Last edited 30 Aug 2017

5 Unusual Problems to Watch Out for When Working Outdoors

An outdoor worker is working in an unusually warm British summer; he’s sweating, he tries to remove extra layers so he’s down to his hi-vis vest and hard hat; his gloves have been taken off, it’s uncertain if he has on sun cream, and he might not realise he’s placing himself at undue risk. Suddenly, a co-worker notices that this man has stopped sweating, and little red dots appear all over this worker’s skin. Thankfully, the co-worker is well-trained in the dangers of outdoor work and he knows that prickly heat (heat rash) prevents the body from sweating; he treats the worker with cool cloths, places him in the shade, and calls emergency services. But the exposed worker should worry about more than heat rash; without appropriate layers and sun cream, this worker has increased his risk of skin cancer, and without the proper protective gloves, he’s exposed his hands to risk of cuts or tears - or even harmful chemical substances.

Outdoor work can be hazardous - even with appropriate health and safety policies and risk assessments - if employees do not understand the risks and receive appropriate training to manage their own PPE responsibilities, then they may be putting themselves at increased risk. People may know how to prevent sunburn or how to stay warm, but here are 5 Unusual Problems to Watch Out for When Working Outdoors.

1. Bees, Hornets, and Wasps

It’s important that workers understand the difference between bees, hornets, and wasps - because the UK is full of them (okay, so we may be a little short on some honey bees) - and how to avoid them. It’s best if these creatures are left undisturbed. Bees are not aggressive and try and avoid stinging people, but hornets and wasps are more aggressive. Here’s the rundown.

With bees, hornets, and wasps, a bee can only sting once and hornets and wasps can sting multiple times. Bees are generally furry, and wasps and hornets aren’t. Bees use pollen to make and eat honey; wasps and hornets are carnivores.

Hornets are black and white or black and yellow, and bees are more golden in colour. In the UK, there are two types of bees: honey bees and bumble bees. Bumble bees don’t have barbed stings and can sting multiple times, but they aren’t usually aggressive nor do they sting unless provoked. Bee stings are painful, but don’t cause serious harm unless workers are allergic to stings. Seek medical attention if someone has an allergic reaction to a sting.

Hornets are a subset of wasps, but are fatter in the middle than an average wasp. They are very aggressive, and have a more painful sting than a wasp sting because their venom contains 5% acetylcholine, which is a chemical that increases the stimulation of painful nerves.

To treat, wash the area with soap and water to remove as much venom as possible. Reduce swelling and pain by applying a cold pack. Keep the wound clean and dry to prevent infection, and cover with a bandage.

Wasps include yellow jackets and hornets and have two pairs of wings. Only females have stingers, and they can sting repeatedly. Wasps attach to victims and clasp the skin with spurs on their feet. Then they rotate their abdomen, stinging multiple times in a circular motion. They fly above the victim and dive down quickly, delivering a sting that punctures deep into the skin, depositing venom.

As summer ends, and the temperature changes, wasps begin to die off or hibernate for the winter.

For all stings:

Watch sting victims for swelling and tenderness. If hives develop, breathing problems, and difficulty swallowing, seek medical attention. If a sting happens near the eyes, nose, or throat, seek medical attention.

To avoid stings:

  • Don’t wear sweet smelling perfumes, hairspray, or deodorant
  • Don’t wear florals (usually not a problem on a work site)
  • Wear light colours (red is best)
  • Don’t eat in areas where there are stinging insects
  • Avoid hives and nests
  • Do not crush or squash hornets and wasps as the released odour will attract its friends to defend (and avenge) it!
  • Walk away calmly

Find out more about UK biting and stinging insects here.

When finding new sites to work, you may find that you’ll have to move hornets nests, but call professional services to do so as you do not want a hive attacking those in charge of removal.

2. Poisonous Plants

The UK has its share of poisonous plants that may cause rash, illness, and - in rare cases - death. When working in remote locations, or on building sites, make sure to assess the dangers on site, and remove (if possible) any plants that may cause harm to workers. The following plants are poisonous when ingested, but mostly skin irritants - as many workers will undoubtedly not be ingesting digitalis or unknown berries at work.

Plants that are Skin Irritants:

  • Wolf’s Bane: Cases of accidental poisoning is rare, but the plant’s toxins can slow the heart rate, cause upset stomach, and be fatal. Only handle with gloves.
  • Stinging Nettles: A common sight in the UK, nettles have needle-like hairs which penetrate the skin and sting you. It’s accompanied by burning, itching, and rash. Use dock leaves to neutralise and cool the skin.
  • Giant Hogweed: This plant grows up to five metres tall (16 feet) along footpaths and riverbanks, and the plant’s sap can cause severe painful burns if it comes into contact with the skin. It’ll make the skin sensitive to strong sunlight. Wash affected areas with soap and water. The blisters heal slowly and can cause phytophotodermatitis, which flares in sunlight. If you feel unwell after exposure, go to your doctor.
  • Thorny Plants: Needles and spines from roses, holly, blackberry bushes, and brambles can cause infections on the skin. If you are stuck by a thorn, remove the thorns and soak the area in warm water. Wear protective gloves around these plants.

Wolf’s Bane: Photo credit: randihausken via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA


Stinging Nettles: Photo credit: World of Oddy via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA


Giant Hogweed: Photo credit: antefixus21 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND


Thorny Plants:Photo credit: richiesoft via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND


Plants that are poisonous when ingested:

These plants have leaves, berries, fruit, flowers, sap, or bulbs that can poison you if you eat them or give you a rash if you touch them.

  • Poison hemlock

Photo credit: Dendroica cerulea via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA


  • Foxgloves

Photo credit: dierken via VisualHunt / CC BY


  • Lords and ladies

Photo credit: Johnson Cameraface via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA


  • Deadly nightshade

Photo credit: Plbmak via / CC BY-NC-ND


  • Yew

Photo via


  • Daffodil Bulbs

Photo credit: delayedneutron via / CC BY-NC-SA


  • Chrysanthemums

Photo via


  • Snowdrops

Photo credit: matthewvenn via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA


  • Mistletoe

Photo credit: bluefuton via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND


Avoid touching these plants where possible, and do not eat them (not that many people would be tempted).

3. Vibration White Finger

Vibration White Finger (also known as Raynaud’s disease) affects around 600 people per year with only 635 documented disability cases in 2012. Mostly due to tougher regulations and awareness, which mandates limited exposure to vibrating equipment for workers VWF is on the decline; however, it still affects 20% of the population worldwide.

When working in the cold, those who operate vibrating hand-held machinery are at increased risk for VWF, which is triggered by overexposure to vibrating machinery. The symptoms include the tops of the fingers turning white because of abnormal spasms in the blood vessels, limiting blood supply to local tissues. The primary condition is an autoimmune disease of the connective tissues, but VWF is a secondary characteristic. VWF can be treated, alleviated, or prevented by wearing gloves in the cold to increase circulation. In serious yet rare cases, VWF can cause ulcers, scarring, or tissue death (also known as gangrene).

To reduce the risk to outdoor workers, limit exposure to any vibrating machinery, especially in the cold. Try and rotate workloads so that any one worker is not exposed for extended periods of time.

4. Winter Blues

Low sunlight in winter can disrupt sleep and waking cycles, causing undue fatigue. Lower sunlight levels cause the brain to produce more melatonin, a hormone with soporific effects - linked to light and dark. Furthermore, if it’s cold, the body’s effort to keep itself warm can exhaust the body much faster than in a neutral environment. Darker evenings combined with rain and sometimes fog can also impair worker’s vision when driving. Drivers should use headlights.

All workers should be careful in darker, wet conditions. It’s important to wear hi-vis clothing to increase visibility, especially near roadways.

5. Heavy Equipment Difficulties

When it’s rainy and there are high winds, it may be difficult to operate machinery and cranes. Work sites can be hazardous due to uneven surfaces, wet grass, and mud can cause dangerous travel for those driving (and walking). Make sure to drive carefully over rough terrain.

Terrain hazards can cause water collection increasing the risk of drowning or machinery getting stuck. Make sure to inspect all sites after heavy downpour and to mark off or fill in any holes and washed out areas that can cause slips, trips, and falls. Be aware of all overhead hazards, especially power lines when operating and moving equipment.

The Takeaways

Even though many hazards can be anticipated - some may not even be considered - so it’s important that everyone acts responsibly and safely, and wears the correct protective equipment. Protect outdoor workers from seasonal elements, hot weather, cold weather, wet weather, as well as plants, animals, and psychological factors that affect work performance and safety.