Not for the amateur

Not for the amateur

Consider these safety hazards before you climb up the tree.

January 18, 2013

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Tree Care Industry Magazine.

I often write articles for the tree care industry that focus on the various hazards associated with tree work. While there are certainly many more stories to write on the subject of safety (it would be hard to argue that you can have too much emphasis on safety), I thought this time I would focus on a class of arborists we often do not write about, the homeowner, aka, the amateur arborist. Professional arborists might find this article provides some useful discussion points when faced with a homeowner deciding whether to hire a professional or do the work themselves. Homeowners might find in it lots of reasons why they should not to attempt some tree work themselves.

Tree work is among the highest risk professions in the United States, with a fatality rate ranked near commercial fisheries and logging, two industries widely acknowledged for their capability to kill those engaged in the work. Our high ranking is not too surprising, as any activity that combines large, heavy objects, power equipment and height creates a risk-filled environment. I refer to this as high risk, not dangerous, as danger implies there was an element of chance or luck involved in the outcome of an incident. We, as arborists, do not manage danger but we do, and can, manage risk. A tree crew is minimizing risk every day they are in the field by establishing work zones, conducting pre-work inspections and briefings and wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). If you want to see dangerous tree work, watch a homeowner.

The Internet is filled with stories and pictures of homeowners who have removed their dead ash or elm, sometimes using rental lifts but often just from ladders. “The money I saved!” is a frequent comment on these sites. However, with the exception of the comical “tree removal gone wrong” videos that appear on YouTube, you rarely see any postings of the do-it-yourself removals that did not work out so well. If you want to hear about those, you need to look at homeowner insurance claims, emergency room admissions or the obituaries (or monthly in the “Accident Briefs” listed in Tree Care Industry Magazine).

Every arborist has probably heard a homeowner exclaim upon hearing the price for removing a particular large tree, “That’s robbery! I’ll do it myself!” (or the equally humorous, “How much can I save if I take the day off from work and come out to help you”).

Removals do look simple; after all gravity rules and a cut tree will fall. The trick, of course, is having it land in the correct space, a thought that often only occurs to the homeowner when they’re standing with their running saw watching the tree come down in precisely the wrong direction.

Injuries at home. Each year thousands of homeowners are injured and more than 100 are killed while attempting to perform tree work. Tragically, many of these incidents involve children. No, the children were not felling the tree or climbing high on a ladder cutting branches, rather they were doing what children do outside – play. Unfortunately they were playing in what any arborist would recognize as a work zone, the area in which the tree or branches may land. There have been a number of incidents where children have been killed when the tree came down in a different direction than was anticipated.

One fatal incident involved a child playing in a sandbox in front of a 50-foot tree about to be felled. The homeowner misjudged the height of the tree, a misjudgment that will probably haunt him for life. If the potential customer can refer to our removal price as “robbery,” then surely these tragic incidents done for the sake of saving a few dollars could be called far worse.

Another recent incident proved fatal to a homeowner who was attempting to remove a tree while standing on a ladder. The person cut through the hinge and the tree fell on the ladder crushing him to the ground. Homeowners are killed each year because they fail to notch or back cut the tree properly, resulting in falls that come down in unanticipated directions or roll off the stump, striking the feller. Even simple precautions, such as clearing escape routes or using lines or wedges to assist in directing the fall, are routinely ignored by homeowners who assume the work is simple and straight forward.

Lifts. Another source of incidents is when homeowners rent a lift to remove the tree in sections. There are numerous portable lifts available on the rental market today. Many are not designed for tree work and are better suited to and more maneuverable for painting the second story of a house or other duties. Most I have seen are not to be used as cranes or in the vicinity of electrical conductors, a thought lost on the renter. These portable lifts have been subjected to dynamic loading as large limbs, tied off to the cage, are cut.

Overloading the capacity of these lifts can result in the collapse of the machine – the homeowner does not fall from the lift as much as falls with it. Failing to check the environment for power lines, or failing to understand their hazards, also has resulted in incidents and these incidents are almost always fatal. When a homeowner contacts a 14 kV line while standing in a metal cage, the outcome is as predictable as it is deadly.

Chainsaws. Merely running the chainsaw creates dangerous conditions for homeowners. A study of emergency room visits in the Midwest found that homeowners attempting to perform tree work were far more likely, in fact five times more likely, to be admitted than professionals, and with much more serious injuries. One reason for this difference was that professionals use personal protective equipment (PPE) – chaps and helmet among other equipment, while homeowners think nothing of running chain saws while wearing shorts and flip-flops.

Homeowners seem to have a very casual attitude toward running chain saws. Despite the fact they are operating a machine that is capable of having 600 cutting teeth per second passing over a single point with each tooth capable of slicing through a quarter-inch of flesh; they seem unfazed by this hazard. Improper chain saw use accounts for 20 to 40 fatalities each year and more than 40,000 emergency room visits among homeowners. Yet every day you can watch homeowners running saws without any PPE to reduce the severity of a potential saw-body contact. And they are usually running the saw above their shoulders with their kids playing next to them. The fact we have incidents with homeowners running chain saws is not surprising; what is surprising is that most homeowners survive the experience!

Another danger occurs when the tree finally reaches the ground. I used to give quotes for tree removal that were “too expensive” only to be contacted again once the homeowner got the tree to the ground and did not know what to do with the brush. Sometimes after cutting up the branches and limbs (another task filled with hazards, spring poles being a leading source of incidents among amateur arborists), the homeowners pile the brush in a haphazard manner and then call the tree company back to do the clean-up. They are often surprised to learn, as were some of my customers; that removing the logs and brush may be a significant cost of the removal and a lot more if a mess of tangled branches has to be chipped. I even had some jobs that would have been cheaper had they called us to do the entire removal rather than just dispose of brush!

Chippers. Homeowners faced with this unexpected clean-up cost (they thought only $50 in the $2,000 quote for the removal was associated with clean-up) resort to renting a chipper in another do-it-yourself attempt to save money. Chippers have been a boon to tree businesses. Rather than having to cut branches and stack them in the backs of trucks or flatbeds, now almost the entire tree can be reduce to a pile of chips. But any machine that can reduce a tree to small fragments less than one-inch in size can do the same to a human being.

Chippers are involved in incidents each year in which hands or feet are pulled in accompanied quickly by arms, legs, torso and head. Homeowners (and professional arborists) are killed each year because they decided to use their foot to kick through a jammed log, only to have their body inadvertently pulled in as the jam clears. A few years ago the youngest person killed by a chipper was only 14 years-old. Felling trees and cleaning up the brush is not for most homeowners and certainly is not an activity to involve the kids.

Lawsuits. Homeowners may recognize that the work is beyond their capability and hire someone to do the work. While this is the best option, homeowners need to be cautioned in assuming anyone with a saw and a pick-up truck is an arborist. Any time you combine unemployment and storms; there will be a lot of folks who figure they might as well start a tree service. There is a steep learning curve to becoming experienced in tree removals and the homeowner may not want to have their property be the training ground.

A good consumer will ask questions to determine the level of experience of a company. How long they have been in business, are they members of the Tree Care Industry Association and are their workers certified in the safe operation of equipment and the work, are all good questions to ask. None of these credentials can guarantee nothing will go wrong, but they certainly are good indicators of a company that is professional and safe.

Homeowners should always enquire about insurance. Good tree care companies maintain the proper insurance to protect the homeowner if an incident occurs on their property.

Many homeowners are surprised to learn, sometimes too late, that a worker invited onto their property may sue them to cover the cost of any injuries resulting from an incident in their yard. Even more a concern, some homeowner policies will exclude coverage for these claims if the homeowner hires a company that did not have the proper workers’ compensation and liability insurance. I have seen instances where an injured tree worker sued the homeowner for the cost of the injury and the homeowner’s insurance did not provide any coverage. The homeowner is expected to check for insurance and failing to do that leaves them vulnerable to a claim, not the insurance company.

Removing a tree is rarely a pleasant decision for a homeowner. Shade that may have taken a lifetime to create will be missed as well as the other amenities provided by mature trees. However, homeowners should not make matters worse by attempting to do this work themselves or hiring someone who is not qualified or insured to do the work. The loss of the tree should not be compounded by the loss of a life.

Dr. John Ball is a professor of forestry at South Dakota State University, where he instructs courses in arboriculture and serves as the campus arborist.