s storm-emergency plan.

  • Secure the jobsite at the end of each day and, if it is safe to do so, in advance of storms. Cover loose materials, store in an enclosed area chemicals, tools and anything else that could become a projectile and secure equipment, trash cans, hanging plants and other objects that could be picked up by high winds or carried away by heavy rain.

  • Include OSHA-advised components in severe-weather emergency plans: information on conditions that will activate the plan, an outline of your chain of command, details on suitable places to take shelter or evacuation procedures and routes (floods and hurricanes), methods for ensuring all personnel are accounted for, and procedures for addressing hazardous materials on the site. Also, include instructions for securing other materials, tools and equipment in advance of storms and descriptions of conditions calling for suspension/resumption of work activities.

  • Learn the warning signs of tornadoes: dark, often greenish clouds; wall clouds – isolated lowerings in a cloud base; debris clouds; large hail; funnel clouds – rotating extensions of the cloud base; and a roaring noise.

  • Know that if you see lightning or hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.

  • When instructed or when you determine it is necessary, move to an appropriate storm-safety area. Management might have identified this area for the jobsite.

    • When a tornado is possible: If a shelter area has not been identified, get the property owner’s permission to take shelter in a basement, cellar or interior room. If such shelter is not available, the American Red Cross advises getting into a vehicle, buckling your seat belt and driving to the closest sturdy shelter. Pull over and park if you encounter flying debris. Use your judgment in choosing one of two options: (1) stay in the car with the seat belt buckled, and put your head below the windows, covering it with your arms, hands and a blanket if possible; and (2) If you can safely get significantly lower than the level of the roadway, exit the vehicle and lie in that area, covering your head with your arms and hands.
    • When flooding is possible: Move to higher ground when instructed or when you think water levels could begin rising.
    • When hurricane/tropical storm watches or warnings have been issued: Be prepared to evacuate.
    • When lightning strikes are possible: The best shelter is a fully enclosed building with plumbing and wiring. Once inside this structure, stay away from windows, showers, sinks, bathtubs and electric equipment such as stoves, radios, corded telephones and computers. If such a building is not available, take cover in a fully enclosed motor vehicle. Once inside, completely close windows, do not touch metal framework, turn off the radio and do not use your cell phone or other electronic devices.

Dangerous plants and wildlife:

  • Cover your skin. Wear a hat, gloves and a long-sleeved shirt tucked into pants. Tuck pant legs into socks or boots to prevent ticks from reaching skin and to protect against poison ivy/oak/sumac exposure.

  • Dress in light-colored clothing (to more easily see ticks).

  • Use an insect repellant that deters both mosquitoes and ticksSpray a product that contains permethrin (kills ticks) on clothes, but not on skin.

  • Recognize tick habitat (brushy, overgrown, grassy, and wooded areas). Be particularly careful in spring and early summer when young ticks are abundant and looking for hosts.

  • After work, shower and wash and dry work clothes at high temperature.

  • Inspect your body daily after working outdoors in warm weather. Ticks often attach themselves to armpits, groin and scalp areas. Remove ticks with fine-tipped tweezers, making sure no parts remain in your skin.

  • Recognize symptoms of allergic reactions (itching and swelling at a sting site, rash, nausea, difficulty breathing) and get medical attention for yourself or coworkers who experience them. Call 911 if someone experiences a severe reaction to stings, poison ivy/oak/sumac or inhales smoke from these plants.

  • If you know you are allergic to stinging insects, keep an EpiPen near you while working. Tell a co-worker where your EpiPen is located in case of an emergency.

  • Be able to identify poisonous snakes and spiders that are likely to be found in your area.

  • Get a good look at any snake that bites you or a co-worker so you can describe it. If you can do so from a safe distance, take a photo. Then have someone take you to the hospital or transport the co-worker.

  • Learn to identify poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. While poison ivy is a vine and poison oak a shrub, the leaves of both plants grow in clusters of three. Poison sumac is a shrub with bright red leaf stems. Its feather-like leaves grow in odd-numbered clusters of five to 13. The leaves have a glossy appearance, they turn red and orange in the fall, and its berries are creamy white or light yellow.

  • Beware of giant hogweed. The tall plant with purple-spotted stems and dome-shaped clusters of white flowers was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant, but is now on the federal noxious weed list. Sap from the giant hogweed causes photodermatitis when skin is exposed to it and then to sunlight. Severe blisters and dark scars can develop. The sap also can cause temporary or permanent blindness.

  • Don’t assume you won’t have an allergic reaction to insect stings or poison ivy/oak/sumac because you haven’t in the past. You can develop an allergy at any time, and especially after repeated exposure.

  • Before continuing work, evaluate an area where stinging insects are flying. You could be right next to a nest, which might be underground or attached to vegetation or a structure. If one insect stings you, others could come to defend it.

  • Never burn poison ivy/oak/sumac. Inhaling the smoke might cause a rash on the lining of the lungs, leading to extreme pain and severe reactions even in people far downwind.

  • Don’t leave cuttings from giant hogweed on clients’ properties. Because the plants’ hollow stalks make excellent telescopes, children are likely to play with them.

  • Seek medical attention immediately if you experience symptoms of Lyme disease or West Nile virus. Sixty to 80 percent of people with Lyme disease develop a bull’s-eye rash around the bite. Other symptoms are usually flu-like and include fever, lymph node swelling, neck stiffness, generalized fatigue, headaches, migrating joint aches and muscle aches. Most cases are treated successfully with antibiotics, but left untreated the disease can result in arthritis, heart disease and brain and nerve disorders. Symptoms of West Nile virus include fever, headache, body aches, a rash on the trunk of the body, swollen lymph glands, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis.

Additional Resources:

Federal OSHA’s Heat Index Guide for Employers – osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/pdfs/all_in_one.pdf

Federal OSHA’s Heat Safety Tool app – osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html

Federal OSHA’s Emergency Action Plan Checklist – osha.gov/SLTC/etools/evacuation/checklists/eap.html

Emergency Preparedness Advice from the Department of Homeland Security – ready.gov/planning

The National Weather Service – weather.gov/

Federal OSHA’s Lyme Disease Fact Sheet – osha.gov/OshDoc/data_LymeFacts/lymefac.pdf