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Working safely with soil

Landscapers are at risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease through their contact with soil, compost, and potting mix. This article provides advice from WorkSafe on how employers and workers can protect themselves and prevent dangerous bacteria from being inhaled at work

Legionnaires’ disease (legionellosis) is a lung condition with symptoms similar to pneumonia, such as coughing, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, and headaches.

If untreated, the disease can become severe and require hospital treatment and, in some cases, death. The time between exposure and experiencing the symptoms above is typically five to six days.

People more at risk of contracting legionellosis are those who are older, smoke or drink heavily, or who have chronic lung disease or other underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, or kidney failure.

How to prevent legionellosis

The most common way workers can be infected is by breathing in bacteria-contaminated dust or liquid droplets. These bacteria can be inhaled particularly when working with soil, compost or potting mix products that

generate dust and/or mist.

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) must eliminate risks that arise from their work so far as is reasonably practicable. If a risk can’t be eliminated, it must be minimised.

The following measures can help minimise risk:

  • Water gardens and composts gently, using a low-pressure hose.

  • Store bags of potting mix out of direct sunlight. When stored in the sunlight, the temperature inside the bags can range from 20-40°C, making it ideal for Legionella bacteria to grow.

  • Wear gloves when handling soil, compost or potting mix.

  • Open bags of composted potting mix slowly, directing the opening away from the face to avoid inhaling the mix.

  • Avoid opening bags in enclosed areas.

  • When working in greenhouses, potting sheds or indoors, make sure that the working area is well ventilated.

  • When potting plants, wet the soil to reduce dust.

  • Provide a clean-up kit with instructions, disposable respirators, water mist bottle, brush and shovel set, plastic bags and tape to seal the bags and ensure workers know how to use the kit.

  • Wash hands carefully after handling soil and before eating, drinking, smoking or placing hands near the face.

Preference should be given to control measures that protect multiple people at once.

If the PCBU or their workers believe there is still risk after the above measures have been implemented, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) should be considered. Suitable RPE is certified respirators such as P2 disposable masks or rubber half face masks. These masks must be fit tested, so they fit properly to the worker’s face.

A PCBU must also provide training on how to correctly use, wear, store and maintain equipment like face masks.

WorkSafe is New Zealand’s primary workplace health and safety regulator. For more information on safe practice at work, including this topic, visit


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