Does your child keep a messy room? If so, whose fault is it? Is it the child’s fault for not cleaning it up? Or is it the parents’ fault for allowing it to get to that point? Certainly there are differing points of view as to the correct answer, but one school of thought says it’s definitely the fault of the parents. After all, the parents are (supposed to be) in charge. If a child is allowed to keep a messy room with no consequences, it stands to reason the room is likely to be kept messy.

Think of safety in tree care same way. That’s the message Bruce Mellott relayed during his presentation titled “The Human Element for Better Safety Performance” on Aug. 27 at the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) International Conference and Trade Show in Fort Worth, Texas. Mellott, the vice president of safety for Asplundh Tree Expert Co., explained that optimal safety practices and accident/incident prevention is much more than a set of rules and procedures to follow — and he emphasized throughout the presentation that safe operations always start at the top with management.

“Safety is about setting standards, explaining expectations and holding crew members to those,” Mellott explained. “If [management] allows poor safety practices, they will happen. But, because a manger allowed it to get to that point, they can also fix it. They can change it; it’s within their control.”

Mellott cited research that says 84 to 94 percent of all human error is attributed to “processes, program issues or organizational issues.” Meaning most errors that occur aren’t the fault of the person who committed them. “When something happens, some companies look for someone to hold responsible, so they hold the person who got hurt responsible,” Mellott said. “That’s dumb. Odds are, it’s not that individual that caused the problems. Yes, sometimes it is. But more often than not, it’s something else.”

Mellott, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Tulane University, said that compliance-based systems (very common in industries like arboriculture) go against human nature. “It’s not in our nature to follow rules,” he said. “While rules, policies and procedures are all important, they don’t get us where we need to be, from a safety standpoint. They don’t keep your workers safe, they don’t keep my workers safe. We have to look at it differently.”

“Looking at it differently,” as Mellott said, involves using human performance as a science or a tool to get inside the minds of employees (from the perspective of a manger). In other words, figuring out “why we do what we do, and the way we do it,” Mellott said.

Other points and topics Mellott discussed in his presentation included:

Process issues: Mellott advised that each piece of equipment in a tree care business should have documented procedures for operation — and that employees should be held to following the procedures.

“Take chippers, for example,” Mellott said. “There are different models and makes — they’re all kind of similar, but each has its differences. They all operate a little differently. We owe it to the folks that work for us to check out the particular unit they’re working on, to provide proper safety and operational procedures for each.”

New employees: Simply put, “When there’s a new person in the crew, stick with them for a while to make sure they’re not a harm to themselves or to others,” he said.

Changes in attitude: Remember when you were newly hired at your job? Odds are, at that time there was a high level of excitement and you probably had a positive attitude.

But, as Mellott explained, that often changes over time. A poor attitude can negatively affect your performance, which can result in accidents — and it’s not necessarily your fault. “You come to work wanting to do a good job, with the rare exceptions,” he said. “People are proud of what they do and take pride in what they do. But people get sour attitudes on the job, because employers allow it to happen. For instance, take a new job. You’re excited to start, but you may see some things that could be improved upon. So you make a suggestion, ‘Maybe we should do it this way?’ Your boss may listen once or twice and maybe they change one or two things, and it makes you feel good. But what often happens is, over time, bosses stop listening. All of a sudden, you tell them about something that needs to be fixed, and they forget or ignore you. Now, all of a sudden, your attitude is different. That’s not the employee’s issue. The company (the employee’s boss) caused it.”

The Root of the Problem: Mellott explained that the closer you are to a problem, “the more likely you are to have the answer.” He expounded on that point by explaining how it works at Asplundh, one of the largest utility line clearance companies in the world. “Asplundh is a big company,” he said. “I know I don’t have most of the answers to most of the problems. If I want to find out what’s really going on, or I need some ideas on how to really fix something, I go into the field and talk to the men and women who are doing the work, running the equipment and climbing the trees. Nine times out of 10, they have the answers. All I have to do is ask.”

Focus on the job, or lack thereof: Accidents and injuries occur for many different reasons, one of which is that someone may not be 100 percent focused on the task at hand. In other words, distractions — like problems at home and worrying about paying the mortgage — can be disastrous. “Time pressure is also a big one,” Mellott added. “If you’re behind on a job, that puts pressure on people that isn’t intended. But it’s there, and it’s real. People work differently under pressure.” Mellott also illustrated that even though multitasking can be efficient, it’s not always ideal in terms of being safe on the job. “When we’re trying to do too many at things at once, it trips us up,” he said. “We may forget some steps in a process or a procedure. Most of the time we can get away with it, but not always.”

Stopping can be good: Sometimes, as Mellott articulated, rather than pushing through a task you’re not comfortable doing or unsure how to do properly, it’s better to stop and assess the situation. “If things don’t look right, stop,” he advised. “Make sure you’re in a safe place to stop, first. Then, take a break and come back to it later. When something doesn’t seem quite right, or the data isn’t adding up, stop and have a conversation about it with a fellow crew member.”

Communication is critical: One easy way to prevent accidents is to simply talk to each other, Mellott said. This includes briefings before and after the job, as well as constant communication during the job. “In line clearance work, [pre and post] briefings are a requirement,” he said. “Before we pull any tools off the truck, everyone on the crew gets together and we have a conversation. We go over what we’re doing, what hazards are on the site, who’s doing what and making sure we’re all on same page. It’s all about the conversation. You can even do them after lunch. They only need to be three- to five-minute meetings, when you get really good at it. Also, when doing tree removals, before you make the hazardous cuts, have the conversation again. Talk about who’s the feller, where the escape routes are and where people will be placed.” Regarding reviewing a job after it’s been completed, Mellor said this can be done “at the site, in the truck or back at shop. Simply have a five- minute conversation about what went well and what didn’t. Not all jobs go the way they’re supposed to. We can learn from doing this, and learning is the only way we can prevent further injuries.”

PPE: Personal protective equipment will always be the foundation of safety in tree care. “Make sure everyone is dressed the way they’re supposed to be dressed,” Mellott cautioned. “Check your co-workers. Tell them, ‘I’m not going to let you get hurt. We’re an extra set of eyes for each other.’ Is 99.9 percent good enough? No, it’s not good enough,” Mellott told the audience. “We have to be 100 percent when it comes to safety. Making mistakes is human, but we can keep the mistakes from causing harm to someone, property or the environment. It’s all about thinking differently.”