The occupational safety and health hazards for those who work in parks and botanical gardens fall in the following general categories: environmental, mechanical, biological or chemical, vegetation, wildlife and caused by human beings. The risks differ depending on where the site is located. Urban, suburban, developed or undeveloped wildland will differ.
As parks and garden personnel are found in all geographical areas and generally spend a great deal, if not all, of their working time outdoors, they are exposed to the widest variety and extremes of temperature and climatic conditions, with the resultant risks ranging from heat stroke and exhaustion to hypothermia and frostbite.
Those who work in urban areas may be in facilities where vehicular traffic is significant and may be exposed to toxic exhaust emissions such as carbon monoxide, unburned carbon particles, nitrous oxide, sulphuric acid, carbon dioxide and palladium (from the breakdown of catalytic converters).
Because some facilities are located in the higher elevations of mountainous regions, altitude sickness may be a risk if an employee is new to the area or is prone to high or low blood pressure.
Park area workers are usually called upon to perform search and rescue and disaster control activities during and following natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, volcanic eruptions and the like affecting their area, with all of the risks inherent in such events.
It is essential that all personnel be thoroughly trained in the potential environmental risks inherent in their areas and be provided with the proper clothing and equipment, such as adequate cold- or hot-weather gear, water and rations.
Personnel in parks and gardens are called upon to be thoroughly familiar with and operate an extremely wide variety of mechanical equipment, ranging from small hand tools and power tools and powered lawn and garden equipment (mowers, thatchers, rototillers, chainsaws, etc.) to heavy equipment such as small tractors, snow ploughs, trucks and heavy construction equipment. Additionally, most facilities have their own shops equipped with heavy power tools such as table saws, lathes, drill presses, air pressure pumps and so on.
Employees must be thoroughly trained in the operation, hazards and safety devices for all types of equipment they could potentially operate, and be provided and trained in the use of the appropriate personal protection equipment. Since some personnel may also be required to operate or ride the full range of motor vehicles, and fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft, they must be thoroughly trained and licensed, and regularly tested. Those that ride as passengers must have knowledge of the risks and training in safe operation of such equipment.
Biological and Chemical Hazards
Continuous, close contact with the general public is inherent in almost every occupation in park and garden work. The risk of contracting viral or bacterial diseases is always present. Additionally, the risk of contact with infected wildlife that carry rabies, psitticosis, Lyme disease and so on is present.
Park and botanical garden workers are exposed to various amounts and concentrations of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, as well as toxic paints, thinners, varnishes, lubricants and so on used in maintenance and transport work and equipment.
With the proliferation of illegal drugs, it is becoming common for personnel in national parks and forests to come across illegal drug-manufacturing laboratories. The chemicals found in these can cause death or permanent neurological damage. Personnel in urban and rural areas may also encounter discarded drug paraphernalia such as used hypodermic syringes, needles, spoons and pipes. If any of these punctures the skin or enters the body, illness ranging from hepatitis to HIV could result.
Thorough training in the risks and preventive measures is essential; regular physical examinations should be provided and immediate medical attention sought if a person is so exposed. It is essential that the type and duration of exposure be recorded, if possible, to be given to the treating physician. Whenever illegal drug paraphernalia is encountered personnel should not touch it but rather should secure the area and refer the matter to trained law enforcement personnel.
Most types of vegetation pose no health risk. However, in wildland areas (and some urban and suburban park areas) poisonous plants such as poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can be found. Health problems ranging from a minor rash to a severe allergic reaction can result, depending on the susceptibility of the individual and the nature of the exposure.
It should be noted that roughly 22% of the total population suffers from allergic reactions of one form or another, ranging from mild to severe; an allergic individual may respond to only a few substances, or to many hundreds of different types of vegetation and animal life. Such reactions can result in death, in extreme cases, if immediate treatment is not found.
Prior to working in any environment with plant life, it should be determined whether an employee has any allergies to potential allergens and should take or carry appropriate medication.
Personnel should also be cognizant of plant life that is not safe to ingest, and should know the signs of ingestion illness and the antidotes.
Parks workers will encounter the full spectrum of wildlife that exists around the world. They must be familiar with the types of animals, their habits, the risks and, where necessary, the safe handling of the wildlife expected to be encountered. Wildlife ranges from urban domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, to rodents, insects and snakes, to wildland animals and bird species including bears, mountain lions, poisonous snakes and spiders, and so on.
Proper training in the recognition and handling of wildlife, including the diseases affecting such wildlife, should be provided. Appropriate medical response kits for poisonous snakes and insects should be available, along with training in how to use them. In remote wildland areas, it may be necessary to have personnel trained in the use of, and be equipped with, firearms for personal protection.
In addition to the aforementioned risk of contact with a visitor having a contagious illness, a major share of the risks faced by personnel who work in the parks, and to a lesser degree botanical gardens, are the result of either accidental or deliberate action of facilities visitors. Those risks range from the need of park employees to perform search and rescue activities for lost or injured visitors (some in the most remote and dangerous environments) to responding to acts of vandalism, drunkenness, fighting and other disruptive activities, including assault on park or garden employees. Additionally, the park or garden employee is at risk of vehicular accidents caused by visitors or others who are driving by or in the vicinity of the employee.
Approximately 50% of all wildland fires have a human cause, attributable to either arson or negligence, to which the park employee may be required to respond.
Wilful damage or destruction of public property is also, unfortunately, a risk the park or garden employee may well be required to respond to and repair, and, depending on the type of property and degree of damage, a significant safety risk may be present (i.e., damage to wilderness trails, foot bridges, interior doors, plumbing equipment and so on).
Personnel who work with the environment are, generally, sensitive and attuned to the outdoors and to preservation. As a result, many such personnel suffer from varying degrees of stress and related illnesses because of the unfortunate actions of some of those who visit their facilities. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the onset of stress and take remedial action. Classes in stress management are helpful for all such personnel.
Violence in the workplace is, unfortunately, becoming an increasing common risk and cause of injury. There are two general classes of violence: physical and psychological. The types of violence range from simple verbal threats to mass murder, as evidenced by the 1995 bombing of the US federal office building, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1997 a tribal police officer was killed while trying to serve a warrant on a Southwest Indian reservation. There is also a less discussed, but common, psychological violence that has been classed euphemistically as “office politics” that can have equally debilitating effects.
Physical. In the United States, attacks on federal, state and local governmental personnel who work in remote and semi-remote parks and recreation areas are not uncommon. The majority of these result in injury only, but some involve assaults with dangerous weapons. There have been instances where disgruntled members of the public have entered federal land-managing agencies’ offices brandishing firearms, threatened the employees and had to be restrained.
Such violence can result in injury ranging from minor to fatal. It can be inflicted by unarmed assault or the use of the widest variety of weapons, ranging from simple club and stick to handguns, rifles, knives, explosives and chemicals. It is not uncommon for such violence to be inflicted upon the vehicles and structures owned or used by the governmental agency that operates the park or recreational facility.
It is also not uncommon for disgruntled or dismissed employees to seek retaliation against current or former supervisors. It is also becoming common for outdoor recreation, forest and park employees to encounter persons growing and/or manufacturing illegal drugs in remote areas. Such persons do not hesitate to resort to violence to protect their perceived territory. Park and recreation personnel, particularly those involved in law enforcement, are required to deal with persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol who break the law and become violent when apprehended.
Psychological. Not as well publicized, but in some instances equally damaging, is psychological violence. Commonly called “office politics”, it has been in use probably since the beginning of civilization to gain status over co-workers, gain an advantage in the workplace and/or weaken a perceived opponent. It consists of destroying the credibility of another person or group, usually without that other person or group being aware that it is being done.
In some instances, it is done openly, through the media, legislative bodies and so on, in an attempt to gain political advantage (for example, destroying the credibility of a governmental agency in order to cut its funding).
This usually has a significant negative result on the morale of the individual or group involved and, in rare, extreme instances, can cause a recipient of the violence to take his or her own life.
It is not uncommon for victims of violence to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which may affect them for years. It has the same effect as “shell shock” among military personnel who have experienced prolonged and intense combat. It may require extensive psychological counselling.
Protective measures. Because of the constantly increased risk of encountering violence in the workplace, it is essential that employees receive extensive training in the recognition and avoidance of potentially dangerous situations, including training in how to deal with persons who are violent or out of control.
- Where possible, additional security needs to be added to high-density occupancy areas.
- Employees who work away from a standard office or shop location should be provided with two-way radio communication to be able to summon help when needed.
- In some instances, it may be necessary to train employees in the use of firearms and arm them for self-protection.
- Each agency responsible for managing park or outdoor recreation areas should conduct an annual security survey of all its facilities to determine current risk and what measures are necessary to protect employees.
- Management at all levels needs to exercise extra vigilance to counter the psychological risk whenever it occurs, seek out and correct unfounded rumours and assure that all employees have accurate facts concerning the operation and future plans of their agency and workplace.
Post-incidence assistance. It is equally essential, not only for the affected employees or employers, but all agency employees as well, that any employee subjected to on-the-job violence be given not only prompt medical attention, but equally prompt psychological assistance and stress counselling. The effects of such violence can remain with the employee long after the physical wounds heal and can have a significant negative effect on his or her ability to function in the workplace.
As the population increases, the incidence of violence will increase. Preparation and prompt and effective response are, at present, the only remedies open to those at risk.
Because personnel are required to work in all types of environments, good health and physical fitness is essential. A consistent regimen of moderate physical training should be adhered to. Regular physical examinations, geared to the type of work to be performed, should be obtained. All personnel should be completely trained in types of work to be performed, the hazards involved and hazard avoidance.
Equipment should be maintained in sound operating condition.
All personnel expected to work in remote areas should carry two-way radio communication equipment and be in regular contact with a base station.
All personnel should have basic—and if possible, advanced—first aid training, including cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, in the event a visitor or co-worker is injured and medical help is not immediately available.