“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” — Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin had sound advice for modern tree care operations. Many dangerous situations arise from lack of planning and failure to recognize hazards. To become proficient at dealing with tree work-related incidents one must anticipate them, prepare for worst-case scenarios, and avoid the situations and/or conditions that may lead you or your crew into them. The only “good” incident is one that you are prepared for, but that never happens.

Tree crews often spend time practicing aerial rescues and this is good. However, it is not enough and may not be the best use of time and training dollars to solely focus on emergencies aloft. Time and energy should also be spent practicing avoidance, recognizing hazards, and mitigating them whenever and wherever.

Spar pole rescues are difficult, and if this type of work is done, crews should be prepared. Photo: Tony Tresselt

This article will look at a few strategies and techniques to help a professional tree crew prepare, prevent and deal with emergencies in all aspects of production tree care. Specifically we will look at the three Ps: planning, practice and protocol. Each will help prepare and specify particular skills, habits and procedures to master.

Planning

The essence of success is preparation. Accidents by definition are unplanned events. By forecasting them and shuffling through the possible alternatives and outcomes a tree crew can learn to recognize hazards before they exist or become a problem. A simple example of this is electrical conductors. In accident reports dealing with electrocution, the people involved often state that they never knew the conductor was there. They failed to recognize the hazard. A prework inspection, particularly looking for electrical hazards, should be one of the earliest steps in a job briefing when a crew shows up on-site. Look for electrical hazards until they are identified or determined to be nonexistent.

Aerial rescue should be practiced a few times a year. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Electrical hazards are just one of many things a tree crew must look for and identify. Take time as a crew to determine what the most common hazards are. Do this away from the job and get everyone involved. Turn your list into an inspection sheet for use on an actual job. Then look for these hazards on a job site until you see them or determine that they are not present.

This personalization and customization accomplishes two things. First, it determines particular hazards for the type of work and area you work in. An arborist that never uses an aerial lift does not need to practice aerial lift setup procedures or rescues.

Second, by personalizing and involving the whole crew you gain the experience of all involved. Many hands make light work, and many eyes see more hazards. Also, if the crew using a pre-inspection sheet has helped develop it, the process will seem more useful and is more likely to be documented. The best safety practices in the world are useless if they are never implemented. Crew “buy in” is crucial, and having the crew develop the process and procedures they use is a good way to ensure it.

Practice

Regardless of intent, things can, and do, go wrong. A prepared tree crew can often mitigate hazards, identify problems and avert or avoid extreme situations through preemptive actions and preparations. Unfortunately, incidents happen. It is best to predict the most likely occurrences and prepare for them. Again, personalization is key. Identify the situations and incidents that may occur and practice the appropriate response to them. When it comes to aerial rescue, much time and emphasis is focused on the classic open canopy rescue. This is where the victim is suspended in a fairly open section of the tree at about 35 feet. The rescuer ascends and lowers the victim to the ground. This is fine, but may not be the most common situation your crew finds itself in.

Communication and visibility. Here the ground worker is in touch with the climber via a headset. The hi-vis shirt allows the climber to see where the ground man is. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Is the majority of your work pruning, removals, line clearance? Do you use aerial lifts? Do you often have multiple climbers in the same or nearby trees? Do you work in residential neighborhoods or along stretches of remote power line? These and many other questions should be answered and a custom list of scenarios developed for your crew to practice.

Research has shown that a climber trapped or pinned in a tree is a common rescue scenario. Does your crew have the equipment and skill to deal with this? When practicing rescue try to keep the crew members together that are likely to be together in the course of a normal workday. Use tools and equipment that are usually carried on the truck. The best tip, trick or first aid kit is useless if the crew does not have access to it. In an actual incident the crew is going to have to use whatever is on hand. It is best they use that, and only that, when preparing for the worst.

Take time to run through all likely possibilities. Aerial rescue gets all the attention, but cuts, slips, trip, falls, and struck-bys happen much more often on the ground. Is your crew prepared to deal with a vehicle accident? What if a client has a heart attack while the crew is on-site? Practice the appropriate response to ground-based emergencies as much if not more than incidents aloft.

Proper positioning of equipment for efficient material processing is key to safe work sites. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Protocol

As with all things routine, a proper protocol will go a long way to streamlining the process of emergency response for tree crews. Protocol is simply the pre-established way and/or order in which practiced procedures and tasks are carried out. Protocol helps ensure that tasks are done in the proper order. It also allows for a consistency in practice and real-time execution. Does the crew have a cell phone? Where is it on the truck? Do all the crew members know the physical address of the work site? Where are the first aid kit and fire extinguisher?

These and many more questions are addressed by protocol. Always having the address of the job site in a consistent, easily accessible location with a cell phone that has coverage is often overlooked, but vital to getting emergency services to the site in a timely manner.

Knowing what information to give to emergency services is also key. Is it an incident at height? How high? Is the victim conscious? What special equipment may be required? Are electrical conductors involved? These and many other things all impact how and which emergency services respond. A script could be prepared and kept on the job site. If needed, someone could refer to it and compile the necessary info quickly to impart to a 911 operator or whoever the crew is communicating with.

Removing material like these large logs keeps the job site clear and, in the case of an emergency, accessible. Remember prepare a plan and execute. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Emergency services also have protocols when they arrive on scene. They may serve as a good example to base your own on. Furthermore, become familiar with them and you will be more of a help and less of a hindrance in the event of an actual emergency.

Tree work is a hazardous job. Forecasting possible mishaps, recognizing hazards early and preparing for the worst in all phases of our daily jobs can make us safer. Proper use of personal protective equipment, proper tools, and the skills to use both is vital. As is a rescue plan for common work situations both aloft and on the ground. Proper communication among the crew before and during a job aids hazard recognition. Proper communication with emergency services should an incident happen aids in the rescue. Through planning, practice and protocol your tree crew can remain safe, productive and prepared.