A Bird’s-Eye View of Insuring Safety in the Tree Care Industry

Have you ever looked up while thinning the crown of a specimen tree and noticed a feathered friend looking down on you? If that friend could communicate with you, they would probably squawk, “What are you doing to my home, and why are you swinging limb to limb between branches with sharp, heavy objects?”

Although this may be an obscure way to look at it, this is how the industry is partially perceived by many people. These include insurance professionals responsible for deciding if they will consider you as a future client. The tree care industry as a whole is considered one of the most dangerous occupations. That is why there are only a handful of insurance carriers in the United States that will consider writing policies for tree care companies.

When it comes to underwriting, the same holds true. There are very few underwriters who truly understand modern-day safety standards and the mechanization of where the industry is headed. So, where does that leave you when applying for or renewing an insurance policy?

Before we go further, let’s define the players on the field. An insurer is an entity that provides you with insurance coverage and takes on the risks involved in insuring your asset. An underwriter helps assess the risk levels in each insurance contract on behalf of an insurer. An insurance agent sells insurance policies for one or more insurance company.

The supplement

Acquiring insurance begins with a lengthy questionnaire called a supplement. Once you painstakingly complete all the forms and send them back to your agent, they then submit the completed forms to the underwriters for review prior to the full underwriting process. Specialty agents who understand your business also will submit a detailed narrative about your operations, credentials, affiliations and other pertinent information regarding safety protocol to be considered.

Beware the internet

Once all that information is compiled, it’s time for the underwriter to go to the internet to review all the wonderful photos posted on Facebook and company-sponsored websites. This is where they will find images of everything from kids with chain saws standing on trucks to Photoshopped images of a tree worker holding an 8-foot log over their head. They also will find images of workers in aerial-lift buckets without personal protective equipment (PPE), not even a harness. They’ll see workers hanging off hook lines of cranes and, of course, plenty of images with the “one-handed chain-saw cut.”

The internet is a treasure trove for underwriters to review your operations and make decisions based on what you have posted without even a thought. It is not uncommon to have an underwriter flat out deny to quote a policy based on one “Ah-ha!” image found online. Although this may seem extreme, insurance carriers and underwriters are in the business of insuring companies with high safety standards.

That said, most people who will read this article are compliant operators. You follow modern safety standards, such as the ANSI Z-133, and follow guidelines outlined in TCIA’s and ISA’s best-practice
manuals. Many of you are TCIA accredited and have multiple credentials, such as TCIA’s Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and ISA’s Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ), etc. Most operators and owners I know possess the equivalent knowledge of a Ph.D. in tree care safety and have invested hundreds of hours in continuing education.

So why the hastily posted photos? Is a potential client really going to base their decision to use your service by viewing an image they found buried on a Facebook page? My guess is probably not.
As a professional operator, it would make more sense for you to neatly craft your social-media pages and websites to highlight all your accomplishments, explain your ongoing safety program, list your affiliations, highlight some of your staff and post some recent referrals. Potential clients will likely be more interested in your professional profile, and underwriters will have a much better understanding of your operation, which makes you more marketable.

Making yourself more marketable

So how do you make your business marketable to insurance carriers?

First things first. Take some time to review your affiliations and credentials for you, your business and all your employees. Consolidate your achievements and create a process to keep everything up to date. Review your safety program and tailor your trainings to reflect a culture of safety with a top-down approach. This goes well beyond safe practices while in production. Your fleet safety program is just as important.

Whether you’re a sales arborist driving around in a Honda Insight or a log-truck operator, have a daily inspection program and keep a log of all vehicle service records. Have your lifts and cranes tested and inspected, at minimum, on an annual basis. This goes a long way when completing a crane supplemental questionnaire or an on-site loss-control visit. Review motor vehicle records (MVRs) for your employees and implement a distracted-driving policy, as well as a personal-use policy.

Review your online profiles and update your websites and other social-media pages to reflect a culture of safety and professionalism. We all love our children, but having images of them on your website holding a saw is not going to bring in more work. Post your affiliations and credentials on your home page so they can easily be found by people viewing your online profiles. This will help future clients and underwriters understand your practices and protocols.

Although this just scratches the surface of what can be done, it’s a good beginning. Ultimately, safety is the number-one priority. A comprehensive safety program is a direct reflection of your loss runs and claims that have been paid out.

Choosing a carrier

Since there are very few standard-line carriers that offer specialty coverage to the tree care industry, you may want to seek out an agent or agency that has access to multiple carriers. If an agency is only appointed with one carrier, how can you receive objective pricing upon renewal? It is also prudent to find an agent who specializes in the tree care industry and understands your business.

Let’s put it this way; if you had a mature, specimen copper beech on your property and you began to see tip decline, would you consult a landscape company that specializes in ground maintenance? Or would you seek out a licensed arborist with years of experience in plant health care, and who keeps current on pests and diseases that affect trees and shrubs? Insurance for the tree care industry is complex and full of specialty endorsements to cover specific events. Why would you trust your business to the local corner agent who sells home and auto insurance?

Having your insurance with a standard-line carrier is vitally important. Having an agent, or agency, who understands your operation is just as crucial. If you are an active member of a state or national association, such as TCIA or ISA, reach out to them for possible recommendations or a list of agents who have in-depth knowledge of the industry and are willing to assist you with loss-control ideas and solutions.

Brian Fain is a licensed insurance agent representing Ferguson & McGuire Insurance Services, an agency licensed in 48 states and a six-year TCIA corporate member company based in Wallingford, Connecticut. He is also the past president/owner of Land Design Associates Inc. This article is intended solely to educate and improve the process of understanding and securing insurance for the tree care industry.

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