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Welcome to the Forest Service: A Guide for Volunteers

Safety (continued)

Plants, Insects, and Snakes

Encounters with toxic plants, stinging and biting insects, or poisonous snakes can put a damper on the volunteer experience. Awareness is the first step toward prevention and treatment.

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

All three of these plants (figure 21) emit an oil called urushiol. This oil is the toxin that makes you itch. The oil is present on the leaves, stems, and roots of these plants whether they are live, dried up, or dead.

This image is made up of three seperate photos. The top left photo is a small poison ivy plant. The middle photo is of three poison oak plants close to the ground. The third photo is of a few branches of a poison sumac bush.
Figure 21—(top) Eastern poison ivy. Courtesy of Chris Evans,
River to River Cooperative Weed Management Area, Illinois;
(middle) Atlantic poison oak. Courtesy of David J. Moorhead, University of Georgia;
(bottom) Poison sumac. Courtesy of Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society.
All photos from

If these plants burn, the oil vaporizes and is carried in the smoke. Breathing the fumes can threaten the lives of some individuals.

The only places where you won't encounter these toxic plants are Hawaii, Alaska, the rain forests of Washington, and some desert areas in the West.

When working in areas with toxic plants:

  • Know how to recognize toxic plants and avoid them.
  • Provide and apply a barrier lotion (such as Ivy Block) with 5-percent bentoquatam.
  • Wear appropriate field attire, including a longsleeved shirt, long pants, and socks.
  • Fasten pant legs securely over boot tops.
  • Wear gloves and keep them away from your face and other exposed areas of the body. Do not touch your skin with hands, clothes, or equipment that may have contacted toxic plants.
  • Do not wash with soap and/or hot water because doing so can remove the natural protective oils from your skin.

First aid:

  • Whenever your skin contacts a toxic plant, wash the area with cold water as soon as possible.
  • If symptoms appear (inflammation and a rash), apply topical ointments, such as calamine lotion or zinc oxide, for relief from itching.


Ticks carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tick paralysis, Lyme disease, tularemia, and relapsing fever (figure 22).

Magnified photo of a blacklegged tick resting on a green plant leaf.
Figure 22—Blacklegged tick. Courtesy of Scott Bauer,
USDA Agricultural Research Service,

When working in an area likely to have ticks:

  • Wear light-colored clothing that fits tightly at the wrists, ankles, and waist. Each outer garment should overlap the one above it. Cover trouser legs with high socks or boots and tuck shirttails inside trousers.
  • Spray clothes with an insect repellent.
  • Search your body repeatedly, especially areas with hair and inside your clothing, because ticks usually are on you for several hours before they become firmly attached.

First aid:

  • Remove ticks with fine-tipped tweezers or your fingers. Grasp the tick as close as possible to the point of attachment and pull straight up, applying gentle pressure. Wash the skin with soap and water, then cleanse with rubbing alcohol. Do not try to remove the tick by burning it with a match or covering it with chemical agents. If the tick's head detaches and breaks off in your skin or if the tick cannot be removed, seek medical attention.
  • Once the tick has been removed, place it in an empty container so it can be given to a physician if you experience a reaction. Record the dates of tick exposure and removal. A large red spot at the bite is an early sign of trouble. Reactions within 2 weeks of the bite of an infected tick include fever, chills, headache, joint and muscle ache, significant fatigue, and facial paralysis. If you observe any of these symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.


In areas infested with chiggers (figure 23):

Photo of a red chigger crawling across dirt and tree litter.
Figure 23—Chigger. Courtesy of Susan Ellis,

  • Apply insect spray according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Do not sit on the ground or on logs.
  • Avoid walking through low vegetation, if possible.
  • Bathe in hot, soapy water after leaving these areas.

First aid:

  • Keep the affected area clean by washing with soap and water.
  • Apply a topical hydrocortisone cream, antihistamine, or local anesthetic to help reduce the itching.
  • Try not to scratch, if possible. Clip your fingernails short to limit the damage you might do while scratching.
  • If you develop signs of infection, consult your physician.

Bees, Wasps, and Fire Ants

Some individuals are sensitized to bee (figure 24a) and wasp stings (figure 24b) and fire ant bites (figure 24c). They may react with a widespread rash, asthmatic breathing, swollen tissue, a drop in blood pressure, or even loss of consciousness. Volunteers with a history of allergic reactions to insect stings and bites should:

Photo of a honey bee resting on a bright pink flower.
Figure 24a—Honey bee. Courtesy of David Cappaert,
Michigan State University,

Photo of a wasp.
Figure 24b—Paper wasp. Courtesy of David Cappaert,
Michigan State University,

Magnified photo of a red fire ant crawling on a grass stem.
Figure 24c—Red imported fire ant. Courtesy of

  • Inform their supervisor.
  • Carry epinephrine prescribed by a physician (be aware of the expiration date).
  • Wear medical identification tags.

In areas with bees, wasps, or fire ants:

  • Wear light-colored field attire.
  • Avoid wearing scent of any kind. Bees communicate by scent and tend to be very sensitive to odors.
  • Avoid nests. Never poke or throw objects at nests.
  • Shield your face with your arms if you are attacked by insects. Run until you reach shelter or the insects leave.

First aid:

  • Apply a cold pack.
  • Remove the stinger by scraping or brushing it off with a sharp-edged instrument. Do not use tweezers to remove a stinger. The venom sac may be attached, so squeezing could worsen the injury.
  • Seek medical attention if necessary.


When working in areas where you may encounter snakes (figures 25a and 25b):

Photo of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake coiled up.
Figure 25a—Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Courtesy of
Jeffrey J. Jackson, University of Georgia,

Photo of a timber rattlesnake moving across a gravel bed.
Figure 25b—Timber rattlesnake. Courtesy of
Jeffrey J. Jackson, University of Georgia,

  • Wear tall boots or protective snake-proof leggings.
  • Be alert when walking through thick underbrush or areas obscured by foliage. Walk slowly and give snakes time to move out of your way.
  • Be careful when placing your feet and hands. Never put your hands under any stored material. Be especially cautious when moving rocks.
  • Probe areas with a hiking stick or long-handled tool before stepping over logs or piles of brush or debris.

First aid:

  • Stay calm. Snake bites in the United States are rarely fatal when medical care is sought early and appropriate antivenin is available.
  • If you are bitten on an extremity, immobilize it and seek medical assistance. Do not use a tourniquet.
  • Walk slowly if you are alone when bitten, resting periodically and using a makeshift crutch if the bite is on a lower extremity. Keep activity to a minimum.

Spiders and Scorpions

Few spiders in the United States can cause serious injury or death and even then, only in rare cases. The black widow (figure 26a) and brown recluse (figure 26b) are among the few. Both prefer dark, out-of-the-way places where they are seldom disturbed. Another dangerous spider is the aggressive house spider (also known as the hobo spider, figure 26c), usually found on ground or lower floors, especially in cool, moist window wells and basements. Its bite can be serious and requires immediate medical attention.

Photo of a black widow spider weaving a web.
Figure 26a—Black widow spider. Courtesy of Sturgis McKeever,
Georgia Southern University,

Photo of a brown recluse spider crawling through sand.
Figure 26b—Brown recluse spider. Courtesy of Division of Plant Industry Archive,
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,

Photo of an aggressive house spider crawling across cement.
Figure 26c—Aggressive house spider. Courtesy of
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

Scorpion (figure 27) stings can be serious and in rare cases, lethal. Scorpions are nocturnal. Most live aboveground, hiding during the day in old stumps, lumber piles, firewood, loose bark on fallen trees, ground debris, or crevices.

Photo of a scorpion with pincers bared.
Figure 27—Scorpion. Courtesy of Clemson University,
USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

When you are working in areas with scorpions and spiders, take the following precautions:

  • Do not leave work gloves, boots, jackets, or hats on the ground.
  • Inspect sleeping pads, tarps, or other ground covers before use.
  • Inspect and shake out clothing before you put it on.
  • Inspect outdoor toilets before using them.
  • Inspect logs, stumps, rocks, and any other areas before sitting on them.
  • Wear gloves when moving or handling lumber, firewood, trash, rocks, or debris that could harbor spiders or scorpions.

Symptoms of a spider bite include:

  • Severe pain and swelling around the bite
  • Migraine headaches and impaired vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness and tiredness
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Profuse sweating and salivation
  • Irregular heart rhythms

Symptoms of a scorpion sting include:

  • Rapid inflammation and pain around the sting
  • Chills, fever, and joint pains
  • Nausea and vomiting

First aid:

  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cold pack.
  • Seek medical care as soon as possible (treatment may include antivenin).