There’s no question that climbing trees safely is a highly-technical endeavor. There are a variety of different approaches as far as techniques and equipment that can be used, with individual climbers sometimes adding their own personal twists on things. But there are some key safety rules that all climbers should abide by, says Kevin Myers, CTSP, an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist and certified utility specialist who conducts arborist training programs with ACRT, Inc.
This starts with a basic pre-climb inspection of the tree, something that climbers often forget or neglect to do. “I see the pre-climb inspection as one of the most important aspects of the climb,” emphasizes Myers, a recipient of the 2016 Utility Arborist Association’s Silver Shield Award. “As silly as it sounds, climbers should be looking for any reason not to climb a given tree.”
Such an inspection involves aspects such as “looking for electrical conductors, tree condition, hangers, decay and insect nests,” Myers says. “Additionally, climbers should conduct an inspection of their climbing equipment (i.e. rope, saddle, carabiners, etc.).” Myers adds that it’s not enough for the climber alone to understand how to properly operate all this equipment; at least one other person on the crew needs to know how to operate the climbing system in case an aerial rescue becomes necessary.
Myers says the pre-climb inspection should be coupled with precise planning for how the job will be done, including the order of work (step one, step two, etc.), which limbs are removed in what order, which side of the tree to climb on first and pause points at which the grounds crew has an opportunity to clean up some of the debris.
That latter point — about the climber and ground support working together as a team — is critical both for efficiency and safety, says Myers: “Good communication between climber and ground crew is a huge part of crew safety,” he says. “You can tell when there is good synergy on a crew because the groundsman seems to know exactly what the climber is about to do and often will have a rope, chain saw, block, etc., ready for the climber before he asks for it. But a safety risk can also develop if the climber or groundsman changes the work plan without communicating it to the other.”
In his observations, Myers sees several common safety-related mistakes made by climbers, some of whom are new to climbing and others who have years of experience, but may or may not have ever received comprehensive training. New climbers, for example, often focus only on obtaining the highest tie-in point, without necessarily being able to verify what exactly they are tied in to, he says.
For veteran climbers, “The most common safety-related mistakes are due to complacency and/or an unwillingness to change bad habits, while other climbers have never been taught a safer way to climb,” Myers notes, citing practices such as drop-starting a chain saw and operating it with one hand, climbing above the tie-in point, forgetting command-response, not maintaining positive control of wood being removed and not wearing proper personal protective equipment.
Whether minor or more serious, injuries can occur in tree care work even when the best safety practices are followed. For this reason, Myers says it’s essential that a high-quality first-aid kit — one designed for the forestry industry — be on-hand on every tree care job and that crews receive proper first aid/CPR training.
And when climbing is involved, there are even more criteria on the emergency response checklist. “We encounter numerous two-man crews where the ground worker has no aerial rescue training,” observes Myers. “We have also encountered times where the ground worker has been trained in aerial rescue, but a second set of climbing gear isn’t available for conducting a rescue. Blood-stopper kits, which can act as a small first aid kit if you add a couple Band-Aids and a soft tourniquet, can hang on your saddle and be very useful in a rescue situation.”