Is aerial rescue worth practicing? The obvious answer is, “Yes!”
You are probably one of those climbers who’s practiced aerial rescue (AR) several times. You’ve practiced dumping a training dummy out of the basket of a bucket truck. You may even have competed in the AR event at a climbing competition. If so, spectacular! Practicing AR not only adds value and worth to your skill set and company, it is an ANSI requirement.
The ANSI Z133 Safety Requirements for Arboricultural Operations, subsection 3.2.4, states: “Employees who may be faced with a rescue decision shall receive training in emergency response and rescue procedures appropriate and applicable to the work to be performed, as well as training to recognize the hazards inherent in rescue efforts.”
If you work directly with lift operators or climbers, this applies to you. This standard applies to the seasoned climber training a young arborist and the first day “greenie” watching someone work from an aerial lift for the first time. Aerial rescue is a skill that should be adjusted to each and every staff member. For a new employee who has zero experience, this could be a short course in hazard awareness and using the lower controls. Or, my favorite for young, inexperienced staff, “Know where you are, and know where your phone is.”
Before I get into the why, cost and result of aerial-rescue practice, I need to mention the very first step in the process – prevention.
Ten years ago, someone at another tree care company asked me to conduct a private AR training. I was young, new as a trainer and more than eager to get out and make some weekend coin. However, I neglected an important first step – asking appropriate questions about previous training, worker experience, recent incidents, professional credentials, etc. It shocked me to learn, after arriving and a quick “get-to-know-you” session, that this company had experienced three deaths in five years. I also was horrified at the antiquated gear, poor cutting skills and nonexistent safety program. This is not a slight to the workers – they looked and played the part of “tree people” well. But their management had just failed from the top down. Zero basic training.
The person who contacted me probably thought, “We’ve had way too many emergencies, we need emergency training.” Just as defensive driving skills decrease the likelihood of a traffic accident, so do basic chain-saw-handling and -cutting skills decrease the need for emergency room (ER) visits. If you or your company is new to rescue training, be certain your basic cutting, climbing and aerial-lift skills closely align to those outlined in the ANSI Z133 standards. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The why of AR
Why practice AR? This answer is simple. Incidents can happen aloft, and of these incidents, some could result in a rescue situation.
Example: A climber for our company was making a pruning cut aloft. The climber was approximately 10 feet off the ground, tied in at approximately 30 feet, using a 50-foot climbing line as part of a moving-rope system. He was using a top-handled chain saw and in the process of removing a 3-foot-long, 6-inch-diameter stub. The climber attempted a snap or bypass cut.
When the piece broke free prematurely, he instinctively reached to save the piece from falling on the fence he was trying to avoid. In doing so, his right hand made contact with the still-
moving chain. The climber immediately attempted the short descent to the ground. The stop knot in the end of his line stopped him short. Because he was only 4 to 5 feet from the ground, the climber unclipped and jumped to safety – usually not advised.
After some quick first aid to stop the bleeding, the climber, who was also the crew leader, made the call to go to a nearby ER for further treatment. While en route, the injured climber, who was the passenger, blacked out and went unconscious for about 10 to 15 seconds. Upon this event, the driver pulled over and called 911. An ambulance transported the injured climber to the ER, where he received the necessary treatment for his injured hand.
Granted, this was not an “aerial rescue.” However, what if the climber had been tied in a bit higher? Or if there were brush and debris trapping the tail of his climbing line on the ground? What if he became unconscious while aloft? What if the cut to his hand had been a few millimeters deeper and the bleeding had been more severe? The list could go on. I tell this story as an example of how quickly a minor injury or incident could turn south.
Could this injury have been prevented? Certainly. Did the ground technician act accordingly, given his training? Certainly. Personally, I was proud that the crew provided treatment in the manner they did. They were providing care right up to the edge of their training. When a severe-bleed patient becomes unconscious, it’s time to step it up. They did. FYI, the climber’s injury was minor, and he was back at work that week.
I can already hear what you’re saying to yourself right now. Why didn’t he just make that cut with an extension saw from the ground? Why didn’t he put a rope on it? Could he have made two smaller cuts instead? Why use a short climbing line? I doubt he needed the ambulance; did he lose that much blood? Any seasoned climber probably has had this very thing happen, although, hopefully, without the painful conclusion.
This incident and the escalation of events is why I spend ample time discussing past incidents with staff at AR training. We learn that incidents are typically not one bad decision, but the result of a series of bad decisions. In the incident just described, one decision or mistake didn’t lead to that incident, it was a combination.
The cost of AR
Yes, training is expensive. Downtime, training companies, rescue dummies and extra gear all cost money. As an example, the company I work for has 95 staff members (not all arborists) and spends approximately $25,000 yearly on safety training. Most of this cost is downtime and lost production. However, let’s jump to the conclusion that an incident occurs aloft at your workplace and nobody has rescue training. What would a fatality cost your company?
For starters, there is the loss of a worker, trauma to co-workers and family, OSHA investigations and rehiring. According to the National Safety Council, the average cost of a workplace death is approximately $1.3 million. I hope we all can agree that the investment on the front end could possibly save your career, livelihood and business on the back end.
This coming March will be the 12th year I’ve been responsible for our company’s rescue training. The first few years, my training scenarios were elaborate and somewhat challenging. This was a mistake on my part. In recent years, the rescue scenarios are easy and the rescue dummy low. We spend as much time talking through how situations could become worse and reasons not to enter and attempt a rescue as we do climbing.
Our team also spends ample time making sure everyone knows how to properly lower the basket of each model bucket truck and our compact, tracked lift. Each individual gets their hands on the controls and lowers the basket from an elevated, rotated position to the ground. We also spend time practicing how to extract an injured climber from the basket of an aerial lift.
The benefit of AR
What is the benefit of aerial-rescue training? I think the most beneficial aspect of AR training is opening a worker’s mind to the possibility of an emergency aloft and related complexities. One common scenario I set up for our climbers involves a rescue dummy tied in 40 to 50 feet up. It is positioned on a limb away from the trunk, about 20 to 30 feet in the air. This is for a couple of important reasons. The first is to make sure the climber is low enough to see and communicate with without the need for yelling or a communication system. Second is so the climber knows what 150 pounds of dead weight feels like.
From a competition perspective, this is a typical scenario. From a work perspective, this will most likely never happen. As the training unfolds with anywhere from six to 15 climbers, depending on the office, someone will always have an issue. This might relate to the weight of the climber, a tangled slack line, working two hitches simultaneously, packaging the victim for descent or even getting into a good position to start the process.
It’s at these moments that I usually mention points such as:
- Most of our climbing takes place above 50 feet, because if we could reach the work with a bucket or lift, we’d most likely do that.
- Most incidents aloft involve a chain saw, so expect to treat a wound. This means you may have to take a tourniquet with you.
- The incident may involve rigging as well. Could you lower the piece just cut without further injuring the climber?
This list could be endless. Just think of the most recent manual tree removal you did and try to imagine the most critical cut in that whole process aloft going haywire. What would you do next?
Another fun moment during climber rescue training is when ground technicians get involved in using a lowerable base anchor. I don’t have the space to discuss the arguments for or against this technique in this article, but judging from others in the industry, a base anchor will be commonplace for quite some time if your company allows stationary-rope system (SRS) climbing. Simply stated: If your company allows people to use base anchors, the support staff or ground technicians need training on when, when not and how to use them.
An injury aloft while a climber is using a base anchor could be a hero-making moment to a trained ground technician. However, if an unsure, untrained ground technician releases an anchor under the wrong criteria, the situation could get exponentially worse.
An often-overlooked and unmeasurable benefit of any training is the comradery it brings to the crew or company. As a trainer and safety director, the most reassuring metric for judging the effectiveness of training is the morale and mood of the day. When staff are eager to learn, respectful and helpful toward each other and alert to the importance of the subject, it’s making an impact.
At the end of the day, if everyone takes away one tip, technique or story that expedites an emergency situation – or helps avoid one altogether – aerial-rescue training is worth it.
Aaron Feather, CTSP and Certified Arborist, is safety and training director with Cumberland Valley Tree Service and Landscaping, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording for that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.