This page gives information regarding health and safety of volunteers undertaking practical conservation work, with particular reference to working in urban areas. It is based on Health and Safety Overview for practical conservation projects, published by TCV, which should be consulted for further details.

Risk assessment

Recent legislation requires employers to carry out a risk assessment for every work activity. The assessment must be recorded if five or more employees are involved. Whilst this may not apply to voluntary groups, its principles can be usefully followed for any conservation activity. Risk assessment is briefly outlined below.

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

Where an employer carries out a risk assessment, this must include not only risks to employees, but also to volunteers, contractors, visitors and passers-by. Special risks to vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and people with disabilities must also be assessed.

Safety precautions

Following risk assessment, you should:

  • eliminate the hazard entirely if possible. If this is not possible, fence it off, or warn those who might be at risk.
  • consider altering the activity so that lesser hazards are presented.
  • minimise the risk level by specifying safe practice, giving safety information and training.
  • use suitable personal protective gear.
  • remove or make safe hazardous waste on a daily basis.

There should be nothing that could cause risk to other people, even if they are on site without permission. Ensure that materials left on site are safely secured. Signs should be erected to warn of hazards. Warning signs have black text and a black triangle on a yellow background. ‘No access’ signs have red text and red circle with diagonal bar on a white background. not everyone will or can read warning signs, or will take notice of it, but the employer’s responsibility does not rest with having posted adequate signs. If hazardous work is underway you may also need to erect barriers, post people as lookouts or be prepared to cease work if anyone enters a defined zone.

Owners’ and contractors’ responsibilities

Where an organisation owns or leases a site on which work is undertaken, it must make it safe and keep it so at all times.

Even if a work site is not owned or leased by the organisation undertaking work there, it remains responsible for the health and safety of those working under its auspices, and any visitors or passers-by whose health and safety could be affected by its work. In this case, your group constitutes a contractor, whether it is fulfilling a specific contract or less formal agreement, and whether it is being paid for the work or doing it voluntarily.

The overall responsibility of the owner/lessor does not remove the separate responsibility of any group to ensure safety of its people, and any ‘sub-contractor’ taken on. Responsibility for health and safety continues down the line.

Substances hazardous to health

The risk to health arising from hazardous substances must be assessed, and measures introduced to prevent or control the risk at reasonable levels. See each handbook for health and safety issues particular to certain work.


Volunteers should generally avoid working with dangerous chemicals, which include those described as very toxic, toxic, harmful, irritant or corrosive. Where the use of chemicals is unavoidable, only trained persons must use them, and all manufacturer’s instructions must be followed. Precautions to restrict access to the area must be in place.

Lyme disease

This is a bacterial infection transmitted from animals to humans by the bite of the adult sheep tick. Animal hosts include deer, foxes, squirrels, sheep, gulls, mice and other rodents. The tick needs moist and fairly warm conditions to survive between blood feeds, and tall vegetation such as long grass, bracken, scrub and trees to climb to find a host.  A rash at the site of a bite or flu-like symptoms may indicate infection, and medical advice should be be sought. To avoid infection:

  • keep arms and legs covered as much as possible.
  • remove and squash any ticks found on the skin. If the tick has attached itself, gently withdraw the mouthparts using tweezers. Surgical spirit or liquid antiseptic may be helpful. If the tick or mouthparts cannot be removed, seek medical help.
  • check clothes and skin for ticks, and shake clothes after work.


This can affect anyone whose work involves contact with the soil. Disease-forming spores may enter the body through cuts, abrasions or puncture wounds. People must obtain immunity and keep it up to date. Boosters are required every 5-10 years, depending on the initial injection. Check with your doctor.

Bites and stings

Bites and stings from snakes, bees, wasps and other insects, dogs, rats and so on do not usually present a major hazard. However, be aware of the risk of anaphylactic shock, which is a major allergic reaction of the whole body. It can be recognised by widespread blotchy skin, swelling of the face and neck, impaired breathing and a rapid pulse. The casualty must be taken to hospital immediately. Take the following precautions:

  • Where a problem is indicated, ask people if they have an allergy to stings. Warn about adders, and take anyone who is bitten to hospital.
  • People bitten by dogs, rats or other animals should also be taken to hospital, because of the risk of infection.
  • If someone has a reaction on another part of the body from where the bite or sting occurred, this may be a sign of anaphylactic shock.

Weil’s disease

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection carried in rat urine, which contaminates water and wet banks. Infection may occur through cuts, abrasions and the lining of the eyes and mouth. Symptoms of Weil’s disease are a flu-like illness, which may lead to meningitis, jaundice or death. Reduce the risk of infection by:

  • covering cuts with waterproof plasters, and avoiding further contact with water until healed.
  • washing thoroughly before eating or smoking.
  • wearing boots if working in water to reduce risk of water getting into cuts.

Toxicaria canis

This is a micro-organism in dog faeces which can cause blindness. If hands or clothes come into contact with dog faeces, wash thoroughly without delay. Always wash hands before eating, drinking or smoking, and wear rubber gloves if working with or in close contact to soil.


Bracken is toxic if ingested, and has spores which may be harmful if inhaled in large quantities. Avoid contact with the sap, and avoid working amongst bracken during the summer sporing season from July to September.

Some plants can cause skin rashes either by contact with the outer cells or the sap. Giant hogweed is easily recognised, but other less obvious plants may also cause rashes. In general, wear gloves and keep arms and legs covered when cutting or handling herbaceous material, such as freshly cut meadow hay, or weeds from around trees.

Environmental factors


Avoid allowing people to get too cold or wet, and in inclement weather avoid projects which do not include enough activity to keep the body warm.


Heat exhaustion can be induced by hard physical work and dehydration, even when the weather is not sunny. Ensure volunteers drink plenty of water and take sufficient rests. Beware of sunburn, especially early in the year when the skin has not yet developed protection, and on days when the wind makes it feel cool. A sun block with protection factor >15 should be applied early in the day, and encourage people to cover up with long-sleeved shirts, trousers and hats as necessary.


Problems can be caused by dust from handling cement, sanding wood or other materials, filling and emptying bags and cleaning work. Any uncontrolled dry process can cause dust, which may irritate the skin, eyes or respiratory tract. Use liquids, emulsions or pellets where possible. Don’t sweep floors or other surfaces, but wash down or use a vacuum cleaner. If exposure cannot be avoided, use dust respirators of an approved standard.


Smoke contains harmful particles and toxins. For health and environmental reasons, only burn materials when absolutely necessary.


Ponds, canals and streams have particular dangers. The depth and flow of water, bottom and bank conditions should be carefully assessed.

  • Artificial ponds sometimes have sumps and sink holes which may be deep and silted up. natural waterways may have unexpected hollows and drop offs. Wetlands may hide old ditches and hollows. Walk through and check the work site by probing ahead with a pole, and mark any hazards clearly.
  • Deep mud or soft peat are treacherous.
  • Tools can be hazardous when used in water or in slippery, muddy conditions. Work at a safe distance from other people.
  • Never overload a punt or boat. Non-swimmers should not work from punts. Life jackets should be worn by all occupants if the water is over 1m deep or is fast-flowing. When working in water, wear wellingtons or thigh waders. never work in bare feet. Take great care when wearing thigh waders, as if you slip and they fill up with water they are difficult to remove. There should always be at least two people on the bank, ready to assist.

Capability and vulnerability of volunteers

There must be adequate protection for any groups or participants who have a particular vulnerability. Vulnerability may be related to age (either old or young), learning or physical difficulties, health problems or to those with limited or no English who may not understand safety instructions.

Vulnerability must be assessed with regard to the work and its location and time, and appropriate adjustments made. In urban areas, there may be hazards that are accessible surrounding the worksite, such as traffic, canals and ditches, or the actions of others, which must be taken into account.

Particular care must be taken when working with children and young people under the age of 16. Generally avoid 1:1 situations with a young person, particularly away from the main group, and avoid any physical contact which could be misconstrued. If young people are attending unaccompanied, it is advisable to have the parent’s or guardian’s consent in writing.

Other people on site

Other people on or near the site who may affect health and safety include onlookers, local residents or petty criminals. They may take issue with, interrupt or interfere with activities. Other people may have ‘no right’ to be on site, but your organisation remains responsible for the health and safety effects of your work upon them.

  • Ensure there has been full local consultation and publicity for the work.
  • Put signs around the work area indicating hazards and the requirement to stay clear.
  • Be prepared to halt work if people approach, and to give an explanation of the work as necessary.
  • Leave all tools, equipment and personal possessions either locked out of sight or under close supervision.

Traffic and vehicles

Take great care with any activity which must take place on or near a road, including deliveries, unloading and clearing up. On-site movements of vehicles also present considerable risks.

  • Use cones and signs to warn other traffic if work or loading/unloading must be at the roadside.
  • Plan where vehicles will park, unload or load, and inform participants before work begins.
  • Identify safe routes for on-site movement of vehicles, and ensure drivers and workers are aware of them.
  • Never cook or brew up inside or close to a vehicle.


All dogs, even small breeds, can cause serious injury. Dog faeces are also a health risk (see above). Dogs are numerous in urban areas, and their behaviour may be unpredictable.

Dogs are most likely to attack when defending their territorial areas, but may still be aggressive outside their home areas.

  • If the site is commonly used for dog-walking, erect signs requesting people to keep their dogs away while work is in progress.
  • Do not leave food where dogs can reach it.
  • Do not encourage dogs into the work area, or pet or reward those that come near.
  • If a dog looks threatening, back away gently and talk calmly to the dog.

Personal safety

Appropriate ‘personal protective equipment’ (PPE) which includes clothing, must be provided either by the volunteers or the organisation responsible. The precise nature of what is required will depend on the risk assessment of the particular operation.

Work should not take place if appropriate PPE is not available, and all volunteers should use it properly. The following are PPE items in common use:


Needed for many work situations. Gloves reduce the ability to grip, so do not wear when using sharp- edged tools, sledgehammers, mells or picks.


Wear whenever sledgehammers, picks, bars, chisels or chemicals are being used, or where harmful substances may enter the eyes.


Should be worn wherever work is taking place above head height, when winches are being used, or where trees over 3m height are being felled.

Reflective waistcoats

Should be worn when working at the side of the road, or at any time when there is a risk from traffic.

Work boots

Comfortable protective footwear should be worn for all practical work. When moving heavy objects, or where there is any danger to the feet, steel toe-capped boots should be worn.

First aid

First Aid boxes should contain a sufficient quantity of First Aid materials and a guidance card (see list below). The number of FirstAid boxes should meet the risks identified in the risk assessment. In most cases in the field, one standard kit (for 10-12 people) will be sufficient, but if work is taking place at several locations, each one will need a kit.

There should be one Basic Trained First Aider on all practical courses, training courses or any other event. There should be one Qualified First Aider on all projects with significant levels of risk. Volunteers must be briefed at the start of each project as to the provision and location of First Aid kits and trained First Aiders.

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.

Tools and equipment

Safe handling

The organisation or group in charge of the work needs to make an assessment of the risks involved in manual handling of tools, equipment and materials. Volunteers should be provided with appropriate instructions and information on the weight of the load. Volunteers should adhere to systems of safe working laid down by the organisation or group.

  • Seek alternatives to the manual handling of loads, such as use of machinery, or change of process.
  • Be aware of your own or other people’s physical limitations, and err on the side of caution.
  • When lifting, use the muscles in arms, legs and thighs, rather than the back. keep the back as straight as possible.
  • Make sure you have a good grip, not just with your fingertips.

Use of hand tools

Demonstration and hands-on experience are necessary to learn safe handling of tools. Leaders or supervisors must give adequate instruction in safe tool use at the beginning of every project, and must check for understanding with individual volunteers throughout its duration.

  • Use the right tool for the job.
  • Only use tools that are in good condition.
  • Never use a tool in such a way that you or someone else will be injured if it slips.
  • Keep edged tools sharp, and store and transport with their blades covered.

Powered equipment

Powered equipment, including the following, should not be operated by volunteers unless they have undertaken the appropriate programme of training.

  • Strimmers with metal blades
  • Power chainsaws
  • Excavators, tractors and tractor-powered equipment
  • Landrover winches and similar equipment powered from vehicles