Keeping your crews safe in summer months means being aware of some of the outdoor hazards they may face. This includes heat-related illness, stinging insects, vector-borne disease from pests like ticks and mosquitoes, and poisonous plants. These are all serious concerns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year. Fortunately, with proper safety training and follow-through, many of these risks can be mitigated.
Brenda Jacklitsch, PhD, a health scientist at The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the CDC, says that for every potential threat your workers could face (keeping in mind these can vary by region), you should consider the preventative steps that you can take as an employer. What tools or equipment can you provide, how can you educate crews on safety, and what should they do if they are faced with an emergency? As with safety in general, preparedness is key.
Regular and ongoing training is an important piece of being prepared. This might include one big training session, but it also requires daily reminders.
“We recommend that employers have an annual training on heat stress,” says Jacklitsch. “For training we suggest that employers cover how to recognize symptoms of heat-related illness, first aid related to heat-related illness and preventative measures that can be taken. We also encourage employers to explain acclimatization (the initial period of adapting to the conditions where more breaks may be needed) and that it’s important for workers to report heat-related illness symptoms.”
Peter Amato, president and managing director of Site Safety LLC, a safety consulting, management, and training organization headquartered in Manhattan, New York, agrees. He says that it comes down to creating a “culture of safety throughout the entire organization.”
“Ownership should be involved in meeting and discussing the common dangers that your workers face — heat stress being a common one across the country,” Amato says. “There should be daily reminders about the ways that risk can be reduced with the proper preventative measures.”
Preparing crews for protection
Part of prevention means providing crews with the proper gear and supplies.
Green industry consultant Fred Haskett, head harvester with The Harvest Group, says that crews should have sunscreen, a first-aid kit, hornet and wasp spray, and plenty of water available to them at all times on the job site. Issuing lightweight longsleeve shirts for sun protection and wide-brimmed hats is also important.
“Heat is obviously one of the biggest concerns, but you can implement smarter practices to prevent problems,” Haskett says. “As an owner or manager, you should always be watching the weather. Start earlier and finish earlier on the hottest days. Double-check with crews around the mid-point on high heat days to make sure that everyone is OK. As an owner, the hottest days were the times that I ramped up my site visits along with my managers.”
Jacklitsch adds that whenever possible, workers should also have access to air conditioning for breaks, even if it’s in a work vehicle. She also suggests that workers make a natural habit of scouting for shade on work sites. When there isn’t any, she suggests a canopy, or a tent be put up for a shaded break spot.
“It’s also really important that workers be able to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness,” she says. “For this, we recommend a buddy system. Heat stress is one of those things that as soon as you start having symptoms, you can begin to decline rapidly. It helps to have people watching out for one another. Of course, we do also suggest that the workers, to some extent, conduct some self-monitoring. If they know they are starting to feel the effects of the heat, they need to be aware that it’s time to take a break and drink some water.”
Signs of heat stress or heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, clammy skin, fast and weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, tiredness, dizziness, headache, or fainting.
Signs of the more-serious, potentially deadly, heatstroke include high body temperature, hot or damp skin, fast and strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
Jacklitsch says that the cognitive decline piece of this can make it difficult for someone to recognize they’re experiencing a medical emergency, which is why the buddy system is so important.
At Level Green Landscaping, a landscape maintenance company in Washington, D.C.; Maryland and Virginia, these possibilities are taken quite seriously. It’s why Brad Butler, the company’s chief safety officer, says that crews are educated on when it’s time to call emergency services.
Butler says the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app has been really helpful in helping crews assess risk, identify signs and symptoms, and administer first aid in a heat-related illness situation.
In addition to the app, Butler says they’re always training as well.
“People need to know the symptoms, how to react based on the symptoms they’re seeing, and what phone calls need to be made and in what order,” Butler adds.
When it comes to making sure that workers follow through, putting someone in charge of safety on each crew will help. For most companies, this might naturally fall under the crew supervisor’s responsibilities.
Whomever is designated to be in charge of safety should be certain that workers are taking regular hydration breaks on hot days. It’s easy to lose track without constant attention, says Amato.
“Those breaks are so important, but they can get forgotten if someone isn’t paying attention to the time,” he says. “That designated person can also be responsible for paying close attention to any symptoms that might be indicating someone is experiencing heat stress, or even worse, heatstroke.”
Haskett says that “leading by example” is important too.
“I’m a staunch believer that if managers and crew leaders are practicing good safety, everyone else follows suit,” he says. “You can’t take shortcuts in safety as a supervisor and then expect your people to embrace it. Safety needs to be part of your core values.
ake sure that crew leaders are well-versed on heat protection and hydration so that they’re setting the expectations in their own actions.”
At Level Green, Butler says that compliance is encouraged with ongoing reminders. Safety is not a “one and done” scenario. Reminders are part of everyday work life.
“Safety should be talked about constantly,” he says. “And everyone should be aware of the risks — keeping in mind that they do change. The goal is no surprises.”
Pests and plants
While heat safety is likely one of your biggest concerns, risks like stinging insects, disease-carrying pests or even poisonous plants like poison ivy or poison sumac should also be on your radar in the summer.
Butler says a crew’s best defense against both insects and poisonous plants is the uniform. Minimizing skin exposure is key.
“One thing that we’ve learned with COVID-19 is that the neck gaiters we use to make sure workers’ necks are not exposed can also double as a mask, so that’s been useful,” he says. “Of course, even when covering up, bee stings do happen and sometimes we also have an allergic reaction occur. So, knowing what to do in those situations is really important too. If a doctor prescribes an EpiPen to one of our team members after a sting, we do ask that they make us aware that they have an allergy.”
In poisonous plants, it’s the urushiol oil that causes a reaction, so Butler says that prevention wipes, which help remove the sticky oil promptly, is also a standard part of crews’ personal protective equipment gear.
“If someone does get infected seriously, they know they need to get to the doctor for a steroid shot promptly,” Butler says.
Jacklitsch adds that the oils can be spread not only from direct contact with a poisonous plant but by indirect contact too. So that means cleaning clothing and tools that may have come into contact with poisonous plants.
“Of course, one of the biggest concerns is burning these plants,” she continues. “Poisonous plants should never be burned. If you burn something like poison ivy, those oils can become particles that you breathe in and that’s an immediate medical emergency.”
With disease-carrying pests like ticks and mosquitoes, Jacklitsch says that education is important.
Recognizing common habitats where ticks and mosquitoes are likely to thrive can help crews to be more cognizant of their risk. Removing any standing water at the job site such as overturning wheelbarrows or dumping buckets can help reduce mosquito breeding. Also, keep in mind that ticks are often found on rodents and wildlife, so taking steps to discourage animals from hanging around the site can help. Remove leaf litter or overgrowth when possible.
Of course, keeping skin covered and potentially even using netting to cover the face can help minimize the risk. Jacklitsch also suggests that insect repellents be another regularly supplied item for workers to use.
There’s no question that summer safety is a big responsibility. But taking steps to mitigate risks will provide you with valuable peace of mind that you’re doing everything you can to keep your team healthy and safe.
If you’re struggling with safety or wondering if you’re doing everything you can, Amato suggests hiring a safety consultant to set benchmarks. They can roam around job sites and look for potential hazards. A safety consultant can also be hired to do a company-wide training or run training classes in small groups.
At the end of the day, focusing on training is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.
“If you’re a company that truly cares about the team’s safety, your people will want to stay with you,” Amato says. “Couple that with fewer insurance premiums and peace of mind that your people aren’t getting harmed on your watch and it’s easy to see why it’s worth investing in safety.”