At one time, my son, Sam, worked on a trail crew for the forest service. The crews maintained hiking trails in eastern Oregon. When they worked in the designated wilderness areas, they weren’t allowed to use power equipment or chain saws. To reach the more remote areas, they traveled by horseback, which proved to be an interesting challenge.
During a particularly bad forest fire season, my son’s crew was called upon to assist the firefighters. Sam was given the task of driving a bus of smoke jumpers. I asked him what the smoke jumpers were like — “What kind of person jumps out of a perfectly good airplane and willingly falls into forest fires?”
Sam said, “They look normal enough. Most of them are older than you’d expect, in their late-thirties or forties.”
A little surprised, I replied, “Really?” I guess I was expecting Navy SEAL, commando types.
“To be honest,” Sam said, “the bus was usually pretty quiet. They didn’t say much or joke around.” Pausing, Sam added, “They’re all business.”
If you work at a tree care company, you, too, work in one of the most dangerous professions there is. Unfortunately, many statistics verify that grim truth. Commercial fishermen, tree workers and smoke jumpers are consistently listed as one of the 10 most dangerous jobs. Some years, we top that list.
The reason we do what we do is because there’s a law of physics that especially applies to our line of work — and it’s not the law of gravity. Actually, it’s the law of averages. Our jobs aren’t the place to throw caution to the wind. You can only pass on blind curves for so long, maybe even only once, before you become another highway statistic. Tree work isn’t a job for adrenaline junkies. Our occupation isn’t an extreme sport. Pushing the envelope is never good advice. If you’re careless or too cavalier about your job as a tree care professional, it’s only a matter of time before you get seriously hurt, or worse, hurt someone else.
As a result, certain words should never pass through our lips — including the phrase “Just go for it.”
I spoke that phrase only once.
The story goes like this: We were removing a large beech tree. We’d already removed the limbs and I was working my way down the main trunk, taking 8-foot sections at a time. At 50 feet high, the trunk made an awkward twist that made it difficult to properly set the lines. I was about to make an iffy cut and I knew it. Instead of reassessing my situation and working the problem, I mumbled to myself, “Just go for it.”
I notched another 8-foot piece and made my back-cut. The 30-inch diameter, one-ton log tipped one way, then another, and then fell — toward me. There was no escape and I braced myself for the impact.
The thud atop my head felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer. The top of my skull instantly went numb and I remember thinking, “Am I all right? Am I hurt? I should be hurt.”
I learned later that I’d set the lines too low for the ground crew to pull the log over in the right direction. Fortunately, the lines were set just high enough to catch the log at the last second. I only received a glancing blow. That “glancing blow” nearly took my life.
At the doctor’s office, I was told I’d suffered a concussion. The doctor then prescribed light duty for a week and instructed my wife to watch me closely for signs of brain swelling — vomiting, passing out, loss of memory. It was two weeks before I felt normal again. During that time all I wanted to do was sleep.
Everybody takes risks. We take them every day. Some are calculated. Some aren’t. And some we’re totally unaware of, until the passenger in our car says through gritted teeth, “You moron! Did you know you just ran a red light? Put that phone down while you drive!”
It’s one thing to risk ordering that new menu item at your favorite restaurant. It’s quite another to walk an oak limb 80-feet in the air. These risks are different because it’s all about the consequences if things go wrong. Therefore, the level of caution you take should be in direct proportion to those consequences. In our trade, we should always take calculated risks. Like the smoke jumpers, we should approach our work very seriously. We need to be professional to a fault, because for us, there’s little-to-no-room for error.
This column, however, shouldn’t be confused for a warning to be more careful. Telling tree workers to be more careful is a little like warning a trapeze artist not to fall. This column is about describing what being careful looks like.
In high-risk professions such as ours, being careful is knowing what will happen — every time. And if you think that expectation is unrealistic, you’re wrong.
Our decision to move forward on a job should be so well-calculated and so well-thought through that the outcome is sure. Certain operations need to be fail-proof. It’s why NASA goes to such extraordinary lengths to quadruple-check shuttle parts and operation procedures. Solutions must be 100 percent successful every time. They never, ever, “Just go for it.”
My walk-away message that day, and one I carried with me throughout the rest of my career, was to always have the solution prior to moving forward. If you don’t, stop what you’re doing until you do. If you do make a mistake, study the mistake and determine what you need to do different the next time to avoid repeating the mistake.
The people I most admire are people who work safely, who work cautiously and with a high degree of professionalism. I like tree people who know the outcome before they start.
This is a principle that can easily be forgotten in this extreme sport world we live in, where people who take crazy risks are so admired. I, on the other-hand, have grown to greatly admire cautious people. With over 30 years of experience in the tree care industry, I’ve seen quite enough injuries for one lifetime.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say, when it comes to taking risks, “The thrill is gone.”