Regardless of the increase in mechanization on the production-arborist job site, many tasks still require the fundamental equipment of rope, harness, connecting link, mechanical aids and other various pieces of climbing and rigging equipment. As such, basic equipment inspection is still a prerequisite skill for arborists working in the field. As with many fundamental skills, gear inspection requires constant attention. But it is often the first thing to fall by the wayside in day-to-day activities!
This article will review the basics of work-positioning-equipment and personal-protective-equipment (PPE) inspections for in-field arborists. The idea is not to look at specific inspection criteria, but instead to build a system or procedure for gear inspection. By establishing a baseline of how often, by whom, level of detail and documentation, we can construct a framework for all arborists to use for basic gear inspection. And this framework can be used for that mechanized equipment on the job site as well.
The first aspect of inspection is interval, or how often and when. As a rule, all life-support equipment and basic PPE should be inspected immediately before use. While this may seem to be a “no-brainer,” my experience as a trainer shows me that many climbers and aerial-lift operators rarely give their equipment a once-over before climbing or hooking into the work platform. Ground workers rarely check helmets, saw protection and other critical PPE before use.
This should be an automatic cultural action! A simple function check of connecting links, a visual inspection of harness components and stitching and a check for fit and overall function should only take a minute or two, but these are crucial steps in working aloft safely. (Photo 1) A quick once-over of helmets, safety glasses and chain-saw protection can spot issues before they become a problem.
Climbers, myself included, rarely inspect a regularly used climbing line before use! However, almost all do so immediately after a climb as we coil or bag the rope. This inspection by default is very effective if the climber is paying attention and ensures that the rope storage after stowing keeps the rope safe from harm. (Photos 2 and 5)
This same technique, inspection immediately after use, can work for all life-support equipment, as long as it is consistent and the time between use and inspection is reasonable. For example, climbing gear properly stowed for a few days after inspection would be fine. However, gear that has been stored for more than a week would require reinspection.
This interval for inspection by default may vary depending on usage and storage methods. Always err on the side of caution and reinspect if there is any reason to. We are talking only a few minutes!
Beyond pre-use inspections, a system for periodic, in-depth inspections should be implemented. As a general rule, the longer the inspection interval, the more in-depth the inspection should be. If a pre-use inspection looks at basic function, fit and structural integrity, a quarterly inspection should look closer and deeper. Turn those connections on the harness around and look under the fabric and webbing connection points. Clean and lubricate buckles as necessary. Limit fraying and closely inspect chafe points.
A semi-annual or yearly inspection should call for automatic replacement of worn items. (Photo 3) Rope or webbing bridges should be replaced long before signs of wear call them into question.
Once we establish appropriate inspection intervals, we should determine who conducts the inspection. Most inspections will be done by the person using the equipment. It only makes sense. However, as the inspection frequency decreases and intervals lengthen, we should look to others to inspect our gear.
Often an individual will fail to see issues with gear that they inspect frequently. This is a sort of frequency bias known as “my-gear blindness.” We tend to judge our gear less harshly. When we get others to inspect our gear, we benefit from their experience and decrease the chance of missing something. Make sure other qualified people take part in your gear inspections at regular intervals.
Semi-annual and annual inspections are a great time to bring in outside product or materials specialists to take a look at equipment. Typically, these inspections are longer and more detailed. They will look at the individual components of systems and assemblies. Inspectors with knowledge of materials and specific products can be a great resource in making decisions on wear and use.
Level of detail
We have already alluded to the level of detail an inspection should entail, but let’s take a closer look.
There is a direct correlation between the length of the interval between inspections and the length of the inspection itself. Daily user inspections are brief. The less often the inspection, the longer and more detailed it should be. This is true for often-used gear as well as seldom-used gear.
For instance, a semi-annual climbing- gear inspection may take 30 or 45 minutes. Assemblies are broken down into individual components. Each component is checked. Worn, damaged, questionable and/or nonfunctional items are replaced or repaired. The newly reassembled components are checked for function and compatibility.
In the case of gear that has been stored or is not subject to frequent daily inspections, the same process is necessary. We do our best to store equipment clean, dry and secure. However, the only way to be sure that what is in the gear bag has stayed that way for several weeks is to physically check it. (Photo 4)
For this reason, you may choose to store gear that is infrequently used as individual components or simple assemblies. This will allow a more efficient inspection before use. These semi-annual and annual inspection intervals are also an excellent time to check inventories and make sure you have replacement items as needed.
I highly recommend that arborists document all equipment inspections. Even daily or pre-use inspections can be efficiently documented with a simple checklist. The benefit of documentation is manyfold.
First, documentation helps with consistency and habit. Knowing what to look for and actually remembering it are two separate things! We all make mistakes. A checklist for inspections, even short, frequent ones, can help remove that chance of error.
Documentation of all inspections also adds an element of accountability. With a written record of inspection, the inspector can prove compliance and the employer can check for completion. This accountability helps form the habits that in turn form a strong, professional safety culture.
Documentation also can show trends. If a specific component wears or needs repairing or replacement frequently, documentation will show this over time. This information can be used to help examine compatibility. Perhaps a webbing component shows consistent wear increasing with every quarterly inspection. This allows the user to check for the interface of components to see if something can be adjusted to avoid chafing.
If function and interface are good, the user knows that this individual webbing strap will need to be replaced frequently compared to other components. Therefore, closer inspections can be made, and replacement parts can be stocked and ready to go when needed.
More reasons for documentation
By identifying trends through documentation, employers also can construct budgets and procedures for equipment repair and replacement that are relevant and accurate. This type of preparation keeps workers safe and efficient, as well as helps to manage costs.
Documentation also satisfies various legal and regulatory considerations for professional users. Compliance is important for many reasons on both the employee and employer level.
For the employee, the most important reason to comply with regulation is that by doing so, we can avoid the mistakes others made before us. The ANSI Z-133 safety standard is a consensus standard written by industry professionals detailing safe work procedures. Many of these procedures are agreed upon after a severe incident or fatality. Following its recommendations and procedures helps us recognize and avoid similar situations.
Equipment inspection is a vital step for safety and efficiency. While we have addressed specific inspections for arborists working in the field, the principles of interval, inspectors, level of detail and documentation apply to all equipment, from trucks and chippers to carabiners and slings.
Develop an inspection process that includes all levels of inspections from daily/pre-use to annual intervals. Document your inspections and invite others outside your normal working circle to participate.
Aristotle is reported to have quipped, “The life unexamined is not worth living.” His idea was to take time to look at life and judge its quality for the sake of improvement.
Let us, as arborists working in the field, adopt a similar mantra. “Unexamined equipment is not worth using!” We, too, can judge the quality and usefulness of our gear for the sake of improvement and continued health.
Anthony Tresselt, CTSP, is a consultant serving as director of safety and training for Arborist Enterprises Inc., an accredited, 31-year TCIA member company based in Manheim, Pennsylvania. He is also a writer, philosopher, student of gravity and independent trainer based in Manheim. His writing and thoughts can be found on his blog, gravitationalanarchy.com. His books can be found on Amazon. He is a co-founder of The Arborist Boot Camp (thearboristbootcamp.com), a transformational training experience for new tree workers. He is also a co-founder of Leadership Performance Mastery, an online, self-paced, transformative leadership course for anyone looking to improve his or her leadership skills, regardless of whether they lead one or a thousand (valuebasedleadershipjourney.com).