Working Safely Outdoors

Many people enjoy working outdoors.  They like the fresh air and sun and the satisfaction of seeing the results of landscaping and maintenance tasks. Outdoor jobs may free you from some of the health and safety concerns that apply inside a facility Ė but they have their own special risks.  In this news-letter weíll review some of the hazards you might face when you work outside, both on the job and at home, and what you can do to protect yourself from them.

General Hazards

There are a number of general hazards that could affect your work outdoors.  Among them are the following:

Letís look in more detail at how we can spot possible hazards when we work outdoors.  After all, you have to know thereís a hazard before you can take steps to protect yourself.


One of the most common health risks outdoors is contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.  Many people get an itchy rash if they touch these plants or the clothes or tools that contacted the plants. The rash may swell, get bumpy and blister and possibly ooze or scab.  Some people donít react badly to the first contact but become sensitized and have more serious reactions later. What weíre reacting to in these plants is their sticky sap, which remains a hazard even when the plants are dead or dying.  These plants are pretty common, and itís important to know what they look like so you can steer clear of them. Keep this warning in mind: Leaves of threeólet them be. 

Poison ivy, which may appear to be a plant or a vine, has glossy green leaves.  Poison oak looks a lot like poison ivy.  Poison sumac is different.  Itís often found in swampy areas and has oval leaves and drooping green or white berries. There are other nonpoisonous sumacs that have red berries.  Donít touch these plants!  If you do accidentally make con-tact, donít touch other parts of your body with your hands or with clothes or equipment that have touched the plant.  Weíll talk later about what to do to prevent or limit reactions when you do make contact.

Plants donít have to be poisonous to cause allergic reactions.  Some people are sensitive to contact with other plants such as vegetables or flowers.  Many people suffer from hay feveróthe pollen from grass, ragweed, and other outdoor plants makes them sneeze and itch.  If you think you may have this type of allergy, see a doctor.  There are medications that can prevent or relieve allergic reactions.

Even if you donít think youíve had contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, wash thoroughly when you finish an outdoor job.  Itís easy not to notice when you, or your tools or clothes, made contact with a plant.  If you know you had contact, wash as quickly as possible with soap and water.  Wash thoroughly and then cleanse the area with rubbing alcohol.

If you get an itchy rash, you may get relief from aspirin, hydrocortisone cream, or calamine lotion.  Calamine lotion may spread the problem, how-ever.  Sometimes antihistamines may give relief, though they can make you drowsy.  Try not to scratch; that just slows the healing.  If the itching gets really bad or thereís serious swelling, see a doctor.

Insect Bites and Stings

When youíre outdoors, thereís always the possibility of a close encounter with a wasp, bee, or other insect that stings or bites.  You may not feel a sting or bite when it happens, but youíll probably soon notice swelling, redness, itching, or even pain.  Some people have to worry about much more than that though.  If youíre allergic to bites or stings, they can cause hives, dizziness, stomach cramps, and nausea.  In rare cases, people feel weak or have trouble breathing or swallowing.  In the worst instances, they can lead to unconsciousness and even shock or death.  There are other insects like black flies and tiny red chiggers whose bites cause serious itching.  They rarely lead to worse problems.

Spider bites are generally harmless.  The black widow spider is an exception.  This poisonous spider is glossy black with a red hourglass mark on the stomach.  Itís small, with a body just one-half inch in diameter, and lives in wood-piles, sheds, and basements.  The bite itself may not hurt, but it can cause bad stomach pain and cramps, breathing difficulty, and possibly nausea.  Also, watch for sweating, twitching, shaking, and tingling in the hand.  See a doctor immediately for black widow spider bites.

Be alert for brown recluse spiders.  Theyíre a little smaller than black widows and have a white pattern that looks like a violin on their backs.  Their bites can be painful and cause some of the same reactions as black widows, but theyíre not as dangerous.

Ticks bites are a particular concern.  Ticks are tiny arachnids that live in tall grass or shrubs and often ďrideĒ on deer, dogs, mice, or people.  They donít fly or jump but can easily attach themselves to your clothes.  Theyíre so small you may not even notice them or realize youíve been bitten. Some ticks carry serious ill-nesses such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease.  Itís important to identify and treat these illnesses early.  Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be deadly.  So you want to do everything possible to pre-vent tick bites and to act quickly if you are bitten.

Most insect bites and stings are just uncomfortable.  Apply ice to relieve the swelling and use calamine lotion, hydro-cortisone cream, or a paste made of baking soda to relieve the itching.  If youíre allergic to insect stings, try to remove the stinger as quickly as possible with your fingernail.  If thereís any sign of an allergic reaction, such as spreading hives, dizziness, or nausea, get medical attention.  Immediate medical attention is essential for a black widow spider bite or multiple stingsófor example, an attack by a swarm of bees.  Also get professional help if you have trouble breathing or swallowing after a bite or sting.  In these cases, donít stop to decide if this is serious.  If itís one of the rare life-threatening situations related to insect bites or stings, thereís no time to lose.

Deal with tick bites immediately to reduce the risk of Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Check your-self and your clothing for ticks when you finish an outdoor job. If a tick is in your skin, remove it quickly.  Grab the tick with fine-tipped tweezers, getting as close to the skin as possible.  Then pull it straight up with steady even pressure so you get all its body parts.  If you canít remove the tick yourself, get medical help to do so.  Once itís out, wash the area gently with water and apply rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant.

See a doctor immediately if you develop swelling, fever, joint pain, or flu-like symptoms within a few weeks.  Physicians can treat Lyme disease and Spotted Fever effectively with antibiotics.  However, fast treatment is essential to prevent very serious illness.

Snake or Other Animal Bites

Snake and other animal bites are rarely a problem for people who work outdoors. Snakes and animals are usually as anxious to avoid you as you are to avoid them.  If you see a creature, keep your distance. Be especial-ly cautious with an animal thatís eating or mating or one that appears to be sick or injured.  Also beware of an animal that seems too friendly or that seems to be acting ďdrunk.Ē  Those behaviors could be signs of rabies. 

If a dog or other animal approaches you in a threatening manner, donít panic.  Stand still or back away slowly and talk in a calm tone.  If youíre holding any food, drop it.  If you think the animal seems ready to bite, wrap your lower arm in a jacket or other available material and hold it out in front of you to take the bite.  Always get medical attention for snake or animal bites.  Donít risk even the slim chance of serious problems.  If there is any sign that a biting animal might have rabies, the authorities will want to capture that animal for clinical evaluation and observation.

Temperature Overexposure

When youíre going to work outside in hot weather, try to build up your tolerance slowly.  Be especially careful if youíre overweight or have high blood pressure, as heat may affect you more than others.  Keep an eye on your co-workersí symptoms, as well as your own.  Some-times people may not realize theyíre in trouble or may not be able to do anything about it.

If the heat makes you feel tired and weak, take a break.  You could be having the first symptoms of heat stress. If the problem is heat cramps, rest and place wet towels firmly on the cramping muscles.  Slowly drink water.  Heat exhaustion is more serious.  Get to a cool place immediately if you experience weakness, sweating, dizziness, headache, and a pale or flushed appearance.  Loosen your clothing and drink water slowly. Apply cool com-presses to the body and elevate the feet 8 to 12 inches.  If a fan is available, turn it on.

Heat stroke is the most dangerous type of heat stress.  The body stops sweating and canít cool itself, so body temperature rises quickly.  Call immediately for medical attention for symptoms like chills, confusion, fatigue, dry, hot, reddish skin, nausea, cramps, and weakness.  While waiting for help, keep the victim in a cool location and, if possible, cool the person down by applying water to the body.  Drink water, but donít try to give water to an unconscious person.

Although the weather outside is now warm, there are working conditions that can cause cold exposure to occur.  Cold expo-sure also demands a prompt response.  If a body feels very cold and numb or if you notice someoneís skin has become pale and glossy, take action to prevent frostbite.  Cover the frozen part immediately.  The victim may need help to get to a warm spot. Provide a warm drink and wrap the frozen part gently in blankets.  If possible, rewarm it in warmónot hotówater.  Donít rub the frozen part, apply heat, or break blisters.  Donít walk on frostbitten feet until theyíre warm.  A frostbite victim should see a doctor as soon as possible.  Take care while moving the person to elevate the affected body parts and cover them carefully with clean cloths.

Pesticides and Herbicides

Exposure to pesticides and herbicides can cause immediate reactions such as skin rashes, headaches, and nausea.  Some may also cause serious long-term illnesses.  So you want to do everything possible to pre-vent overexposure.  Check the labels on containers to be sure youíre using any personal protective equipment thatís required.  If a sign tells you an area has been treated with a pesticide or herbicide in the last 12 to 48 hours, take extra pre-cautions.  Like other hazardous substances, pesticide and herbicide exposure can be a result of inhalation, ingestion, or skin and eye contact.  Donít waste any time if this happens.  Check labels and/or material safety data sheets for first-aid information.  Most exposures will call for immediate medical attention.  While waiting for help, get an inhalation victim into fresh air and administer artificial respiration or CPR if necessary.  If there has been skin or eye contact, flush with water for at least 15 minutes.

Equipment Injuries

Any tool or piece of machinery can be hazardous if you donít know how to use it safely. Fortunately, most equipment is designed to make it relatively easy to be safe.  The manufacturers provide information on possible hazards and instructions on how to use the equipment safely.  Most equipment has some type of guard to prevent your direct contact with sharp or moving parts.  Keep these guards in place, since they are one of your most important protections.

You often need to use person-al protective clothing and equipment to stay safe around machinery.  One of the most important protections is to wear safety glasses or goggles, which will prevent eye injuries from flying objects or particles. Wear sturdy shoes with nonslip soles. Clothes shouldnít be too loose because you risk getting them caught in moving parts.

When using a power mower, look at the area to be mowed before you start.  Clear any rocks or debris out of the way.  If you hit them, they could either damage the machine or fly up and hit you.  Remember, too, that a gasoline-powered machine is a fire risk.  Donít smoke around a mower or around gasoline supplies or expose the gasoline to any other heat source.  Injuries can occur during maintenance as well as operation.  Before making adjustments or performing maintenance tasks, be sure the mower is off and that all moving parts have stopped.  Take special care when you adjust the blades or remove grass clippings.  Wear gloves and donít touch the sharp blades.  Itís best to refuel or start all mowers and tractors outside to avoid carbon monoxide gases.  Refuel only when the machine is turned off and the engine is cool.

If youíre injured while working with mowers or other equipment, keep these first-aid responses in mind.


No part of life is totally hazard-free, and outdoor work is no exception.  You can, however, generally avoid injuries and illness if you quickly identify the potential hazards and take sensible pre-cautions such as using personal protective clothing and equipment.