Safe climbing for the arborist begins on the ground and goes up from there. Let’s look at a series of suggestions, protocols and general tips to help improve climbing safety, efficiency and enjoyment.
Before any climb, the prudent arborist inspects his equipment thoroughly. Only through a comprehensive inspection system at regular intervals can a climber be sure the equipment will perform as required. Start with personal protective equipment (PPE); be sure it is serviceable. Check helmet shells for cracks, and make sure the suspension system is intact and functioning. A chin strap keeps the helmet in place should a slip or fall occur. Be sure it is comfortable and adjusted. Clean and inspect your safety glasses.
Move on to your harness. Look for broken or frayed stitching. Check the buckles and snaps. Look for deterioration on metal components as well as wear marks. Be sure to examine under, over and around all the hidden spots. Corrosion is often hidden behind webbing or belting.
As you step into your harness, adjust the fit. An ill-fitting harness can pinch and tweak and may not give full support in a fall. The harness should fit snugly, but not restrict movement or blood flow.
Be sure to tie, dress and set all knots and hitches properly. In the words of Clifford Ashley, “A knot is either exactly right or totally wrong.” Make sure you always get it exactly right. Check splices for lock stitching and nicks or cuts. Look for cuts, nicks and wear marks on line and lanyard cordage as well. Finally, tuck in or remove any loose clothing or jewelry. As Mr. Murphy’s law goes, if it can get snagged, pulled and torn, it will.
Now that your equipment is ready, make sure the tree is. Review the work order and be sure you are clear on the scope of the work. Begin tree inspection with an outer perimeter survey. From beyond the drip line, check for hangers, splits, cavities, animals, insects or anything else that may be hazardous. Once you’re sure it’s safe, move closer to the tree and check for hazards again. Now check the trunk and rootzone for signs of decay or disturbance. Be sure to circle the entire tree. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Walk the around the entire site and explore.
Notice obstacles and hazards that are around the tree, but not part of it. Are there any electrical conductors? Will pedestrians or other traffic come under the tree during the work? Establish a safe work zone and delineate a drop zone(s). A few minutes now will save many more in the tree.
Now it’s time to make your plan. How will you enter the tree? Where is the best tie-in point? What tools will you need? These are just a smattering of questions a climber must answer. Remember, a good climber is one step ahead; a great one is four or five. Develop your plan as you inspect. If you choose to set a throw line, do a pull test before ascent. Set your climbing line and then pull gently on the tree. It should move and sway naturally as if a small breeze has just passed. Watch the trunk and rootzone for movement or heaving. If you see anything suspicious, stop and investigate. Even healthy looking trees can harbor hidden structural defects.
Before you ascend and after you are sure the tree is stable, load test your tie-in point. Be sure it can handle the stresses you are going to apply before you apply them.
As you ascend, continue the inspection process, check for breaks or cracks unseen from the ground. Look for cables or lightning protection systems that may be hidden in dense canopies. As you do this, continue to plan your work. Where will you start? How can you help the ground crew? Are you going to have to re-tie in? Do you have to change your plan now that you have seen the job from aloft?
The best plans are rarely instantly conceived; they are born of inspection and sound decisions. Modify your plan as necessary, but be sure to keep the rest of the crew informed. They may have suggestions and/or input. At the very least they will know where you are working and what they will need to do to support you.
Maintain good, thorough communication throughout the job. Voice commands may be suitable in some situations, but could be unclear in loud or very large work zones. Develop a simple hand signal system or use headsets or whistles. Make sure that if a message is sent it is received and understood. A command response system works well for verbal and nonverbal communication.
As you climb, look for opportunities to assist your ground crew. If they are having a difficult time clearing the brush you generate, slow down a bit. A cluttered job site is inefficient and dangerous. Make sure your ground crew is up to the tasks you give them. Asking the new hire to lower over the greenhouse may lead to confusion and frustration for all. Alter your plan and your work so the whole crew benefits.
Start to work at the furthest point from the chipper. That way the cleanup and work moves toward the final destination. The drags will get shorter as the day goes on.
Use redirects to keep your rope angles less than 45 degrees. Get comfortable as you work. Unbalanced positions or white-knuckle holds rarely lead to good, safe cuts. Take the time to get in good body positions. Use a lanyard not only for insurance, but also for stability and bracing.
If possible, create opposing forces to hold you in place. For instance, when working on a pole with spikes, your legs are in opposition to your lanyard. This is a stable position. If possible, try to have you lanyard pulling slightly in one direction while your climbing line goes in another. This, together with you legs, gives you a “tripod” of support.
Make sure your climbing line is long enough and that you can reach the ground at all times during your climb. Running into a bees’ nest and not having enough rope to get to the ground is no fun. If you commonly use redirects or climb tall trees, get a long rope. Also consider leaving an access line set in case of emergency. This practice can be especially important for new or inexperienced climbers. It is also useful for getting back up after lunch on those really big pruning jobs. An access line can also serve as an equipment haul line for cabling and bracing equipment or anything too heavy or awkward to carry with you. Take with you what you need to work, and send down what can get snagged or fall as you move about. Your climb will be easier and safer for the ground crew.
Maintain good situational awareness. Know where your fellow workers are and what they are doing. Be aware of traffic in and around the work zone. Know what time of day it is and when you last had a drink of water. Many times the job can get so involved climbers forget the little things that mean so much like drinking water, having a snack, or where they left that large group of hangers to pull.
Before a cut, especially one that involves lowering, check and double-check. Visualize what is going to happen in your mind and your response to it. Make sure your ground crew knows what you expect. Position yourself for success. Imagine if the worst happens; where would be the best position for you? Put yourself in that position or get to it quickly after the cut.
Don’t be afraid to call it a day. If you’re tired or the job is just not working out, revamp your plan. This may mean wrapping up, rendering the job safe and going back to the shop. Yes, job overruns are expensive. Accidents, injuries and/or property or equipment damages are even more so.
So many variables and decisions go into a safe climbing experience. Inspect your equipment and trees before you climb and develop a sound, efficient plan based on the circumstances at hand. Change that plan accordingly and communicate your expectations clearly. Know when and what you and your crew are doing and pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t let fatigue be a factor leading to a bad decision. Know your limits and those of your crew as a whole and individually and work within those limits.