One of the hottest fitness trends in recent years is CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program based on functional movements — lifting heavy objects, moving loads over distance and striving to maximize output by accomplishing the greatest amount of work in the shortest time. All of this probably sounds familiar to those working in tree care.
Still, even in a business as physically demanding as tree care, it might be possible to take physical fitness for granted. Dr. John Ball, CTSP, professor of forestry at South Dakota State University, has pointed out that given the aerobic fitness and muscular strength requirements of the job, “tree workers really can be viewed as athletes, and this designation is not limited to just the climbers who compete in chapter or international competitions.”
Looking at those in the tree care industry as athletes is perhaps the best way to emphasize the important role that fitness plays in performance, including safety.
Dr. Martha Romero, CTSP, operates Holistic-Safety, Inc., a bilingual safety and health training company. She takes exactly that approach in her trainings. “I tell those working in tree care that, every day, they are like members of a sports team. The movements they make have to be the correct movements,” she explains.
Romero says that she often starts training programs with exercises she’s developed to help those working in construction, tree care and other similar professions prevent against developmental muscular and skeletal disorders, which she says are common on-the-job injuries.
In one exercise, for example, she teaches the proper technique for lifting, using the force of the legs and keeping the weight that is being lifted close to the body. When lifting away from their body, the force required can increase up to 10 times, she explains — a recipe for back injuries.
Romero says that a lack of fitness cannot only lead to a muscular or skeletal injury, but also can cause an accident. Someone who lacks fitness, for example, may have a difficult time maintaining proper balance when running a chain saw. Or they may have slower reaction times during critical operations at the end of a long day.
Similarly, studies have shown that a factor such as lack of sleep can diminish motor skills and cloud judgment, and that poor nutrition, which can lower energy levels, also can pose a danger (leading to increased risk of injury before lunch breaks when blood sugar may be low and dehydration may be present).
Romero emphasizes that, like the name of her company, safety requires a holistic approach. That means not just physical fitness but mental health, motivation and leadership. “These are all very, very important to preventing injuries,” she says. It can be more difficult for a company to help address these issues with their employees, but it’s important to recognize that everyone has distractions that they deal with — family issues, or cultural and language barriers, for example — that can take their focus off working safely.
Another factor the Romero stresses in her training classes for tree care workers: the importance of warming up. “I show them exercises to warm up their tendons and muscles — it’s so easy, you can do it in just one minute,” she explains, pointing out that it’s commonplace for crews in the morning to just jump out of the truck and get right to work. “And especially in the Northern areas, when it’s cold in the morning, that can lead to injuries,” adds Romero.
For these reasons, Romero recommends that tree care companies devise their own exercise program that they conduct every day in the morning. “Some companies are now even adding this to the safety plans that they are required to have,” she says, adding that it can be easy and doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes. Some companies say they don’t have the time to do it, but a few minutes spent stretching and exercising might help to prevent a greater loss of time in the event of an injury.