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Sadly, the player on a tree team that most often has the greatest effect on whether a job is profitable and safe or not, is also often the most underpaid, underappreciated, and verbally and/or emotionally abused on that same team. Yes, it is the vital-yet-neglected branch manager, "groundie," or other-nicknames-not-suitable-for-a-family-publication of which we speak.

Branch Managers: The Foundation of Tree Work

By Michael “House” Tain


Sadly, the player on a tree team that most often has the greatest effect on whether a job is profitable and safe or not, is also often the most underpaid, underappreciated, and verbally and/or emotionally abused on that same team. Yes, it is the vital-yet-neglected branch manager, “groundie,” or other-nicknames-not-suitable-for-a-family-publication of which we speak. This poor benighted soul — often with greater experience and sometimes knowledge than the dashing divas aloft — restricted to the surface of the Earth is typically not only one of the hardest working members of the team, but the one whose actions or inactions can have a large impact on the company’s bottom line and insurance rates. Yet, not only do their efforts often go unrecognized, their training and education is far too often neglected. Although climbing members of the tree tribe may certainly have their own opinions about the relative importance of those “little people” so far below, few would disagree that a well trained and knowledgeable branch manager or group of branch managers can go a long way toward making the takedown of a rugged 80-foot dead tulip poplar go smooth. Very few average humans, regardless of personal fitness and inner drive, are prepared for a full-on 8- to 12-hour day on an average tree worksite, filled with the roar of hungry chippers, endless miles walked while dragging heavy and awkward brush, and standing fast as a tree top speeds toward the ground controlled only by the seemingly delicate rope clasped in their hands. However, some basic knowledge of safety, a few simple techniques and methods, and Johnny B. O’Doughnuts will soon not only live up to the title branch manager, but will be helping the crew bring home the “bacon” with all their pieces and parts intact.



The first concept that ground personnel need to be introduced to is that it is far more likely that they will be injured or damaged than any of those graceful monkey people aloft; and that the best way to avoid such indignities is to wear the required personal protective equipment (PPE). The injury/death category “struck by” is consistently near the top in the tree care industry; and in its simplest description means folks getting hit by something, typically from above, at a high rate of speed. This fact puts all branch managers in the target zone, and using the required PPE, hard hat/helmet and safety glasses, will help lessen or minimize the damage if a “struck by” occurs. In addition, a ground crew that cannot hear due to prolonged exposure to noisy tree equipment is also not useful, so wearing the required hearing protection is not only the law, but in the whole crew’s best interest. Finally, anytime a chainsaw is being used on the ground, the operator must have on chaps or chain saw pants.


Branches, not branch managers

Chipper safety is a large topic — one worthy of a whole column on its own. But at its most basic level, safe chipper operation is fairly common sense once the new ground crew member understands the purpose of the chipper. Chippers, regardless of make and model, are meant to take large woody debris and brush; violently slice, dice, and dismantle it; and expel small chunks of wood out the chute. These small chunks of wood are called “chips;” and this large noisy machine will be just as happy to make “chips” out of a new or unsafe-but-experienced branch manager as it is to make them out of red oak. It will do it quickly, efficiently, and without a moment’s hesitation, so a chipper is a piece of equipment to be viewed and treated with respect, not fear. New operators should be briefed on the chipper’s safety features and operation before the machine is even started; and more experienced crew members have a responsibility to keep new folks out of dangerous interactions with the machine. In short, nothing but wood, brush, and possibly a “pusher” if so equipped, should be up on the feed table or in the feed area of the chipper. Rakes, shovels, arms, and legs have no business being there. New operators should also take care to be aware of what is likely to happen to the end of the brush or log they are holding as they feed it into the chipper, as quick violent movements are not uncommon, and getting smacked in the chin by Mike Tyson back in the day would feel kind in comparison to the “kiss” of the butt end of a hickory branch.


“We need to talk” is not heard just at home

Communication between the members of the crew and the folks aloft is a key component of smooth safe work sites; and new ground personnel need to be indoctrinated into the crew’s particular communication systems. All the noise on a tree job obviously makes it a difficult place to get ideas or needs across to each other, but that doesn’t make it okay to throw chunks of wood and scream at one another to gain each other’s attention. Each crew is going to have its own collection of slang, code words, hand signals, whistles or even radios to communicate to each other, but this can all seem like mayhem to someone new who not only didn’t get the memo, but didn’t even know one existed. It’s imperative that any new ground folks be taught the new “language” even before someone heads up in the air. In addition, ground personnel, experienced or new, should always be trying to keep an eye on the climber, both to assist however they can, but also to avoid moving in to pick up that one branch at a really bad time.


They’ll cut other things too

Chain saws, much like the chippers, are just as happy to cut flesh and bone as they are cottonwood, so branch managers need to have knowledge of basic chain saw safety and operation. Once again, this topic is deserving of its own article, but a few basic tips will help out:

* Safety features of the saw — The chain brake is there for a reason, to be engaged whenever starting the saw, when only one hand is going to be on the saw, and whenever taking more than two steps in movement around the worksite.

* Use both hands — Use both hands on the saw, that’s how they are designed and intended to be used. Right hand on the rear handle/throttle trigger and left hand on the side handle.

* Kickback is bad — Kickback will send the running chain back toward the operator faster than an Olympic sprinter. It occurs when the top quadrant of the tip of the bar comes into contact with the wood, brush or patio furniture; therefore do not contact things with the top quadrant of the tip of the bar.

* Sad saws = sad crews — Saws are not intended to dig for clams so don’t stick them in the dirt. Saws used mixed fuel, not straight gas; they will become very unhappy if fed straight gas. If the crew is thoughtful about the climber, the climber will, hopefully, be thoughtful about them, so go ahead and start up that saw and warm it up before sending it aloft.


Know the ropes


A key part of ground operations is learning the knots and hitches that the climber and crew prefer.
Photo by D. Neustaeter

There may be particular knots and hitches that a climber likes to use, or wants used when gear is sent up. A good branch manager will learn these and tie them correctly. Trying to explain how to tie or untie a particular knot or hitch with 60 feet of vertical separation between both parties and a highway nearby is not a recipe for teamwork and good feelings. Basic rigging knots and hitches include the Running Bowline, Clove Hitch with two Half-hitches, and the Timber Hitch or Cow Hitch with a Better Half for securing a sling at the base of the tree. Ground personnel most often control not only the speed at which rigged pieces descend, but also the amount of unpleasant force concentrated at the rigging point in the top of the tree, typically uncomfortably near the climber’s perch. Regardless of how simple or complex the rigging system, for their own safety and the safety of the crew, the branch manager needs to understand how to minimize the forces generated and run the ropes effectively.


Efficiency is not just a word

Managing all those branches and brush can be overwhelming at times, but no matter how fast the climber gets it all on the ground, nobody’s getting paid until everything is picked-up, chipped, and the yard and driveway are clean. A good ground crew is always looking for better, and safer, ways to do things; and often the simplest steps add up the most in increasing efficiency. Some small steps that can help out include always raking toward the chipper, using tarps to haul large amounts of brush or branches instead of by hand, and resisting the temptation to start up that blower until all the dust has truly settled.


As mentioned, branch managers have a great deal to do with how well or how poorly a particular tree job goes. Although much of the information here is very basic, it’s not only a good introduction for new ground personnel, but a timely reminder for those who might have forgotten whose shoulders they and their reputations stand upon. No task in the tree care industry is simple or easy — all require fitness, knowledge and mental creativity — and that of the unsung ground personnel is no exception. Respect them, teach them, and support them, and all will share in the benefits.


Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at house@houseoftain.com.


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