Every tree care worksite, regardless of the size of the tree(s) or the job, is an environment filled with noise, activity, equipment and relationships that can all go south with one misunderstood word or unexpected event. While a tree crew cannot plan for every eventuality, whether it is at work or at home, some basic planning processes can go a long way toward making worksites safer and more efficient. The addition of some standardized communication methods will help avoid trials, tribulations and even accidents.

The use of required personal protective equipment (PPE), along with safe work practices and good judgment, as discussed on page 8 of this issue, will increase worksite safety, but the most geared-up crew in the world can break a lot of stuff, and even themselves, if everyone is not on the same page and talking with one another.

The Fox 40 Rescue Whistle, Motorola Talkabout and Peltor PowerCom Plus System are all worksite communication options for in the air or on the ground. Photo: Michael Tain

The Fox 40 Rescue Whistle, Motorola Talkabout and Peltor PowerCom Plus System are all worksite communication options for in the air or on the ground.
Photo: Michael Tain

More than a few experienced professional arborists will roll their eyes when the topic of planning comes up, thinking of interminable meetings and spreadsheets. While they may not realize it, they’re most likely using some form of planning process every day, otherwise they would not have survived to become “experienced” arborists. The planning process does not have to involve a written form or PowerPoint presentations, it can be as simple as discussion amongst the crew upon arrival at the worksite, but some process should take place to ensure safety and efficiency.

General planning

The whole planning process has to start when the first person from the tree company looks at the job. Regardless of whether it’s the company owner, salesperson or foreman, whoever has the first look at the tree needs to start thinking about how to accomplish the job as safely and quickly as possible. The planning needs to start at this point, and then it needs to be communicated effectively to the folks who will carry out the job.

The gear and complexity that can be present in a tree rigging job makes planning and communication a must for safety and efficiency. Photo by Courtney Keely

The gear and complexity that can be present in a tree rigging job makes planning and communication a must for safety and efficiency.
Photo by Courtney Keely

Many a crew has arrived at what was described as a “simple takedown” by the sales arborist and found high-voltage lines, vicious dogs of enormous proportions with impressive fecal waste production, and a tree that will require complex rigging systems. Any of these factors, or the many others that might be present, will require more planning and equipment. If the crew is poorly prepared, the job will be more dangerous and less efficient.

The first company representative to look at the tree doesn’t need to plan it down to every detail, but a basic format, such as the HOPE process, will ensure that they catch a majority of the high points the crew will need. This same process can then be used by the crew upon arrival at the site to help develop a plan to carry out the work.

HOPE the job goes well

The HOPE planning process is a simple format to help tree crews develop a plan to approach individual jobs. It attempts to ensure that important issues are not missed or glossed over, presenting the work crew with a nasty surprise.

Mushrooms may be a sign of decay and possible structural instability in the tree or its roots and should be noted during the HOPE planning process. Photo: Michael Tain Photo by Courtney Keely

Mushrooms may be a sign of decay and possible structural instability in the tree or its roots and should be noted during the HOPE planning process. Photo: Michael Tain
Photo by Courtney Keely

H – The “H” stands for hazards, something that is imminently important in the dangerous and challenging world of tree work. These hazards could be as obvious as a 13-kilovolt line going right through the canopy of the tree, or as subtle as a white-faced hornet nest high in the branches. either way the tree and site need to be evaluated for hazards and the crew informed of them before their arrival on the site. The presence of hazards might also affect the time/gear/personnel requirements of the job, thereby affecting that quality near and dear to every company owner’s heart, cost. Therefore, evaluating for hazards will not only help with safety and efficiency, but also profitability.

O – The “O” is not for the big O that tree folks may be vaguely familiar with, but rather for obstacles on the worksite that will affect the progress of the job, or even how the job can be carried out. There may be some crossover between hazards and obstacles, as the aforementioned 13-kilovolt line would represent both.

An obstacle could be as obvious as a skylight right beneath the tree to be pruned, or as subtle as Mr. Jones’ prized miniature azalea in the only available drop zone. Both are factors that need to be considered and dealt with prior to the brush dropping and the chipper thumping. The presence of obstacles can also affect the needed gear and time requirements of the job, so recognizing them early will help the job efficiency from the start.

The complex and sometimes dangerous nature of tree care worksites can be mitigated by a good work plan and communication amongst the crew. Photo: Michael Tain

The complex and sometimes dangerous nature of tree care worksites can be mitigated by a good work plan and communication amongst the crew.
Photo: Michael Tain

P – This is the planning part of the acronym. While the plan doesn’t need to be all-inclusive at the tree’s first viewing, it should include basic information such as rigging requirements, equipment placement and the all-important distance of the brush drag. All of these factors, along with many others, will help ensure that the crew has what it needs when it arrives at the site.

Personal experience has shown that making multiple trips back to the shop is not an efficient way to get tree work done, and attempting to make do without needed gear or saws can make for an unsafe work environment.

E – The “E” is for the equipment needed to deal with the hazards and obstacles discovered previously for the planned method of carrying out the job. While most tree crew trucks carry a basic combat load intended to deal with the most commonly confronted challenges in tree work, each job and tree is going to have its own subtle needs and requirements. Knowing what equipment is likely to be needed and having it readily available prior to arrival on-site is a good way to operate.

Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic

A standardized form for bids or job evaluation can be an excellent way for sales arborists or company owners to make sure nothing has been missed in the planning process. It can also be a good way to pass the necessary information onto the foreman or crew prior to heading to the job.

A written work plan, along with a simple map of hazards, obstacles and equipment placement can also be helpful to the crew once they are on-site, but a good verbal discussion of the plan can certainly suffice. In either case, one of the key points is that all members of the crew are aware of the plan and their role in it prior to the first saw being started or line being set. Trying to carry out a conversation over 80 feet of vertical distance with a chipper grumbling is an excellent way to make sure that something will go wrong.

A common planning process, familiar to all members of the crew, such as the five-step felling plan, will help keep everyone “on the same page” when it comes to their role in the job at hand.

A discussion of the work plan and communication systems once on site will go a long way toward making the work safer and more efficient. Photo by Kevin Mengers.

A discussion of the work plan and communication systems once on site will go a long way toward making the work safer and more efficient.
Photo by Kevin Mengers.

Talk, talk, talk

Most tree folk have been on a few worksites where there was far too much talking and not enough working. In many cases a good plan will minimize the amount of talking required. However, talking or communicating will be necessary at some point. In the dangerous world of tree work, with large, heavy objects subject to the law of gravity, motorized machines designed to chop up organic entities, and wandering civilians curious to get up close and personal, communication becomes a vital component for safety and efficiency.

As mentioned previously, the hazards, obstacles, plan and equipment need to be communicated to the crew prior to arrival at the job; and once those engines are roaring, communication needs to continue in some shape or form.

These utility lines would be listed as both a hazard and an obstacle in the HOPE planning process. Photo by Mike Schronk.

These utility lines would be listed as both a hazard and an obstacle in the HOPE planning process.
Photo by Mike Schronk.

Verbal communications should be two-way, or command-response. An example of this system would be a climber announcing, “Stand clear, cutting!” prior to making a cut, and waiting to receive an “All clear!” from the branch managers before proceeding.

Most sites are going to have noise levels that make verbal communication more than a little challenging, in which case hand/arm signals or whistles can be used. The key with these nonverbal systems is that all crew members must know the meaning of each signal or whistle, otherwise a bad situation has been made worse. If used, whistles should be tucked away when not in use and have some form of tear-away connection if they’re on a lanyard. Having your whistle caught by a pin oak branch and then pulled toward the feed deck of a chipper is a less-than-pleasant experience.

Modern technologies, such as Bluetooth earbuds/headsets and radios that are built into the muffs on helmets/hard hats, give crews additional options for worksite communication. Systems like these are helpful in noisy environments and are effective on sites where a lot of distance is involved. Users should have some form of backup communication in place though, as battery failure, jammed up channels, or sweat shorting out systems can negate the usefulness of these systems.

Proper worksite planning and communication will allow for the safe and efficient removal of large limbs. Photo: Michael Tain

Proper worksite planning and communication will allow for the safe and efficient removal of large limbs.
Photo: Michael Tain

Worksite planning and communication can seem like a lot of work to crews and companies that haven’t formalized the process, but the reality is that planning and communication is already taking place, formalizing the process and making sure everyone understands it will simply make it more effective, which will lead to jobs getting done more safely and efficiently.