Working in and around trees can be a very hazardous profession if proper care and safety measures are not followed. Safety must always be the first concern. Safety is more than using special equipment, wearing the appropriate gear or attending occasional meetings. Safety is an attitude. It’s an ongoing commitment at every level. Safety requires a conscious recognition of potential hazards and the development of a program designed to prevent accidents. Safety precautions must be built into every task performed by tree workers. A small investment of time in safety training can save a great deal in downtime, insurance, injuries and damages.

Employers who promote workplace safety know that communication between climbers and ground workers is paramount for a safe and successful day. Good communication is an integral part of working safely, as there is little margin for error. Each worker on the crew must always be aware of what the others are doing, and each must take measures to prevent accidents.

There must be a clear and efficient means of communication between climbers and ground workers so that each knows when it is safe for a ground worker to enter the work zone, including the landing zone or drop zone, where branches are being dropped or lowered to the ground.

The voice command-and-response system ensures that warning signals are heard, acknowledged and acted upon. The climber warns, “Stand clear,” but does not proceed until hearing the acknowledgment, “All clear.” When there are multiple workers on the job, reduce confusion by assigning one person to respond to the climber after ensuring that the area is clear and safe. There are times when it may be difficult for workers to hear each other. In these cases, hand signals can be used as well.

Effective communication includes making job briefings part of the daily routine. Each job should begin with a briefing that coordinates the activities of every worker. The job briefing summarizes what has to be done and who will be performing each task, the potential hazards and how to prevent or minimize them, and what special personal protective equipment (PPE) may be required. All workers must have a clear understanding of the communication system that will be used. The on-site supervisor should formulate and communicate the work plan. There should be no confusion about assignments, and the work should be well coordinated; teamwork is essential on a tree crew.

General safety at the worksite begins with proper training. All workers must be adequately trained for their work requirements, and also be aware of all applicable safety regulations. Employers must ensure that all workers understand the safety requirements. They must instruct their employees in the proper use of all equipment and require that all safe working practices be followed. It is important for employers to document all training.

An approved and adequately stocked first-aid kit must be provided on each truck. All employees must be instructed in the use of first-aid kits and in emergency procedures. Illustration by Bryan Kotwica.

An approved and adequately stocked first-aid kit must be provided on each truck. All employees must be instructed in the use of first-aid kits and in emergency procedures.
Illustration by Bryan Kotwica.

It is recommended, and required in some regions, that all tree workers receive training in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In addition, an approved and adequately stocked first-aid kit must be provided on each truck. All employees must be instructed in the use of first-aid kits and in emergency procedures. Emergency phone numbers should be posted in the truck and added to the contact list on everyone’s cellphone. At the beginning of a job, it’s a good idea to remove the first-aid kit and a cellphone from the truck for accessibility in the event the truck becomes energized.

All crew members must be trained in emergency response procedures. Each individual must know what to do in an emergency situation. All climbers should be trained and capable of carrying out an aerial rescue. Whenever there is a climber in a tree, there should be a second worker on-site who is capable of performing an aerial rescue. Many companies practice aerial rescue procedures on a regular basis. Practice will improve efficiency and skills, and will reduce the chance of panic and a second accident in the event of an actual emergency.

All employees must be instructed in the identification of common poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Training should include preventive measures as well as treatment following exposure. Workers must also be trained in techniques for dealing with stinging or biting insects and vertebrates that could be encountered in trees.

Trucks should be equipped with a fire extinguisher, and all employees should be trained in its use. Gasoline-powered equipment must be refueled only after the engine has been stopped. Any spilled fuel should be removed before starting. Do not start or operate the equipment within 10 feet of the refueling site. Smoking must be prohibited when handling or working around any flammable liquid. Flammable liquids must be stored, handled and dispensed from approved safety containers and kept separate from all ropes and equipment.

Gas cans must always be placed on the ground before they are filled, otherwise static electricity can build and arc, starting a fire or explosion. Never fill gas cans in the back of pickup trucks or trunks of cars.

Never fill gas cans in the back of pickup trucks or car trunks, place them on the ground. Illustration by Bryan Kotwica.

Never fill gas cans in the back of pickup trucks or car trunks, place them on the ground.
Illustration by Bryan Kotwica.

Another important safety consideration is traffic control. (Note: In the U.S., refer to the “Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices”). Effective means for control of pedestrian and vehicular traffic must be instituted on every job site. This may include safety cones, warning signs, barriers and flags. It is the legal responsibility of work crews to secure the work zone to make sure that no individuals or vehicles pass under trees where tree work is in progress and to ensure the safety of the workers. Traffic control devices used in tree operations must conform to the applicable federal, state or provincial regulations. Traffic control procedures must follow federal transportation administration standards and guidelines.Electrical hazard awareness

Before performing tree work on any site, an inspection must be made to determine whether any electrical hazards exist. An electrical hazard exists when there is a risk of injury or death associated with direct or indirect contact with an electrical conductor. All tree workers should receive adequate and documented training in electrical hazard safety awareness. In addition, workers must receive proper training in electrical hazard tree work procedures to perform tree work in proximity to electrical conductors. Employers are required to certify this training.

An electrical conductor is defined as any overhead or underground electrical device, including communication wires and cables, power lines, and related components and facilities. All such lines and cables must be considered energized with potentially fatal voltages.

Every tree worker shall be instructed that a direct contact is made when any part of the body contacts an energized conductor or other energized electrical fixture or apparatus.

Illustration by Bryan Kotwica

Illustration by Bryan Kotwica

An indirect contact is made when any part of the body touches any conductive object in contact with an energized conductor. An indirect contact can be made through conductive tools, tree branches, trucks, equipment or other conductive objects, or as a result of communication wires or cables, fences or guy wires becoming energized.

Electric shock occurs when a tree worker — by either direct or indirect contact with an energized conductor, energized tree limb, tool, equipment or other object — provides a path for the flow of electricity from a conductor to a grounded object or to the ground itself. Simultaneous contact with two energized conductors also causes electric shock that may result in serious or fatal injury.

Footwear, including those with electrical-resistant soles and lineman’s overshoes, shall not be considered as providing any measure of protection from electrical hazards. Rubber gloves, with or without leather or other protective covering, must not be considered as providing any measure of protection from electrical hazards.

Electrical tools (except those with a self-contained power source) must never be used in trees near an energized electrical conductor when there is a possibility of the power cord contacting the conductor; tool operators must use tools in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions. When tools are used aloft, an independent line or lanyard should support the electrical tool. Operators should prevent cords from becoming entangled or coming in contact with water.

Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the third edition of the “Tree Climbers’ Guide,” which is available at the International Society of Arboriculture’s website.