Economic fallout, regulatory rules and equipment innovations for the year ahead

Photos courtesy of SherrillTree.

Lately, the economy is starting to sound a lot like the tree care business. The financial mess is growing, jobs are being cut, inflation is climbing and lots of companies are hanging on by a limb.

Where does that leave the industry in the coming year? And, beyond the economy, what’s in store for the tree care profession in 2009 in terms of regulations and equipment?

For starters, the nation’s financial downturn will have an impact on the tree care business, says Greg Daniels, president of Bartlett Tree Experts. “There is a segment of the market that will likely either put off tree care or reduce their programs,” he predicts. Daniels explains that Bartlett is working with its clients to help them “prioritize the work that cannot be put off, and then giving them a program that is tailored to their budget. It is important to keep an open dialogue with clients and provide solutions that work, especially in situations where hazardous tree conditions exist. There are some things that should not be put off because of the potential threat that a tree may present.”

Daniels says that commercial tree care accounts may be hardest hit, because such work often requires corporate budget approval. “With residential clients you have the opportunity to discuss work options that could lead to good sales. In both the residential and commercial sectors, client satisfaction—in terms of budget and work completed—is key to retention and sales.” That’s the case in the best of times and may be even more true at the moment.

Still, Daniels does see some bright spots. For example, low interest rates makes equipment investments more feasible. “Also, high equipment inventory may result in lower prices and good buys,” he points out.

The current state of the job market may present opportunities for tree care companies, as well. “Most employers will hold on to their best people. However, hiring for entry-level positions may yield a better choice of candidates since many companies are not hiring,” says Daniels.

Petzl’s double-handled Ascentree ascender is friendly to ropes and, with an ergonomic grip, to climbers as well. The Ergovation saddle by Buckingham Manufacturing is one product that improves ergonomics.

Things look to be a little calmer on the regulatory front in 2009, says Peter Gerstenberger, senior advisor for safety, compliance and standards with the Tree Care Industry Association (www.tcia.org). “At the federal level, as well as in many of the state plans, OSHA has tree care very high on its radar. But, they haven’t added enforcement personnel, and with the change in presidential administrations, it’s likely to be a year before we see any significant change in OSHA budgeting. So, there’s not likely to be any significant change in the near future,” he explains. “Eventually, though, I think it’s a safe assumption that with a new administration, OSHA will receive more recognition and greater emphasis than it has in previous administrations.”

At the federal level with OSHA, there is a new directive for the field compliance staff that directs how and when to use the logging standard and apply it to tree felling operations. “That may ensnare some arborists who don’t consider themselves loggers, so they need to be aware of the wording of that directive to know when they may be subject to the logging standard, and what that standard entails,” Gerstenberger advises. (Go to the OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov), click on Directives and enter arborist occupations.) This replaces a much-contested directive issued in mid-2007 that effectively made every tree care professional who takes down trees a logger. The TCIA and others in the industry sought congressional intervention and OSHA replaced it with a new document.

On a state level, TCIA has been involved with a process in Virginia to revise its state OSHA arborist standards. Gerstenberger says, “It will definitely mean some hardships for those who aren’t in compliance right now, but, overall, I think that helps the industry to bring some noncompliant [with the ANSI standard] people up to speed,” he says. Over the long term, OSHA is discussing the possibility of writing, for the first time, federal arborist standards, and Gerstenberger is hopeful this might follow the course taken in Virginia and be based on the existing ANSI Z-133 standard.

"At the federal level, as well as in many of the state plans, OSHA has tree care very high on its radar."

One area of safety that’s likely to see more immediate attention is with the use of cranes in tree care operations. Recent crane-related construction fatalities in New York City and elsewhere have heightened scrutiny of all crane operations. “OSHA has reaffirmed that their standards preclude the use of cranes the way they are typically used in our industry, which is to hoist climbers into trees. But, its latest directive states that the employer has several affirmative defenses they can use when a crane presents the safest or only feasible way to do the work,” notes Gerstenberger. TCIA is recommending that its members using cranes document their protocol for specifying cranes for particular jobs, and, he adds, “Follow the ANSI Z-133 standards to the letter and document all decisions, so in the event they are cited, they can assert that following the OSHA standards was either completely impossible or would have subjected [the arborist] to greater hazard.”

To help, TCIA has developed a new resource, “The Crane Best Practices Manual,” which provides tree care-specific information about crane safety, setup, maintenance and more. “In the process of putting this together, we discovered that the majority of our members are now using cranes in tree removal operations. This is an emerging trend,” says Gerstenberger. “Twenty years ago, if we had polled our members, we probably would have found that 10 percent or less were using cranes. Now that figure is closer to 60 percent using cranes, at least on an occasional basis.”

If a crane is out of your budget for now, there are lower-priced items hitting the market in 2009 to help you do business better. Tobe Sherrill, CEO of SherrillTree (www.wtsherrill.com), predicts that biodegradable lubricant products will continue to grow in popularity. “Both in two-cycle mix and bar oil, where petroleum products can spew out all over the ground, I see a real potential for biodegradables, and surprisingly, the biodegradables aren’t that much more expensive—just 15 to 20 percent.” In some cases, the marketplace is driving tree care companies to make the switch. Certain parks and federal properties are now requiring biodegradables—bar oil in particular—Sherrill points out.

Another trend that continues to develop in the industry is the push by manufacturers to refine the ergonomics of their products. “We see more tools designed to be less stressful on arborists,” explains Sherrill. He points to a saddle being introduced by Buckingham Manufacturing called the Ergovation. “It was designed by a brother and sister, he is an arborist and she is a doctor in ergonomics. They’ve made an impressive fix on some of the issues with twisting the lower back, over-stressing the abdomen and posture,” says Sherrill.

While not yet available in the company’s catalog, SherrillTree is testing pole saw grips designed with ergonomics in mind. The concept has promise, says Sherrill. “Using a pole saw is extremely strenuous, but these handles come out perpendicular from the pole saw, allowing the user to really get a hold of them and use their muscles in the right direction. It could work well especially for climbing pole saws, where you have to reach out horizontally.”

Sherrill also points to some Petzl Ascentree ascenders with a double-handle design that’s friendly to ropes and features an ergonomic grip for easier use.

Photo Courtesy of Treeman Supply.
The growing demand for firewood has led some in the tree care business to begin offering this service.A number of manufacturers have developed wood splitters for the tree care industry, including this Split Right model is designed to be towable, allowing it to easily move from site to site.

Some tree care professionals will be shopping for a piece of equipment they hadn’t considered in the past: a wood splitter. Kevin Green with Treeman Supply (www.treemansupply.com) says that unpredictable heating fuel prices have spurred increased public demand for firewood, driving more and more tree care companies to begin offering this service. “It’s all about energy right now,” says Green. “Given the economy, I think the industry is starting to focus more on needs than on wants. While colored wood chips are a want, firewood is a need, so we developed a new line of splitters to meet the demand.”

That line includes three models, highlighted by the 225HD designed for the arborist market. “It’s very towable with a torque-flex axle standard,” says Green. He advises anyone shopping for a splitter to be sure that it can be towed, and tows well. “Most splitters can only be towed at 35 mph. If you’re spending a lot of money, you want to be sure it can be towed from site to site. And, buy something that’s going to last.”

Tim Conroy, director of marketing with Bailey’s (www.baileysonline.com), agrees that the demand for firewood is on the rise, and more tree care companies are answering the call. “Splitter sales have picked up over the last six to eight months,” he says. “People are definitely looking for cheaper ways to heat, and arborists are now a lot less likely to throw wood into the chipper when they can sell it for $250 a cord instead. Especially in a tight economy, everyone is looking to make every dollar they can.” Bailey’s has added several fast-cycle splitters to its lineup. “They go about twice as fast, a typical splitter,” Conroy says.

Time is money, and that’s more important than ever these days.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to Moose River Media publications.