By Mark Chisholm
I saw a photograph the other day of a military tent in Afghanistan. What jumped out at me was a sign above the entrance. It read, “Complacency Kills.” I think, as professional arborists who climb trees for a living and use chain saws high above the ground while being secured with only connectors and ropes, we should keep a copy of this sign always handy; because when we get too comfortable with our work, bad things happen. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By following basic safety protocols and techniques consistently you and your crew greatly reduce your risk.
Create a plan
Sit down with the key leaders at your company from various crews and discuss what your company does well and what to improve. What training needs to occur to standardize the employee knowledge? How often should you train, and how many employees should be involved? What kinds of issues are common in the industry, and what kinds are common in your region? Weather-related concerns, such as heatstroke, may be something you need to take into consideration, as well as proper procedures for working in the aftermath of extreme storms, as my crews did after Hurricane Sandy. Your plan should work for you and be relevant to the issues you already face, as well as those you might encounter.
Practice the plan
The best laid plans are only worthwhile if they are used. Make your safety training and protocols part of your — and your crew’s — daily routine. The more frequently they are practiced, the more natural it will be if they ever need to be used. Conduct training sessions on difficult scenarios often so that everyone is confident about what will need to be done in an emergency situation. Police, EMTs, firefighters and hospital medical personnel drill on safety procedures often and know exactly what to do when a threatening situation occurs. Ensure your teams do the same — regular drills and training sessions will make responses natural if the need arises.
First aid training
Making sure each employee has basic first aid skills can often make a difference if a serious safety incident arises. Include this training as part of your safety plan, and keep certifications updated. Like everything else in life, spending time to prepare well before these skills are necessary will ensure you have them ready when the time comes. In the heat of the moment of a real emergency is not the time you want to realize what skills you lack. And if you’ve ever had an incident on the job, you know that this training not only prepares you and your employees on the proper action to take, but is also empowering in a way that can overlap into all aspects of life. Confusion will only elevate stress levels of a victim, and that alone can be critically troubling.
Arboriculture is physically demanding work. Staying in shape and ensuring your body can meet the daily challenges in the field is an important consideration in avoiding minor — and some major — injuries. Treat physical training like exactly what it is — an important part of your job. Too many accidents occur due to a lack of focus, preparation or ability. Training helps to prepare and ensure that you are on your “A game” each and every day; not to mention how it makes your tasks less draining.
It goes without saying that some products arborists use can be dangerous if improperly handled. It’s incredibly important to always read, understand and follow the product instruction manual for every product you use. Make sure you’re equipped with the proper protective gear, and that both it and your products are always properly maintained. Make sure your equipment is working as it should and is regularly serviced to help catch any issues before they escalate into a problem.
See something, say something
Create a culture of trust in your crew and your company and empower your colleagues to speak up if something isn’t being done right. Safety should be the responsibility of everyone — from the lowest level employee to the company owner. Many times, an employee might think that someone else will notice and speak up about an issue — this is a problem. What if no one speaks up and someone gets hurt? One energy lab we work for frequently has a “Stop Work” clause that allows any person on site to stop the work of another even if it is out of their expertise range. This keeps everyone on their toes and highlights their attention level about safety. Encourage everyone to speak up — every time — if there is something that seems unsafe, and provide a confidential, secure way employees can feel safe from any censure in doing so. By giving all employees an equal role in this responsibility, you ensure that it is shared.
A crew leader takes on the important responsibility of preserving the safety of the crew. You must challenge a new climber to overcome fears that are natural and common, yet not give them so much confidence that they feel invincible. Creating a healthy respect for the challenges in the field will empower employees to say no to situations that may be unsafe or could even turn fatal. There are always times to walk away and re-evaluate an approach, and making sure employees understand this distinction is important. I make it a point to discuss hazardous trees before and after each job to help new climbers to realize that I am using knowledge and experience to make my decisions and not just blindly doing the job out of stubbornness or machismo. If you are in the game long enough, you may have to walk away from a job a time or two. As one of my mentors, Sam Noonan of Noonan’s Tree Care, once said, “No job is priced too low to do it safely!”
Lead by example
Finally, lead by example. If an owner or crew leader cuts corners on safety, chances are that lower-level employees will too. What the crew sees their superiors doing is what they will emulate. And it is good to remember that a leader is always “on.” It surprises a lot of senior arborists how much attention they get from more inexperienced employees. You may think that no one is watching when you make a quick cut without eye protection, but trust me, someone saw you.
I know that for the vast majority of my fellow arborists, the information above is pretty common knowledge. But in our profession it only takes a second of inattention or a missed step to send someone to the hospital, or worse. I think you would all agree that a little extra time and attention to the details is well worth protecting ourselves and our fellow climbers.
Mark Chisholm is a three-time International Tree Climbing Champion; third-generation, International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist with Aspen Tree Expert Company in New Jersey; and spokesperson for Stihl Inc. He regularly consults internationally on tree care issues. For more information on Chisholm and his work, visit www.treebuzz.com or www.stihlusa.com.