Tree Worker Safety: Five Steps to Survival

By Dr. John Ball

Every day incidents occur in the tree care industry. Tree workers tend to call them accidents rather than incidents, but the medical field is getting away from this description.

Accidents seem to imply that it just happened and nothing could be done to prevent it from occurring. This is not the case for tree worker event – there is always a list of unsafe acts or conditions that resulted in the occurrence. However since most workers just call these fatal or non-fatal events accidents, I will use that term.

For far too long we have accepted the high fatal accident rate as just a part of the job, but now this attitude seems to be changing. When once it was common to hear workers speak of accidents and close-calls as the ordinary, it is becoming more common to hear talk of a goal of a zero-accident rate.

While this talk is refreshing, we do have a long way to go to reach that goal. Currently our fatality rate is approximately 10 times that of the all-industry average, higher than almost any other profession excluding logging and commercial fisheries.

The non-fatal injury rate is equally appalling, with injuries often having life-long consequences. But, again, this current status does not have to be accepted as just a part of the profession. Here are some ways we can move towards the goal of saving lives and reducing accidents.

First, if there were just five things we should do to reduce accidents, what would they be? Call them the five steps to survival, but here are some practices that might reduce our accident rate by more than three-fourths if they were put into place by everyone. Remember in our industry, accidents don’t just happen.


One is to conduct a pre-work inspection of every site, every time. This may appear obvious, but one of the most common reasons workers are electrocuted is that they failed to notice the electrical conductor before climbing the tree or operating the aerial lift. Many electrical contact accidents are direct contact, either the hand or back shoulder, because the worker did not realize the line was even there; no one looked before the worker entered the tree.

Another reason for the need to inspect is to note any defect in the tree. Tree workers have died because the tree failed below them when they overloaded the tree with lower cut limbs. Aerial lift operators have died when the tree they were pruning snapped at the base and fell, crushing the lift and operator in the process. Had someone inspected the base of the tree and noted the decay, the work could have been conducted in a way to reduce the loading. These are just two good reasons for conducting that pre-work inspection.


Another good practice is to establish a drop zone and have the boundaries clearly defined. Once the zone is established, no one should be in this zone until they absolutely have a reason for being there, i.e. setting up some lowering lines, moving lowered branches, etc.

One reason tree workers are killed is because they walk into the path of a falling tree or limb as they are going from one task to another. Workers have been crushed beneath fallen trees merely because they decided to cut in front of a tree as it was being felled.

Not only should workers stay out of the zone unless they have to perform a specific task, the zone should always exclude the homeowners and onlookers. Every year members of these two groups are killed when they venture too close as the tree or limbs drop and shatter, sending debris flying. It may be the homeowner’s yard but its your drop zone – keep them, and their pets, out of the way.


A third good practice is to follow all safety instructions when operating chippers. Naturally workers should always read and follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions when operating any power machinery, but it seems that the instructions for chippers are widely ignored given the excess number of accidents.

Every month or so, a tree worker is entangled in a chipper because he decides to stand on the feed table and kick brush in. Chippers accidents account for many of the amputations performed on tree workers and those are the least serious accidents – tree workers have also been completely pulled through these machines and that is always fatal.


A fourth practice would be to conduct a daily inspection of the aerial lift before ‘flying’ it for the day. Pilots do a visual walk-around before flying (as well as completing a number of other check lists), but tree workers seem to just hop in and go.

While falling out of the bucket might not be a common accident, falling with the bucket due to a mechanical failure of the unit is more frequent. Aerial lifts are complicated pieces of equipment and the failure of a single part can, in some instances; result in the catastrophic failure of the entire unit. Do the daily inspection.


Finally, always wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for the task at hand. One reason we do not have as many serious chain saw accidents as we once did is the fact that chaps and hard hats or helmets are a far more common sight among tree crews.

When you are in the aerial lift, wear the harness and wear it properly. It should be snug, not loose. Be sure the lanyard is attached to the boom, not the bucket. If the lanyard is attached to the bucket and it breaks away, all you have done is create a smaller debris field – you and the bucket – rather then still be hanging (safely but startled) from the boom.

The focus on safe work practices needs to also include how we respond to accidents, particularly aerial ones. This is critical training for any climber or aerial lift operator and their crew. Every week at least one aerial rescue is conducted in this country and sometimes the crew can only stand by as firefighters respond to the accident.

Every crew needs to have at least two workers trained in first aid and CPR and proficient in climbing and the operation of the aerial lift. If you are the climber, and no one else can climb, your crew is not potential rescuers but merely an audience.

Furthermore, our training has focused on only one type of aerial accident – electrical contact – and the response training has been a rapid descent from the tree. This is contrary to the fact that the most common need for an aerial rescue is that the worker has been struck-by a branch or limb and may also now be pinned in the tree. Not only is a rapid descent not possible in these situations, it may not be appropriate as the worker may have injuries that can be made worse if they are not lowered with extreme care or not immobilized.

Tree workers must know how to respond to a wide range of aerial accidents, electrical contact, trapped/pinned, palms and aerial lift, not just one. You never know which accident may occur on your crew.

Also with few exceptions, the need for speed is not warranted by the condition of the victim. It is important to take the time to assess the worker’s condition and the environment from the ground before initiating a rescue, as well as contacting the appropriate rescue team in the community. We sometimes have accidents that are double fatalities and these are often a rescuer electrocuted while attempting a rescue of an already dead fellow worker. Remember the first rule of emergency response – do not become the second victim.

Tree work is a profession that will always be conducted in a high-risk environment. But the risk can and should be managed. Taking our time to make sure everyone is properly trained in work practices and emergency response will go a long way in reducing the number and severity of accidents in the profession.

Dr. John Ball is a Professor of Forestry at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. He can be reached at