Safe Soil Handling

25 Aug, 2021

Gardening is one of New Zealand’s most popular leisure activities. It is a sustainable hobby that helps you appreciate nature as you grow your own plants. However, despite its peaceful and healthy image, there are some risks involved in gardening. This easy-to-follow safety guide will help you navigate potential risks hiding just beneath the surface.

Organisms in soil, mulches, composts, or potting mixes

Wash your hands thoroughly after working with soil and soil-like products such as mulch, compost and potting mix. Soil contains many organisms that are essential for your plants to grow well. However, there are also unwelcome organisms such as tetanus and legionella. These can be found in garden soils and composted organic material, including commercially prepared potting mix and soil conditioners. These products can be reinfected even after sterilisation.


Tetanus is a severe illness at any age. Animal manures may contain this organism, and it can be picked up through broken skin and puncture wounds.

  • Keep cuts, scratches and grazes covered when working in the garden. Make sure that any injuries are immediately and thoroughly cleaned.
  • The tetanus vaccine has been given to children since 1960. If you have not had a course of three doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccine as a child or adult, see your doctor or a practising nurse. Adults need a booster of the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine at ages 45 and 65.
  • Doctors may recommend an additional booster shot when examining a deep or dirty wound.


Legionellosis ( or Legionnaires’ disease) is a form of pneumonia that is caused by the bacteria, legionella. You can catch the disease by inhaling airborne droplets or particles containing the bacteria. There has been no reported person-to-person spread of legionellosis.

The illness may be mild or severe and can sometimes be fatal. It is more common in older people, particularly if they smoke, have poor immunity, or have a chronic illness. Those with compromised immune systems are at increased risk of infection.

To reduce the risk of exposure to legionella:

  • Minimise the amount of dust when working in the garden
  • Water your garden and indoor plants using a gentle spray
  • Read the warning on bags of composted potting mixes
  • Wear gloves when handling soil, mulches, compost or potting mix
  • Wear a face mask when opening bags or using potting mix and compost to avoid inhaling dust
  • Open bags of soil products or composted potting mixes slowly and away from the face
  • Dampen potting mixes before use
  • Make sure the working area (glasshouse, potting shed) is well ventilated
  • Avoid touching your face when handling soil, compost or potting mix
  • Always wash your hands after handling soil, compost or potting mix, even if gloves have been worn. See your doctor immediately if you develop a flu-like illness that is worsening. Antibiotics are effective against legionellosis if given early.

See your doctor immediately if you develop a flu-like illness that is worsening. Antibiotics are effective against legionellosis if given early.

Information provided by the Ministry of Health

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