It’s no secret in the tree industry that accidents and fatalities happen all too often, and rare is the month that goes by without a number of deaths being reported. This is often explained “away” by the dangerous nature of the work. The tree care profession is certainly a calling that has its share of hazards, but calling the work “dangerous” implies that there is not a great deal that the workers and managers can do to prevent the high number of accidents, injuries and deaths, and that is simply not the case.

In other industries and even sports, one death or serious injury is often the basis for a groundswell of ideas, changes and, yes, even new regulations. Yet the tree care industry carries on, in many cases seeming to accept the deaths and injuries simply as a cost of doing business.

While every risk and hazard from the average tree work site cannot be completely eliminated, the reality is that tree care professionals as individuals, company leadership and the industry as a whole could do a great deal more to prevent deaths and injuries. A discussion of all of the changes that would be required — in effect a cultural transformation of tree care — is far beyond the scope and space available for this column, but one small component of making tree care safer, and one that if implemented by all present tree care crews would help a great deal, is an emergency preparedness plan and training system.

It may seem overly simplistic, but the best preparation for an emergency, accident or injury, is to simply avoid one in the first place. Simple things like wearing the required personal protective equipment (PPE), training and knowledge in proper chain saw use, chipper safety, regular electrical hazard awareness training, and all the other components of safe, efficient tree care can go a long way toward preventing an emergency from ever happening. These components need to not only be present and available, but also modeled and enforced by company leaders. A sales arborist who always tells crews to wear hard hats, and then blithely walks through work sites without one on is not sending the right message. Safe and efficient work practices will do a great deal to make an emergency less likely, but crews must be prepared if one occurs. A lack of preparation, as has been stated many times, cannot help but lead to particularly poor performance; and when Johnny’s bleeding out from a chain saw laceration how the crew performs is critical. Fortunately, implementing an emergency preparedness plan is not an insurmountable obstacle. An understanding of a few basic components and concepts can assist crews in developing a plan that makes the most sense for their particular work style and environments.

An example of a bloodstopper bandage that fits in the pocket of chaps or chain saw pants Photo: Michael Tain

Going up and getting ’em

Rescuing an injured climber aloft or in an aerial lift is often what most folks think about when they consider emergency preparedness. While this subject is an important part of the topic, it is not, and should not be, the sole focus.

Dr. John Ball’s statistical analysis of tree care injuries and fatalities shows that ground personnel are most often the victims, rather than those that are aloft. Responsible tree care leaders should use this information to develop their emergency preparedness plans. Aerial rescue also often focuses on speed and particular scenarios; this can lead to training accidents and injuries as well as a false sense of preparation. Speed should never be the focus of aerial rescue training; and in the “real world,” unless the climber is not breathing and has no pulse, the focus should be on stabilizing them in place as much as possible until the arrival of emergency medical professionals. Movement to the ground may certainly be undertaken, but only if their condition demands it or the rescuer has enough emergency medical knowledge and training to determine that further damage or even death will not be a result. In addition, focusing the training on “competition” scenarios can lead to the previously mentioned false sense of preparation.

Companies should focus aerial rescue training on the type of climbing systems or equipment regularly used by the crews. Knowing how to rescue a stranded footlocking climber is not going to be all that helpful to a crew that does line clearance with aerial lifts or primarily does spur takedowns.

Fixing ’em for the short term

While a company can meet the standards and regulations with a basic first aid kit in the truck, this will likely be a case of meeting the letter of the law and not the spirit of it should a true tree care emergency occur, with the end result being a lot of lost blood and a poorly functioning patient.

The average tree care work site is full of objects that fall from heights and equipment that can crush and chop woody debris and cut through live oak at a high rate of speed. Pinky bandages and a bottle of eyewash, though useful at times, are not going to be all that helpful if a crew member comes into contact with any of those objects. The training of the crew members will obviously dictate what items can be included in an “expanded” first aid kit, but items such as coagulating agents for big bleeds, compression bandages, and folding cervical collars for possible neck injuries should all be considered. A “quick fix” for crew members running saws out and away from the truck is a blood stopper type bandage that can fit in the pocket of chaps or chain saw pants and can be used on the ground or aloft to get a laceration under control. This allows the injured person to treat himself fairly quickly, and may, in some cases, prevent the need for an elaborate rescue plan.

Planning for ’em

The emergency preparedness plan, in its simplest form, is the general idea of how a particular crew will respond when bad things happen. It should include, at the least, different assignments for different crew members, including a single point of contact (SPOC), the person who’ll be in charge, along with a backup SPOC in case the designated one is the one injured. Other assignments should include someone in charge of contacting emergency response, folks responsible for rescue or victim care, and other tasks that may be part of a given emergency. As an example, if the crew is doing something that involves hazardous materials, somebody needs to be in charge of containment.

The idea behind the plan is not that every possible occurrence is covered, but that all crew members have a good idea of their role if something happens, along with some training or practice in how to respond. This preparation will reduce the confusion and panic that can arise during an emergency. Confusion and panic lead to wasted time; and time in the event of an emergency is not money, but lost blood or tissue.

Practicing aerial rescue in actual work scenarios is an important part of emergency preparedness. Photo: Michael Tain

How to respond to ’em

A lot of tree work takes place in settings where emergency medical help is just a phone call away, though it can be dependent on coverage and other issues. However, unlike grandma being unresponsive on the couch in front of “The Price is Right,” tree workers can present unique and unusual challenges to emergency medical services (EMS). The victim might be up in a tree, where a ladder truck or other equipment cannot reach them, or back on a narrow trail where everything has to be “packed in.” In any case, tree crews need to be trained and ready to either reach the victim on their own and stabilize them, or assist EMS in doing so. While these skills are heading toward the same goal — saving a fellow crew member — they can require quite different skills, and as such may require some specialized training.

They’re up there and we’re down here

As mentioned earlier, aerial rescue is part of emergency preparedness, but not the only part. While it might seem fairly simple to get up to a climber and bring them down, those who have carried out this type of rescue in the real world will tell you that the addition of a fair amount of blood, torn flesh and/or varying degrees of consciousness can make this a challenging exercise. There are a large number of training courses available in aerial rescue from organizations such as Arboriculture Canada Training and Education (ACTE), ArborMaster, ACRT and North American Training Solutions (NATS). All provide techniques and methods appropriate to different climbing systems, scenarios and equipment.

They’re bleeding and we’re not

It is highly recommended that every crew member be trained in CPR and basic first aid at a minimum. This training is available through the Red Cross in most areas. However, this basic training is just that, basic; and the medical challenges of many tree care injuries or accidents will quickly overwhelm this knowledge base in many circumstances. More advanced training, such as a First Responder or Wilderness First Responder, is also readily available in most areas, and while it is more costly, it will certainly pay for itself in the event of a serious injury or accident.

The topic of emergency preparedness is one that individual companies or tree care professionals can try to ignore, or pay “lip service” to, but they do so at their own peril. The culture of tree care in regard to accidents and injuries needs to change. We have all lost far too many good friends and colleagues already, and if we don’t adequately prepare for the next emergency, we will lose more.