Basic Safety in Conservation Work

Using a billhook

Practical conservation work should be carried out as safely as possible. Being aware of various safety points not only reduces the risk of accidents or illness but also enables groups to work more effectively – increasing everybody’s enjoyment and satisfaction. Safe work is good work!

This page is only intended to be a guide for individuals and volunteer groups – aiming to improve standards of work and as a result, the level of enjoyment. It is not a comprehensive statement of necessary safety procedures. It is intended that groups will use it as a starting point from which to find out more about how to protect their health, safety and welfare. Whilst voluntary groups do not generally have statutory duties, they do have a common law duty of care towards their volunteers and others affected by their work.

Everyone within a group has a responsibility for safety. Group organisers and project leaders should ensure that safety is taken seriously and leaders should be adequately trained. Volunteers must be made aware of their own need to act responsibly, as individuals can otherwise be personally liable.

Assessing the safety risks

Before the day of the project, there are several safety points to consider.

Inherent hazards

These are already on the site and include underground cables and drains, concealed holes, difficult access, inclement conditions, dangerous litter and subsidence on river banks. These should be recorded on a site survey form or management plan if applicable. Points of access should be noted, together with the location of the nearest telephone, where there is a working mobile phone signal, and hospital in case of emergencies. Make sure that one vehicle is parked ready to leave should there be an emergency.

Created hazards

These stem from the activities. If tools have to be transported to the site, make sure that this is carried out safely. In vehicles, all tools should be wrapped (to protect them, as well as volunteers) and stored so that they cannot move around if the vehicle has to stop or manoeuvre quickly.

Risk assessment

A hazard is defined as something with the potential to cause harm and covers ill health, injury and damage to property. Risk is the likelihood of that harm actually taking place and the severity of that harm. Risk assessment is about identifying hazards and the level of risk associated with them, then prescribing measures to control or reduce those risks.

A risk assessment must take into account a number of factors:

  1. What are the things that can cause harm or damage, ie the hazards?
  2. How likely is it that something will go wrong?
  3. How often does the risk arise – daily, every time a particular tool is used, annually
  4. How many people would be affected?
  5. Are the effects immediate or longer term?
  6. What does the law actually dictate, eg are there specific regulations covering this hazard?

Using chainsaws

Chainsaws and brush cutters should only be used by properly trained operators.

For further details about training to use power tools, contact NPTC and Lantra. Local agricultural colleges may also run chainsaw training courses.

First aid


A standard first aid kit, normally sufficient for a group of 10-12 people, contains the items listed. If your work might result in a greater than normal need for first aid, or your group is larger, have more supplies available.

A first aid kit suitable for use in a workplace for up to 10 people

Guidance card1
Waterproof plasters20
Sterile eye pads, with attachment2
Individually wrapped triangular bandages4
Safety pins6
Medium sterile dressings (12cm x 12cm)6
Large sterile dressings (18cm x 18cm)2
Alcohol free cleansing wipes6
Pairs of fine transparent disposable plastic gloves2
NOTE: Where mains tap water is not readily available for eye irrigation, sterile water or sterile normal saline (0.9%) in sealed disposable containers should be provided. Each container should hold at least 300ml and should not be reused once the sterile seal is broken. At least 900ml should be provided. Eye baths or other refillable containers should not be used for eye irrigation.
NOTE: The first aid kit must be kept in a suitably marked container which will protect the contents from dust and damp.

First aid boxes should be made of suitable material designed to protect the contents from damp and dust and should be clearly identified as first aid containers; the markings used must be a white cross on a green background.

Groups may also provide a welfare kit. This can contain items such as toilet rolls and sanitary towels, but must not contain any form of medication like aspirin. The following contents are suggested:

Welfare kit suitable for use in additional to a first aid kit



All groups should have a member on every project who has undergone some first aid training. For low-risk work, a one-day Emergency First Aid course may be suitable; more hazardous projects, such as those on which a chainsaw is being used, must have one or more qualified first aiders available on site. A qualified first aider is someone who has passed the four-day training course ‘First Aid at Work’.

For further details about first aid training contact your local British Red Cross or St. John Ambulance.

Health hazards

It is important to be aware of the possible health hazards involved in undertaking practical conservation work. This list is not meant to put anyone off conservation work but to increase awareness and avoid problems. If any of these instances do occur, seek medical attention immediately.


Volunteers should ensure their tetanus immunity is up to date, a GP can advise on this. Check that anyone getting even a small cut on site has an up to date immunisation and if not, suggest they obtain immunisation straight away.

Bites and stings

Snakes, bees, wasps, mosquitoes and other insects can give nasty bites/stings. On projects where this could be a problem, ask volunteers to let the leader know if they have an allergy to any stings, etc. While these rarely present major hazards it is important to be aware of the risk of anaphylactic shock. This is a major allergic reaction of the whole body and can be recognised by widespread red blotchy skin, swelling of the face and neck, impaired breathing and a rapid pulse. It is caused by rapid dilation of the body’s blood vessels and constriction of airways and is potentially fatal. If such symptoms occur, get medical attention immediately. If working in an area where adders live, warn people not to go too near the snakes. Do not try touching them!

Blue green algae

Algae can, in certain conditions, produce a ‘bloom’ in hot weather which may be toxic. Avoid working in the vicinity of this scum on the water’s edge and wash it off immediately if it comes into contact with skin.


Weils disease is one of two forms of Leptospirosis to affect humans – a bacterial infection carried in rat’s urine which can contaminate stagnant or slow moving water and wet river and canal banks. The other form, Hardjo, is transmitted by exposure to the urine or foetal fluids of cattle. The bacteria do not survive for long in dry conditions. Infection occurs through cuts, abrasions and the lining of the eyes and mouth.

Symptoms start with a flulike illness and persistent severe headaches leading to meningitis, jaundice and sometimes death. Sensible precautions include: washing thoroughly after contact with water before eating, drinking or smoking; covering cuts with waterproof plasters and avoiding further contact with water; and ensuring that those working in water are wearing boots and gloves to avoid accidental cuts. Avoid cattle contaminated water or material and repeat the other precautions above.

Everyone working in or around at risk areas should be told of the symptoms and encouraged to see a GP if they experience flu-like symptoms in the days that follow the project explaining what they have been doing and the location.

Lyme disease

This can be transmitted to humans when bitten by ticks that usually live on deer and sheep. Ticks need moist and relatively warm conditions to survive between blood feeds and tall vegetation to climb up to find a host, bracken being ideal for this.

Keep skin covered and avoid brushing against vegetation. Brush clothing down regularly and at the end of the day, and remove any ticks as soon as possible. If a rash develops around the bite or illness occurs within 2 weeks of a bite, seek medical help immediately.

Toxocara canis

This is a microorganism found in dog faeces which can cause blindness in children. The risk to adults is not considered to be great provided normal standards of hygiene are maintained. Wash skin with soap and water immediately after contact with dog faeces.


The plant is toxic and creates many symptoms of poisoning in animals which feed on it.

Always wear long sleeves and trousers when working in bracken, keeping skin covered. At all times of year, dust masks should be worn when clearing bracken. The filter should be fine enough to keep out spores – your local agricultural suppliers should be able to advise you about this.

Giant hogweed

This is much larger than normal hogweed, growing up to 5m tall, with blotched purple stems. For some people contact with the plant or its material, combined with sunlight, can cause a rash. In severe cases, blisters are caused as the chemicals in the plant react with sunlight, decreasing the skin’s ability to absorb ultraviolet light. Do not touch giant hogweed!


This is an abnormally low body temperature induced by exposure to cold or wet weather. It can be avoided by not allowing people to get too cold, so avoid exposed sites and projects in the cold where there is not much activity to keep the body warm. If hypothermia does occur, wrap the person up for all-over warmth – other people’s body heat will also help.

Heat exhaustion

It includes sunstroke, but it doesn’t need to be sunny for someone to suffer from heat exhaustion. Move the sufferer to the shade, and make them sip water.


This is an increasingly serious health hazard even in the UK. It often occurs unknowingly to those with skin exposed on dull days that are cool or feel so due to the wind. Avoid it by being sensible. Wear a hat, long-sleeved clothing, and apply sunblock/suntan lotion. If sunburn does occur, cool the area with water. Don’t burst blisters, as the skin underneath is sterile. Blisters should be allowed to burst or subside of their own account.



  • Never carry more tools than you can comfortably manage.
  • Always carry tools at your side, with the ‘dangerous’ end facing forward, points or blades facing towards the ground.
  • Always keep a good distance between yourself and others when carrying tools.
  • Never carry tools over your shoulder; human heads are easy to damage!
  • When not in use, tools should generally be laid flat on the ground. Spades, shovels, forks and rakes should be placed with points downwards. This prevents the tools from flying up if the points are trodden on.


  • Always use tools correctly, as demonstrated by a leader when working as a group.
  • Be aware of people around you, and always work at a safe distance – with swinging tools, this is twice the length of the tool plus the user’s arm length.
  • Never wear leather gloves when swinging any tools as they will slip through your hands. Use bare hands or gloves designed to offer increased grip. If you are using a single handle swinging tool, do protect the other hand with a glove, ie the hand holding the wood when working with a billhook.
  • Never use a tool with a split or damaged handle, or with a loose head. If you think a tool might be damaged in any way, inform the leader and take it out of service.
  • Where chainsaws and brush cutters are in use, keep at least 15 metres away from the operator, or more, if the safe system of work demands it. Never approach the operator, especially from behind; if you want to get their attention keep well away and shout or gesture.


A well-maintained tool is safer, lasts longer and is easier to use.

Make sure tools are clean and rust-free, that blades are sharp and heads secure. Handles should be free of splinters, and tools with split or damaged handles should not be used but repaired at the earliest opportunity.

Use of chemicals

The use of pesticides is to be discouraged unless there is really no alternative. If their use is absolutely essential on site, it should only be by someone who is appropriately qualified to apply the chemicals.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations apply to the landowner and any substance used on their land. Similarly, they apply to anyone buying and storing pesticides. For further advice about the use of pesticides, contact the agricultural adviser at your local Health and Safety Executive (HSE) office.

Moving materials

Plan the delivery of materials to be as close to the site as possible, and aim to minimise the need to handle heavy items manually. Provide lifting and carrying aids, e.g. wheelbarrows, wherever possible. When lifting, pushing or carrying, do not attempt to move weights that are too heavy or too awkward. Remember to lift with a straight back, bent knees and let the legs do the work. The majority of all injuries are related to moving and handling tools and materials, so particular attention must be paid to encouraging safe working practices.

Protective clothing

  • Always wear strong boots, preferably with steel toe caps.
  • Don’t wear overly loose clothing.
  • Long hair should be tied back if it may get in the way.

When felling trees or scrub over 3 metres high, hard hats should be worn. Manufacturers recommend they should be changed every three years. Check their date when you buy them and that they are not out of date when you use them. Store helmets out of direct sunlight, as this will degrade them.

If waders are worn, make sure the wearer can swim! Lone working in waders must not be undertaken and a rope or safety line should be available if lifejackets are not worn. Make sure waders fit properly, and are not too big. Avoid fast flowing or deep water, as waders can be very dangerous and are capable of trapping a person underwater. The use of chest waders must be planned carefully for exceptional circumstances only.

Gloves should be worn when clearing rubbish, to avoid cuts, but should not be used with edged tools such as billhooks and slashers.

Safety and techniques talks

If you are in doubt over the proper use of any tool – ask someone. The following general points, however, should always be covered.

Brief all volunteers on any risks involved and how to use the tools properly, making work both easier and safer. To ensure that everyone knows how to stay safe during the work and when using any of the tools, project leaders should give a suitable talk at the beginning of the day. Even if volunteers attend regularly, it is well worth going over the main points, as people may forget to bear safety in mind.

Remember talks will also mean that new volunteers are not embarrassed to ask the name of a particular tool, what it is used for, about safe practice or good conservation techniques.

If volunteers are joining the project at various times of the day, make sure that those arriving later are given individual tuition, especially new volunteers. Many tools have specialist uses, so try to avoid jargon as it may put people off asking questions for fear of seeming stupid. Make all volunteers aware that if they come across a tool which they do not know how to use, they should ask someone who has used it before.

You should include information on the purpose of the project; any particular site hazards; who the appointed leader and first aider are; precautions to take; where the first aid kit is and how the group and the day will be organised.

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