By Michael “House” Tain
Regular folks make choices every day, sometimes easy ones; and often more difficult ones, but tree care professionals are confronted by choices every day as part of their work life that can be full of consequences regarding both the bottom line and safety of life and limb. Compounding all these choices, the modern tree climber and crew member is faced with constantly evolving and emerging new materials, fibers, and gadgets — all claiming to be better, safer, faster and easier than the last. In general, this abundance of possibilities is a good thing, giving an industry and its workers better options to suit their individual styles and work methods. But, at times, all the choices can seem overwhelming, and the costs of a poor choice can be great both economically and physically. However, tree industry professionals can help themselves make better gear choices by using some form of set system to evaluate the gear available and how the crew might employ it. The basic principles discussed here will assist in that process.
Any new gear that is being considered for use by a professional tree crew has to meet the applicable standards, which for tree people most of the time is the ANSI Z133. These are continually “tweaked” and updated by a committee made up of industry members; and although it is physically impossible to have these standards “keep up” with the latest developments in materials and equipment, they are an excellent starting point to evaluate a new piece of gear. The standards are not intended, the majority of the time, to teach or explain to a climber how to use a particular piece of gear, but rather give basic requirements on issues such as strength, required sizes, locking mechanisms and general use. Folks looking at a new piece of gear should check the most recent ANSI standards first, particularly in regard to life support components, to assure themselves that their intended “new” toy is “legal” for use in the tree industry. This doesn’t mean the safety or usefulness of the item is guaranteed, but at least gives the user a baseline to compare it against.
Work habits, experience and culture
Every company and crew has its own personality or culture, even if they may not even be aware of its existence. This personality or culture can certainly change for the positive over time, especially with the influence of strong leaders or highly skilled crew members, but it can also change to the negative over time with the influence of leadership or employees who don’t value safety and are only capable of seeing one way to get a job done. When new gear or equipment is being considered, it needs to be examined as to whether or not it makes sense for the company’s skill set and work habits. The safety and security of the new piece of gear is certainly a part of this examination, but also the usefulness and applicability within the crew’s or company’s culture needs to be considered. Sometimes a new type of gear can help change a crew’s culture, an example being a group that are not fans of the hard hat/helmet requirements due to comfort and security issues. Perhaps some of the newer and lighter climbing style helmets with integrated chin strap systems would help this crew better protect their “melons.” Prospective users also need to evaluate the gear in the sense of true “need,” although most climbers would state that if a piece of gear is new, they always “need” it. The reality is that for crews or climbers that only do three or four spur takedowns a year, a set of carbon fiber or titanium gaffs is probably not a true “need,” and should be considered a wished-for comfort measure. Yet a company that specializes in big, gnarly spur takedowns would be well served to provide their folks with the most comfortable, lightest weight gaffs available.
Not all that long ago, tree care professionals could get information on a new piece of gear by word of mouth among their peers and the manufacturers/retailers selling the piece of gear. While both those sources are certainly still available, and often reliable, there are more and more organizations and individuals doing controlled research on tree gear and techniques; and informing the climbing public of their results. Folks and groups such as Dr. Brian Kane, Dr. John Ball, Treemagineers in Europe, and Yale Cordage are all carrying out research projects that look at how tree people, tree gear and equipment function in as close to “real world” situations as possible, and then sharing the information with the tree industry at large. All of this information has value for individuals trying to make gear and equipment selection choices in a broad sense; and some of it provides a level of detail even down to what type of knots or hitches might be a better choice.
Tryin’ before buyin’
While this sometimes may just not be physically possible, using something, even briefly, prior to putting the money down for it, can be an excellent way to determine if the given item does or doesn’t do what the potential purchaser thinks it does. If possible, use any opportunities that a retailer or manufacturer presents for demonstrations or “try-outs,” and if that’s not available, take advantage of any chance to attend an industry conference, convention, event, or competition. All of these will not only provide educational and networking opportunities, but are guaranteed to have much of the newer gear, rope, and/or techniques on display; and the proud owners or displayers are almost always more than happy to give a possible convert a chance to try it out.
Any new piece of gear, and particularly new tree gear, is going to come with a price tag; and although it is easy to initially get discouraged and scared away by those numbers, try to inject a little reality into the thought process if possible. This reality could reflect whether the item should be purchased or not, but at least the decision is made from an objective standpoint; and not one just gained from the desire to have something “new,” or from one of “that’s way too much!” Most companies and crews should be able to figure out approximately how many hours are spent in a harness, running a saw, rigging down trees, or any other of the wide variety of tree care activities in any given year. It is then a fairly easy process to get a rough estimate of how much time this new piece of gear might be used on a monthly basis. This information, coupled with the cost and likely “lifespan” of the piece of gear, can basically provide an approximation of how much the new “toy” is actually going to be costing per month, per day or even per hour. Often, when a possible new purchase is looked at this way, the answer whether to purchase it or not becomes pretty clear.
As mentioned previously, every new year seems to bring new model saws, new types of rope, differently designed harnesses, or small slick items meant to make climbing/rigging faster, easier and safer. While all of them may have that possibility and capability, end users in tree care have to examine these properties in relation to their own needs and applications. For example, ropes are now available that have greater strength than comparably sized steel cable — a wonder that those of us who remember the age of braided natural fibers can only applaud. Yet the end user needs to think about that rope from the perspective of what it is going to be used for. High strength typically is coupled with minimal stretch, which might make this fiber a great choice for a winch line or pull line, but a poor choice for consistent dynamic loads in a rigging situation. Another example might be harness choices for an arborist who splits their time 50/50 between climbing and the aerial lift. Although they certainly could find a wonderfully adjustable and progressive harness that is used exclusively for climbing, and also purchase a basic full-body rig for use in the aerial lift, they may be able to find a full-body harness that fits both needs very well. This option would also give the climber/operator the option of a seamless transition from one ascent method to another with no harness change required.
These basic principles and thought processes can smooth the way and perhaps prevent a bit of “buyer’s remorse.” In addition, the majority of these principles can be applied to much larger purchases than a new rope or harness, such as a truck or aerial lift, and provide a more informed buying experience. In the end, the goal is equipment that is going to make tree work safer and more efficient — and that is often easier to see through an objective lens.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.