There are few aspects in tree work that require coordinated teamwork. Efficient climbers can perform a good portion of their trim work without the direct aid of a ground person. Ground workers can usually process and transport tree debris to the chipper without aid from a co-worker. If the material is too large, it can be cut smaller. If the material is too heavy or the drag too far, machinery can be introduced to act as a force multiplier. Rigging operations, on the other hand, require concise communication, teamwork, skill and experience to safely perform and execute the job.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “rigging” as the system of ropes, cables or chains employed to support a ship’s masts (standing rigging) and to control or set the yards and sails (running rigging). Another, more modern explanation of rigging would be the design, implementation and execution of a mechanical process to move material utilizing hardware such as ropes, chains, blocks and/or pullies. A tree-specific definition would be the implementation of a rigging plan, installation of appropriate hardware and utilization of that hardware to dismantle a tree, piece by piece, in a controlled manner.
So let me be clear what rigging is for the purpose of this article. Rigging is not throwing a line through a branch union and holding a small branch from falling on a fence. That is standard tree work. For the sake of this article, rigging is the coordinated, skillful and precise practice of recognizing variables, mitigating hazards and overcoming both (semi) static and dynamic loads to safely remove a portion of, or an entire, tree. We don’t have space in this piece to cover the multitude of practices within the rigging world, but it’s my aim to touch upon the need for our collective peers to take hold of this noble art and start developing crew members prepared to safely maximize our production potential.
An acronym I use to encompass the essentials of team rigging is RIG – for role, intuition and gear. Because we are discussing “team rigging,” it’s important that everyone on the team has a clear understanding of his or her role. Because we work on living structures, we face dynamic challenges that most other industrial riggers do not face; these variables and challenges require a heightened level of intuition in our dynamic workplace. The gear we use is as varied as the trees themselves, but it is vital to understand both the capabilities and limitations of the gear we access for arboricultural operations.
It’s no secret that our industry puts a higher value on acquiring climbing talent than on qualified ground workers. Whether you’re removing trees with a climber, lift or bucket, you still need a competent ground crew to carry out the rigging plan. The best climbers in the world can’t carry out complex rigging plans without the actions of their ground-crew mates. The need for highly qualified, professional riggers (both aerial and ground) is at an all-time high.
Every rigging plan has roles that must be executed. Even the most complicated, efficient rig plan cannot be carried out if the team members don’t understand their role. Most rig plans require three team members to fulfill the roles in the plan. Aerial workers typically fulfill the lead rigging role, the most experienced ground worker should fill the primary roping role (unless a competent trainee is taking reps in a controlled setting) and a second ground worker should act as the assistant roper or material handler.
It is imperative that every member on the rigging team understand the rig plan before the plan is attempted. To safely and efficiently carry out a complex rig plan, the team needs to have clear and concise communication to ensure that the lead roper and the aerial worker both understand the cut plan and the rigging route. I am an advocate for designating one person to carry out the role of primary roper on any given job. Continuity is paramount for the safety and performance of every rigging operation.
Anyone who has been in the industry for any length of time has, at some point, come to the realization that every tree presents different challenges and variables to the crew performing the service. Some of the variables are known prior to the job plan, such as tree species, weather, ground conditions and relative tree health. We also are informed on many of the unique challenges we may experience prior to creating a rig plan, such as ground targets, property access, power lines and limited drop zones.
Once we recognize the initial known challenges and perceived variables, the rigging team creates a plan as comprehensive as the scenario allows or demands. It is imperative that the team members work together to form the plan. Multiple eyes, from both aerial and ground perspectives, and opinions help recognize more variables or challenges, and can lead to solutions for multiple problems.
As comprehensive as our best-laid plans may be, we are often presented with unforeseen variables that pose myriad problems, including compromised rigging points, preexisting mechanical or environmental damages or deformities and improperly calculated tree or sight dimensions. When faced with these scenarios, the rigging team must rely on intuition to make adjustments to the initial rigging plan. The team members on the ground may have a different perspective than the aerial rigger, so open communication is vital to clarify or amend the rig plan.
Once the rig plan is set and the variables and challenges are understood and mitigated, the rigging can commence. Even if the roper doesn’t have aerial rigging or cutting experience, it is of the utmost importance that the roper understands what the climber is attempting with the cut, rope tie and swing angle. Experience helps to shape a roper’s intuition. Ideally, the roper will recognize the angle of the notch, the properties of the tree species, the angle of deflection and the amount of rope drop that will occur once the cut is finalized.
I have avoided serious pain because my roper recognized a poor cut or poor rope angle and skillfully made up for my error with their foresight, resulting from carefully honed intuition. On the other hand, I have received serious hurt because a less-experienced roper failed to recognize a flaw in the plan or cut. Communication greatly reduces the risk of incident, but refined intuition can often overcome miscommunication and poor execution.
Prior to the cut, both the aerial worker and the roper must have a clear understanding of the cut plan. An example of a cut-and-rope plan would include factors such as direction of the notch and turn of the branch, dynamic vs. (semi) static loads, rope drop, rope angle, friction management, target avoidance, etc. Once the cut is initiated, the roper assumes full control of the rigging. Before the cut is made, the roper must determine the friction required to adequately control the descent of the piece while preventing shock loading, protecting the aerial worker from potential contact and avoiding damaging identified targets. Determining appropriate friction requires a strong understanding of the cut goal, the effect of the hardware utilized, the angle or rope drop of the rigging system and the weight of the piece.
Once the cut is finalized, the roper must quickly process all the factors at play. Ropers must process an abundant amount of information in a very short time to ensure that each rigged piece is safely and efficiently lowered to the ground. This process is repeated with every piece, because the rig path, piece weight and goal changes with every cut.
Some tree workers seem to be naturally gifted with rigging intuition, while most others struggle with the sheer amount of information required to consider and process with every cut. Many people take time to develop the intuition required to successfully fill a role on a proficient rigging team. Once you find a proficient rigger, or someone who shows promise as a well-rounded rigger, it’s imperative you do what you can to enable them to continue to hone their craft and provide them an excellent work environment to enable you to retain these highly skilled riggers.
The advancement of arborist-specific rigging gear over the last two decades has been astounding. Not too long ago, rigging practices in American arboriculture lagged behind many of the other gear-intensive rigging practices of nearly every other industrial-rigging setting. It was considered standard practice to “rig” with three-strand manilla ropes passing through a dry-crotch union, while additional friction was applied by wrapping the rope around the trunk of the tree. Fortunately, most riggers have started deploying high-end rigging equipment such as aluminum impact blocks, incredibly strong slings in numerous configurations and materials, large-bend-ratio rigging rings, low-stretch ropes and terrifically versatile friction-control devices, many of which have built-in lifting capabilities.
Because there are so many options on the market, it is critical for the team to research and fully understand the capabilities and limitations of each item in the rig kit. The equipment has become so good that rigging teams have the tendency to push the limits of both their equipment and their rigging abilities. Teams should consider implementing only one new item at a time into their rig kits. There are many tools that perform similar roles, albeit in slightly different ways. Intuition, once again, plays a crucial role when implementing new devices into the kit. Research and training are essential to maximize the proficiency of your rigging gear and practices.
Rigging requires a team of professionals who recognize rigging for what it is – a calculated operation passed down over centuries from several industries to maximize productivity and push the boundaries of what a few people with a handful of gear can accomplish. Our crews should be viewed as teams, and teams need time and practice to develop continuity, trust and expertise to maximize proficiency. Whether assigning employees on a crew/team or building a team as an owner-operator, it’s imperative to recognize the need for qualified people to fill the right roles and who demonstrate the proper intuition and deploy the appropriate gear.
Andrew Jones, CTSP, is an ISA Certified Arborist, production climber and co-founder of Rooted Arbor Care Climbing Solutions, based in St. Louis, Missouri.