To most of us, an error on the job might mean an addition mistake or a misspelled word; an injury, slamming one’s knee into a desk corner, or perhaps a paper cut. For the men and women in the business of Tree Care, the simplest mistake can result in a serious injury- or worse. The tiniest lapse into a daydream can quickly lead to a Tree Care Professional’s worst nightmare. According to statistics published by the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), Monday is the most dangerous day of the week, followed by Friday. There is arguably no other industry where a tiny mistake, a lapse in attention, or a procedural misstep can more quickly become a tragedy. Of the 126 accidental tree care incidents reported in 2014 by industry colleagues, the news media, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 81 resulted in fatalities.
Safety is forever on the minds of the associates at Downey Trees, Inc. To this end, a 4-hour segment of last December’s company Christmas Party was dedicated to preparing for an event that anyone would dread: rescuing a climber incapacitated in a tree or in lift equipment. This training is critical to the safe operation of a Tree Care company. In fact, it is mandated by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Z133.1 and OSHA, the legal standards for Tree Care operations. The morning of December 9th dawned crisp and cold, mostly cold. Spirits were high following a recently-consumed breakfast, and the anticipation of a pulled-pork feast at the end of the exercises only added to the festive spirit.
Several different aerial rescue scenarios were simulated at 3 different tree climbing stations at Downey’s Norcross facility. The training staff wanted to bring home the fact that there are numerous situations which might necessitate an aerial rescue. In the first scenario, the climber uses tree climbing spikes in a Two-Spar Rescue to bring down an arborist knocked unconscious by a falling limb. In this instance the “injured climber” is actually another man that the rescuer must bring down out of the tree. That climber is also wearing spikes which, among other things, could stab the rescuer should they come loose while he is in the process of climbing past them. Once successfully past the injured climber, the rescuer must then establish a safe system to facilitate lowering of both climbers in a controlled fashion, most often by securing the injured climber the rescuer.
The second scenario necessitated a High-Angle Aerial Rescue, where a climber without spikes becomes incapacitated while working aloft. They may have been injured by a chain saw, developed heat stroke and become unconscious, or even become paralyzed by fear. The latter malady might seem far-fetched when referring to a group of people who have chosen to climb trees for a living, but it is actually quite common. For this practice rescue, the climber works with and lowers a 180-pound dummy instead of a real-life colleague, but the challenge of doing so is no less imposing. The procedures are similar to the first scenario, with a few subtle differences that require thought, clear decision-making, and practice to insure safety and control throughout the exercise. Even without the threat of spikes, the high angle rescue is difficult, and command of the skills required is important.
While emphasis is certainly placed on safety and control in both scenarios to prevent the rescuer from becoming a second victim, time is of the essence, lest the rescue of a living person become the recovery of a deceased one (or two). The dangers are too numerous to elaborate on, but here are a few shocking facts about tree incidents and situations that might necessitate an aerial rescue:
• Palm Fronds: Downey Trees’ Destin team deals with the pruning of Palm trees every year. Of those 81 fatalities reported in 2014, asphyxiation claimed the lives of 3 people by the excessive weight of sloughing Palm fronds. A recent article in Arborist News, a publication of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), described an aerial rescue that came about when a climber became pinned to a Palm tree when a mass of fronds sloughed off of the plant as he was pruning it. For such an unassuming scenario, this is all too common.
• Suspended upside-down: If the climber is struck and becomes unconscious, it is imperative that he/she remain upright and not allowed to hang inverted for an extended period of time. A climber in such a position can pass out in two minutes or less. If the inversion persists, suspension trauma can take place, and can lead to the death of the climber.
• Energized equipment: pruning near power lines can be very dangerous business, and the use of a bucket truck (or cherry-picker) does not make it any less so. If a bucket truck should come in contact with utility lines, safety features built into the truck can often prevent it from becoming energized. However, these same safety features will not necessarily protect a well-intentioned “rescuer” from being a victim himself when he touches an energized truck to try to assist the coworker aloft. As troubling as it may seem to helplessly watch a co-worker in trouble while operating an energized lift, about the only thing that can be done is to call the power company for assistance. Electricity creates some of the most dangerous situations in Tree Care.
Witnessing the aerial rescue training firsthand also illuminated the fact that its success is not simply limited to the person trying to safely bring the incapacitated climber to the ground. Of equal importance is the crew member that calls 911 and remains on the line with the dispatcher, providing updates on the progress of the rescue and properly guiding emergency personnel to the site of accident. Also important is the coaching and encouragement from other ground workers as the rescue progresses. It is truly a team effort and everyone on the crew needs to be involved to execute a safe, efficient, and effective rescue.
As the training wore on, the reality of the activities became more apparent to the participants. While the climbers felt more confident about the procedures involved in aerial rescue, there was some consensus that getting everything right (ropes, knots, positioning, procedural steps) was challenging. This revelation led to some well warranted trepidation. Some felt that that the spar rescue was the most difficult of the scenarios, but all developed a greater respect for what is involved in aerial rescue, regardless of the form it took. While one never knows how they would react until thrown into such a situation, most of the participants seemed more comfortable with aerial rescue at the conclusion of the training. Most expressed confidence that they would be able to employ the required skills in the field if called upon to do so. If nothing else is gained from such training, it serves to remind tree care professionals of the very real dangers they face every day.
As the sun finally began to break the chill around late morning, the aerial rescue training concluded and other contests led up to the Christmas feast (fodder for another blog on another day). A representative of Downey’s Insurance Company, who was invited to observe the training was favorably impressed by the skills exhibited by Downey staff during the course of the training. And while there is some comfort in knowing that the Tree Care team at Downey Trees, Inc. can perform an aerial rescue if called upon to do so, hope springs eternal that the situation will never come to pass.