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When It Comes to Safety, How Do Your Tree Crews Measure Up Against These Nine Audits?

By Bob Urban


When it comes to safely performing tree work of any kind, best practices are essential.

All too often, taking a closer look at how a given crew works and operates according to safety best practices and procedures is prompted by an accidental injury or even death. Beyond the human cost, the tree crew and the organization that has contracted them for work are both suddenly under significant pressure. Accidents may result in OSHA penalties, higher insurance rates, workers’ compensation claims, the severing of contracts – and potentially more.

These are all consequences that any tree care company and their crews would like to avoid. How do you ensure safety best practices are always being followed? A comprehensive series of safety audits and feedback reporting conducted by a third-party partner might be the answer.

A comprehensive safety audit program can be invaluable for any tree care organization, even when it might appear that your crew is adhering to safety practices. These audits will provide a detailed, objective assessment of a crew or contractor’s safety practices.

Safety audits of your crew should be performed at random and be unanticipated by tree crews in order to get a real sense of how your crew is performing. The following audit areas are critical for overall crew safety, as well as business success. Would your crews consistently pass inspection?


1. Pre-job briefing. Each project should begin with a pre-job briefing that coordinates the activities of each member of the crew. Auditors ensure the entire crew is involved in a job briefing prior to starting the job. They also ensure the job briefing has information pertaining to job hazards, including work procedures, special precautions, and appropriate personal protective equipment.


2. Aerial lift operation. Aerial lift trucks are an essential tool for the work your crews perform, and safe operation of this kind of heavy machinery is critical. According to OSHA, major injuries and fatalities associated with aerial lifts include falls and electrocutions. Your audit team will check to ensure tree crews are wearing and utilizing the right body harnesses, including an attached lanyard to the boom or basket. They’ll also check to see that lift platforms are positioned a safe distance from electrical lines, and the correct brakes or wheel chocks are being used when the lift is parked and positioned – specifically if on an incline. More focused audits can include a pre-job inspection that consists of flying the boom in order to ensure the equipment is free of mechanical issues, reviewing maintenance records, and inspecting equipment for general wear and tear.


3. Traffic control. Tree work will often bring crews near roadways, so it’s important to make sure that crews are working safely in and around traffic flows. For this safety audit, an auditor will look to see that crews are taking the proper precautions, using traffic cones as necessary, are following local Department of Transportation specifications, and are ensuring that traffic has not been obstructed in an unsafe way.


4. Tree felling. There are a lot of activities involved in auditing tree felling. This audit will primarily focus on workers performing tree felling from the ground. Audit teams will look for technical safety, such as proper notching and rigging techniques, but also softer safety skills such as proper communication skills across the entire crew as a tree is being removed.


5. Crane operation. Cranes are a major piece of machinery that can cause significant damage or injury if deployed improperly. Often used to remove large branches, or sometimes entire trees, auditors look for multiple items when auditing safe crane operating practices. Are crews keeping cranes clear of electrical hazards? Are they ensuring cranes haven’t been overloaded? Are materials properly secured? Is the crane operator following and performing all the right functions within the manufacturer’s tolerances?


6. Climbing safety. Tree climbing is a risky part of an arborist’s job and close adherence to safety practices is imperative. Audit teams should check to ensure that all the proper techniques are being followed, and that all the necessary equipment is always used, including harnesses, clips, ropes and throw lines.


7. Chain saw safety. Safe chain saw operation requires constant, continual attention to all safety measures, but it’s not uncommon for even veterans to become complacent and develop poor habits. Auditors will check for proper handling and cutting techniques, all in accordance with the ANSI Z133 standard for safety requirements in arboriculture.


8. Wood chipper operation. Wood chippers are another essential tool that have the potential to be extremely hazardous. Your audit team must evaluate how tree crews handle the equipment. Auditors will ensure that tree crews are properly maintaining the equipment for safe operation, in addition to the proper use and towing connections for the machine.


9. General housekeeping. Keeping things neat and organized is critical to safety, and that means making sure that generalized housekeeping among tree crews is orderly, and accounting for all the essentials. Auditors should check to make sure that crews have the necessary cones for traffic work, a full stock of water to ensure crews remain hydrated, and ensure that things are labeled properly and stored safely.


Choosing an audit partner

When you’re looking for a third-party partner to perform a safety audit, what criteria should you consider? Make sure that your audit team is well versed in the appropriate OSHA and industry-specific standards. For example, utility vegetation work is governed by the ANSI Z133 safety standard. A tree company may want to start with industry standards committees such as these.

An audit partner that is involved with relevant committees will have vast knowledge and understanding of the safety standards to which your crew must adhere. In addition, the more industry experience the auditor has, the more likely they are to have great familiarity with safety best practices. With the right experience and knowledge, your audit partner will be able to work with you to develop a comprehensive auditing program that evaluates in real time the ways in which your crew is working in the field. Not all crews necessitate the same level of auditing. When selecting a partner to conduct your safety auditing, you should first identify the skills and background for the level of detail desired.


Benefits of an auditing program

Tree crews may go through formal safety training once a year where they’ll learn about aerial rescue, chain saw use, tree felling, wood chipper safety, rope and saddle climbing, bucket operations, and more. However, safety is more than a once-a-year event, and perhaps more important than anything is consistency in working safely and following best practices. It’s one thing to pass an annual safety test, but it’s another to work the same way many months later when no one is evaluating you.

Adherence to safety best practices is a critical part of any type of work related to vegetation management, and doing everything possible to ensure crews are safely upholding organizational commitment to their customers. As seen through these nine audit examples, a comprehensive safety audit is an immersive experience that takes an extensive look at a wide variety of safety practices. With a focus on safety, and implementation of a safety auditing program, you can ensure that your tree crew stays up to date on standards and any critical changes that may have been made since they were first educated on these. An auditing program also takes full account of how well a crew is living up to standards in their everyday fieldwork.

Ultimately, a safety auditing program should help you keep close tabs on how tree crews are adhering to safety best practices at any given time. It can serve as a proactive approach to help you take action against any unsafe behavior before it turns into a pattern.


Bob Urban is senior risk manager, senior business development manager, and senior manager contract training at ACRT, Inc.

Photos provided by ACRT, Inc.

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