Health & safety in the garden

Information sheet

When working with children outside, or in contact with plants and soils, there are a few basic health and safety issues to bear in mind.

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s):

Things to remember when considering health and safety in the school garden

Before commencing work seek LEA (Local Education Authority)  or environmental health advice that the land is not contaminated. Even if your site is safe to use, it is worth remembering that soil contains many millions of bacteria and other micro-organisms. Most are harmless but some are potentially very dangerous. Try not to let children have contact with soil if they have a cut; ensure all children have an up-to-date tetanus inoculation; be vigilant that children are not sucking their fingers, and insist on good hand-washing. See more details in the RHS Risk Assessment Guidance document (link  below). 

Some plants can cause allergic reactions for some individuals (eg grasses can cause hayfever, rue can cause blisters); others have poisonous parts if eaten (laburnum seeds, potato fruits and fungi). Find out about some of these plants using the 'Checklist of potentially harmful plants'.

At certain times of the year, there will be a profusion of different insects – bees in spring and summer, wasps in summer and autumn, mosquitoes and midges in summer, red ants in spring, summer and autumn. Teach children to recognise these if they don’t already know them. You can use the 'Pollinating insects spotter guide' to help your children identify the difference between these insects. 

Cat, dog and fox faeces carry an extremely harmful micro-organism, Toxocara canis, which can cause blindness. Do not garden with children on areas likely to be visited by these animals.

Many people garden with chemicals, which are potentially harmful both to children and to wildlife. As a matter of principle, it is the best policy to allow no chemicals into the school gardening set-up.

Tools can be dangerous and are often designed to be used by adults. Do not take anything for granted. Children do not know how to handle, use or carry tools and need to be instructed.

Gardens will often be slippery - grass, wet soil, paths, decking etc all provide a hazard if children are not careful. Point this out regularly as a risk, or put signage in place. Get your children to make signs for these areas using the fun activity 'Make signs & labels'. 

School ponds should be fenced with restricted access. Consult your LEA for specific guidance. We have further advice available here

School Gardening Risk Assessment Guidance

Designated garden areas and classrooms for horticultural activities will vary from school to school. The purpose of the risk assessment guidance is to draw attention to hazards commonly encountered in the delivery of horticultural activities both in the garden and the classroom. It is vital to identify any other hazards and document what precautions and control measures are needed  before work begins. Schools should therefore use this guidance to produce their own bespoke risk assessment.

This is a general risk assessment guidance document covering gardening activities for the school year. This includes activities working alongside pupils as well as any planned teacher and/or parent training sessions. A site assessment can also be carried out for specific sessions (a copy of a site assessment form is at the end of this document for information).
The guidance may apply to all participating individuals, whether a RHS or school staff member, parent, helper, visitor/observer or pupil.

Please note that it is the school’s responsibility to carry out a risk assessment in regard of individual children and their suitability to take part in gardening activities, on each and every occasion.
The School can reserve the right to decline participation of individuals who may be at risk or who, in their opinion, are likely to cause harm to themselves or to others.

RHS Risk Assessment Guidance Document

Blank RHS Risk Assessment Document - use this to write your own risk assessment for sessions run in the garden. 

Don’t forgot to consider the weather

There are three main issues:

1. Strong sun - ensure children are correctly protected from the full glare of the sun.  Use hats, sunscreen, etc, but also have some shade available
2. Cold weather - do not be afraid to go outside for gardening because it is cold. If the children are properly dressed, in warm clothing and with extra socks and a pair of Wellington boots on, there is no reason for them to stay indoors just because it is cold. Do not let them stand around, keep them busy or moving.
3. Wet weather - if they are appropriately dressed, with shower-proof coats on and it is only a light shower, there should not be any problem. The difficulties arise when the rain is heavy or persistent, or the children are not adequately dressed - in this case, find an indoor activity.

Areas  of risk to consider when writing risk assessments

  Animal manures and soil infections
  Bees, wasps and insects
  Chemicals used in the garden
  Composting and mulching
  Fallen leaves
  Safe lifting and manual handling
  Plants and plant support
  Running children and school traffic
  Soil and tools
  Water, water butts and hoses

We've won awards!

Winner of the Drum Marketing Awards 2017
Winner of the ERA 2017 awards
Winner of the Third Sector 2017 awards