Photo courtesy of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education, Ltd. and North American Training Solutions.

If there is one consistent topic of conversation among arborists, it is the matter of industry regulations. Some bemoan the fact that existing standards often aren’t enforced, while others declare the need for a different set of mandatory guidelines. Most agree that formalized credentialing could improve the industry’s reputation, and make it a safer occupation for workers.

Before products are sold, testing, using equipment such as this SherrillTree break testing machine, is standard operating procedure to verify the actual capacity the rope can provide an arborist.

Existing regulations

Existing guidelines formulated by OSHA and industry groups are familiar. OSHA applies its General Duty Clause, requiring common safety measures and several more specific standards. A recent change to the personal protective devices guidelines now requires employers to provide most items. Policies on all types of functions and equipment, from ladders to cranes, are included in the standards, but the problem of applying logging standards has plagued the industry for years.

Voluntary industry standards come from groups like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The ANSI guidelines address many of the safety topics, while providing additional advice on specific arboriculture practices. The ASME offers a standard for mobile truck cranes.

Updated OSHA directive

On June 25, OSHA helped the situation somewhat by issuing a directive for “tree trimming and removal operations,” replacing a 10-year-old policy. Arborists’ concerns about application of the logging standards to tree service firms led to a 1988 agreement that those guidelines be waived for firms not involved in logging. The new directive spells out differences between the services and applicable policies.

OSHA now clarifies that the logging rules don’t necessarily apply to what it calls “tree trimming” services. It defines tree trimming as removing limbs or branches only. It differentiates between felling entire trees and the “piecing out” removal method. The agency says piecing out is the practice of removing a tree by cutting it apart in sections.

Firms that use the piece out process now have an option as to OSHA regulations. They may use the logging guidelines or the Alternative Compliance Strategy. The one determining factor in selecting the applicable standards is the method of tree removal; location and other factors are not considered.

Alternative Compliance Strategy

The Alternative Compliance Strategy (ACS) makes some distinction from the logging standards, while other guidelines are identical. The full directive is available at the OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov). There does not appear to be significant differences in these areas:

  • Personal protective devices
  • Flammable and combustible liquid storage and use
  • Explosive and blasting agents.

In the following areas, OSHA’s General Industry standards, rather than the logging standards, apply:

  • Mobile equipment
  • Hand-held equipment, includ-ing chain saws and power tools
  • Machines and machine guards (line trimmers within 10 feet of an electric line must comply with logging standards for chippers).

First aid is one area of greater distinction. The less demanding medical services and first aid standard (§1910.151) applies. Logging standards require that every employee be trained in first aid. ACS only calls for one trained person to be available if a medical facility is not “in near proximity to the workplace.” These guidelines indicate that adequate medical help should be within a three to four-minute drive. Under logging standards, employers must provide first aid kits at every workplace and in every vehicle. Supplies for treating serious cuts and shock and providing resuscitation must be available. The ACS stipulates a generic kit suitable for a small worksite.

The alternate guidelines require appropriate fire control devices, such as portable fire extinguishers, be available where flammable and/or combustible liquids are stored. Logging standards calls for extinguishers on every machine and vehicle.

Companies certainly may go beyond the guidelines in providing what they believe to be necessary and appropriate in specific work situations.

The view from the trenches

Those in the industry who work in the real world every day know firsthand how standards do or do not fulfill their purpose of promoting worker safety and how they could better serve tree service companies.

Dwayne Neustaeter, president of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education, says that enforceable regulations governing and licensing private tree care firms are desperately needed to save workers’ lives. He cites OSHA statistics indicating that one tree care worker has been killed every three to five days since 1991.

“If this is not enough to take action, then I don’t know what is,” he says. Like many of his peers, Neustaeter was personally affected in 2000 when a close friend was killed in a tree accident.

Among the areas most in need of regulation, according to Neustaeter, are those related to high angle removal, technical rigging and technical tree felling and cutting.

His organization provides education and training and collaborates with North American Training Solutions (NATS) of Logan, Ga., to train and cross-certify instructors. He believes that the alliance helps to ensure that arborists receive the highest possible quality of safety training.

What is needed?

Scott Prophett, president of NATS, emphasizes the need for education in safe practices and points out that training in proper tree care is vital, as well. He agrees that the industry is in need of an overhaul.

 “Normally, too much regulation in any industry is not a good thing,” he says. “However, in the case of tree care companies, we seem to go in the opposite direction. When a professional trade requires no competency, knowledge or skills testing in order to perform the work, then this is a problem of not enough regulation.”

Prophett supports enforceable regulations requiring documentation of general arboriculture knowledge through a vehicle such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist program. He believes that some type of licensing requirement will be initiated and enforced by OSHA and state agencies. He sees such regulations as beneficial to the industry. A well-structured system could make tree care much safer, while elevating the industry’s professional image. Fairer wages and more consistent pricing are other possible advantages.

“Honestly, in many parts of the United States, all that is required to be a ‘tree company’ is a chain saw, truck and business license,” Prophett says.

He is quick to point out, however, that if the industry itself isn’t included in the development of standards, the results could be crippling for many companies. Overly restrictive guidelines could take arborists out of the tree care business and make them full-time regulation compliance agents.

Tobe Sherrill, chief executive officer and owner of SherrillTree, echoes Prophett’s concerns.

“I am aware of customers who have been providing quality tree care services for 20, 30 and even 40 or more years across the United States,” Sherrill says. “Honestly, I don’t want any one of these men or women to feel like they are left out of any process that would affect their companies and business as a whole.”

In addition, he fears that regulations developed without input from those with boots on the ground could actually make tree care even more hazardous. Constructive ways to reduce the accident rate involve education and enforcement of existing regulations. Sherrill cites weak enforcement of working age requirements as an example. Underage workers were too inexperienced to recognize unacceptable risk levels, resulting in significant injury. A city’s failure to act to correct a hazardous tree situation ended in tragedy when the tree fell, killing one person.

“Although I’m not a big fan of traffic cops on every corner, perhaps the answer lies merely in enforcing the list of regulations currently on the books,” Sherrill says.

Although it is difficult to predict exactly what types of governing policies will be unveiled in the years to come, it seems that changes are coming. With the commitment of industry groups and professionals such as Neustaeter, Prophett and Sherrill, the future of arboriculture looks safer and more profitable.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.