Accurate, concise communication is absolutely necessary for safe, efficient job flow during arboricultural operations. Here are a few tools and techniques to aid in overall communication, both on the ground with the client and in the treetops. Often a clear statement of expectations for all involved is the one thing it takes to turn a normal job into an exceptional one, or make a hazardous job safe.

When it comes to the system of communication a crew chooses for internal communication, it should incorporate a command and response system. This is to say that when a worker gives a command such as “stand clear,” another worker should answer with an “all clear” response. The first worker will take no action until the response is given and understood.

When it comes to client or external communication, a thorough, understandable work order is necessary. Without clear expectations laid out in advance, the needs of the tree, the client and the crew will rarely align. Safe, efficient job flow that meets or exceeds client expectations should be the goal of every job.

A documented work order will go a long way to satisfying the client and the crew. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT

A documented work order will go a long way to satisfying the client and the crew. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT

Plan your work—work your plan

A tree job begins with a plan. A well laid out plan can help eliminate confusion before it starts. Having enough room for all the equipment, the proper tools and qualified personnel are vital. Start each and every job with a pre-job briefing and site inspection. An acronym you may find useful is H.O.P.E.

The letter “H” stands for hazards. These are defined by anything that may interfere with the safety of the crew. A common job site hazard is electrical lines. Defining the location of hazards and establishing a protocol for how to safely work around them beforehand eliminates the struggle of having to communicate safety standards or work processes during the job.

The “O” is for obstacles. These are things that can be broken or get in the way. Examples of obstacles range from pedestrian traffic to swimming pools. In many cases, obstacles can be moved. Other times obstacles demand that the crew alter the work plan. An example of this is the decision to lower limbs as opposed to just letting them free-fall because an obstacle, such as a patio, is in the drop zone.

Obstacles are often small and hidden. Clear communication with the client will help discover these. What seems an insignificant plant or lawn ornament to the crew may, in fact, have great value to the client. In the end, a mistakenly crushed plant, sidewalk or septic field will always eclipse even the best tree work in the client’s eyes. Discuss the client’s concerns and expectations. Involve them in the planning process either directly or indirectly. The job will go smoother, and the end result will please everybody.

This brings us to the letter “P” for plan. The crew must develop an appropriate plan, keeping all hazards and obstacles in mind. The plan should maximize job flow, but adhere to safety standards and protocol. Deciding beforehand who is to do what and when will go a long way to increasing productivity as well as safety. A team member that has a clearly defined series of tasks and understands how to complete them is an effective member of the crew, adding to the final product.

The letter “E” stands for equipment. A properly equipped and skilled crew is a pleasure to watch. A well laid out plan complements the equipment and space available. Pre-placed equipment helps with a seamless work flow. Sometimes equipment will need to be moved. Add this dynamic to your job briefing and communicate it clearly. The time to get your point across is before the decibels rise and the brush and chips start flying.

A5560_1Hand signals

  • When on the jobsite, even the best-laid plans, prepared with meticulous care, can go awry. A system for communicating changes and/or new hazards as they develop is vital.
  • Consider using a set of pre-established hand signals. A hand signal can be as simple as a wave to let the climber know you have secured the lowering line.
  • Long, drawn-out hand signals should be avoided—the chances of misinterpreting a signal rise with its complexity.
  • The crane industry has an excellent set of simple, clear hand signals to use when operating a crane. These signals can easily be adapted to fit many tree work scenarios whether using a crane or not.
  • Whichever hand signals are used, remember to keep them simple, concise and clear.
  • Be consistent in their use.
  • Use the signals whenever necessary and use the same signals.
  • Halfway through a critical lowering scenario over a client’s home is not the time to develop a new technique.
Make sure the proper equipment is on the job and the crew knows how to use it. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT

Make sure the proper equipment is on the job and the crew knows how to use it. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT


Noisemakers such as whistles can be used for communications. A preset number of whistle blasts can mean any number of things. For instance, two blasts are “stand clear” and one is “all clear.” The crew should keep in mind that while a tree crew may understand these audible signals, a pedestrian will not. Their use for external communication is limited.

Whistles are also useful when the crew is spread out over a large area and a climber needs to attract the attention of another crew member. Not only will a whistle blast be louder and carry farther, it sounds a lot more professional than a shout.


Many companies offer helmet-mounted systems that are appropriate for tree work. The ability to talk clearly with specific equipment operators and crew members without shutting down machinery or interrupting job flow is priceless. Headsets also add the advantage of being able to alert other crew members of new or ongoing hazards and/or obstacles. If day-to-day operations find your crew in high-noise environments with multiple pieces of equipment running to complete the job, then look for a quality set of radio headsets.

There are several features to research before purchasing headsets: range, privacy and ease of use. If headsets are only going to be used on small, close-knit job sites, then range is not a factor. However, if your crew will be spread out, or if you are using the headsets for traffic control, too short a range can hamper clear communication.

Many headsets work on the same frequency as cordless phones and baby monitors. Buy a set with as many different channel selections as you can. Nothing is more confusing than hearing an unrelated phone call between two strangers in the middle of a delicate crane pick. Not waking up the client’s infant during naptime is also a big step in good customer relations.

Quality headsets can vastly improve safety and efficiency. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT, tree crew communication

Quality headsets can vastly improve safety and efficiency. PHOTO: TONY TRESSELT

Finally, look for ease of use. Make sure that the channel can be changed easily to avoid the problems listed above. The headsets should fit firmly to the hard hat or underneath existing hearing protection. Many models are push to talk, meaning the operator must push a button to speak with co-workers. This is fine, but voice-activated units, especially for workers whose hands are already full, add a lot of convenience and value.

In the fast-paced, noisy world of production tree work, communication is vital. Laying out thorough, well-suited work plans, addressing hazards and obstacles before they become an issue, and developing systems for clear communications is important for safety, as well as efficient work flow. These are examples of internal communications amongst a crew.

External communications are just as important. The client may have a different set of goals or standards than the crew. Include client concerns in your job briefing, and be sure they have a clear, realistic set of expectations for the work to be completed. Misunderstandings and unrealistic goals are best ironed out beforehand. In the end, it is client satisfaction that defines a well-completed job. Work together as a team to solve communication issues just as you work together to complete a job. We will all be safer and more productive for it.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue and has been updated for accuracy.

Connect with Tree Services: Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter