Improving Safety Culture in the Tree Care Industry

The tree care industry faces many challenges regarding safety. From working at heights to working around power lines, and from using heavy machinery and chain saws to driving, tree care workers are involved daily in many high-risk activities. Injuries from these activities have the potential to be serious or even fatal. This is why many companies in this industry are constantly working to improve their safety programs, to provide a safe work environment for their employees while still delivering quality work to their customers.

In this article, I will share lessons I have learned in 20 years in the safety profession that can be used to improve health and safety systems and help prevent incidents.

Climber in training, Fort Worth, Texas.
Climber in training, Fort Worth, Texas. Our superstar ground worker, Marcos, soaring to new heights during his training! Photo courtesy of the author.

The challenge

According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), from 1992 through 2007, a total of 1,285 worker deaths associated with tree care in the United States were reported (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 2019). According to the CDC, each year, approximately 36,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries from using chain saws (CDC, 2017).

I started my career in the oil and gas industry, working as a consultant for developing environmental, health and safety management systems and auditing for ISO certifications in the early 2000s. From working in hazardous environments such as offshore oil rigs, pipeline construction and tank storage at terminals, I learned that incidents are preventable when there is a robust safety system and culture embedded at all levels of a company.

Achieving this high level of safety culture takes time. It also takes commitment from leadership and all employees, as well as investment in equipment and technology. It also requires a good plan in place to develop safety campaigns and continuous training, and to improve risk assessments and controls.

I joined the tree care industry in 2023, and it has been a positive experience. I have learned to see trees and plants in a different way, and passion for the environment is easily seen in the eyes of arborists. However, it also is one of the most dangerous industries, where preventing incidents needs to be the primary focus.

Figure 2. Hierarchy of Controls.
Figure 2. Hierarchy of Controls. Courtesy of National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH, 2023).

Safety is everyone’s responsibility

From leadership to crews, safety is everyone’s responsibility. Leaders need to lead by example, be present, participate in safety meetings, visit job sites and spend time with employees to show commitment. This is critical to ensuring company-wide focus and engagement in all safety programs.

When leaders set the tone for what the expectations are, spend time listening to employees, encourage them to speak up and recognize and reward good behaviors, employees will feel motivated to participate in safety activities and work safely. Safety activities should include required training, reporting safety observations, following procedures and regulations and discussing hazards and controls before a job starts.

Safety should never be a “check-the-box” exercise. It involves human interaction, conversations and sharing of ideas on how to improve. Everyone should feel empowered to share ideas and to use their stop-work authority when needed. As a leader, define goals for yourself to spend time to interact in the field with your teams.

Human behaviors

We are all human, and human behaviors are the cause of many workplace incidents. The human brain is constantly making decisions throughout the day that can impact work and safety. Many factors play a role in the way we perceive risk and how we make those millions of decisions while we work. These factors include our past experiences, our environment, our skills developed through the years, the influence of peers and supervisors and even our physical and mental health. The more we do something, the more comfortable we feel about it – and complacency often leads to incidents.

People have different levels of risk perception. Creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up and share their ideas, are not afraid of retaliation and know that safe behaviors are reinforced will make the work environment more pleasant and will encourage employees to behave safely. Promoting a culture of reporting, discussing, taking action and sharing lessons learned will improve employees’ risk perception and help prevent serious injuries and fatalities from happening.

Share personal examples and show the importance of reporting and taking action. One example could be sharing a story where an employee saw a hazard that was not previously identified during their initial risk assessment, such as animals on the property or a bee nest. Sharing that hazard and discussing preventive actions will enable all the other crew members to take precautions to avoid exposure to that hazard and, consequently, prevent a potential incident.

Risk assessment

One of the most important pillars in a successful safety system is performing risk assessments. Having a good plan in place will prevent incidents from happening, and this plan needs to consider all potential hazards and how to control each one of them.

Companies employ different methods to perform risk assessments. The most important thing to understand when assessing risks is that all hazards involve a level of likelihood of becoming an incident with consequences such as injuries or damage. Also, all incidents involve a level of severity. The focus should be on identifying controls or barriers that will reduce the probability of incidents happening in the first place, as well as reduce the severity or consequence if something does go wrong.

An example could be assessing the risk of working close to power lines. If there were no controls in place to prevent incidents, the probability of major injuries or fatalities in this scenario might be considered “very likely” (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A sample risk-assessment matrix. Courtesy of the author
Figure 1. A sample risk-assessment matrix. Courtesy of the author

And the severity of the injury would fall in the “Major injuries” or “Fatality” categories. We may say it is a high-risk activity (red zone). Figure 1 depicts an example of a simple risk-assessment matrix.

Hierarchy of controls

To reduce the probability of this incident happening, we can follow the hierarchy of controls (Figure 2) proposed by the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH, 2015). The first thing to consider is if there is a way to eliminate that hazard. If de-energizing the line is a possibility by calling the utility company, then that is the best control to put in place. If not, then other controls in the order of substitution, engineering, administrative and personal protective equipment should be identified.

The minimum approach distances described in ANSI Z-133 standards (ANSI, 2017), providing electrical training, using insulated tools and equipment, and personal protective equipment are all controls that together serve as barriers to protect the employee when the line cannot be de-energized. Nevertheless, the first step should prioritize the elimination of the hazard, and only then, if not feasible, should we move down the hierarchy of controls (Morris & Cannady, 2019). Make sure your company develops a risk-assessment approach to evaluate all hazards and to define controls that will be understood by all employees exposed to them.

Incident investigations

Incidents are unplanned events that may result in people getting injured or in damage to property, equipment or the environment. And investigating incidents, finding the root causes and taking actions can prevent recurrence.

Companies are moving away from identifying blame in incident investigations and toward finding facts and causes related to organizational and personal factors. This may include deficient or insufficient training or supervision or gaps in a company’s safety program, to list a few. It can be related to the employee’s ability to perform the job safely that specific day. Maybe they were not in a physical or mental state that would keep them focused on their activity. When investigating incidents, it’s important to get to the bottom of why the incident occurred and what were the contributing factors, regardless of the incident-investigation methodology chosen.

For more complex incident investigations, identifying the failed barriers or controls that should have protected people, the environment or assets from harm or damage will help identify the improvements needed to avoid them from being repeated. In addition, choosing the right team, collecting important data and performing the investigation in a timely manner will contribute to a well-done investigation.

Identify actions

The main purpose of these investigations is to identify actions that will provide a safe work environment moving forward. And for that, these actions need to be effective.

Figure 3. Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle.
Figure 3. Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. Courtesy of the author, based on ISO45001, (ISO, 2018)

To evaluate the effectiveness of actions, many companies follow management-system approaches such as described in ISO45001 (ISO, 2018), the international voluntary guidance to develop and maintain safety-management systems by applying the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” (PDCA) process. (Figure 3) After performing the investigation, identifying corrective actions and implementing them, check their effectiveness in the field; talk to employees to see whether they really made a change in the way an activity is being performed or how employees behavior has changed following it.

If the change was not effective, review and identify new actions again. Continue the PDCA process until the action is effective.

Reviews and audits

Performing audits or inspections at the workplace is a good way to find opportunities for improvement. Watching a crew member perform their job, having conversations at the job site and asking questions about their work and how they are controlling the hazards they are exposed to gives an idea of their level of understanding and perception of risk. You can also check if procedures are being followed and if there are any opportunities for additional training, coaching or materials and tools that need replacement.

Following the same approach as described earlier, using the PDCA cycle will provide the company with the ability to determine if actions are effective after implementation. Make sure your company has an audit procedure in place and that auditors are trained on what to look for and how to approach and discuss matters with the crews on site.


Enhancing safety culture in the tree care industry demands efforts from companies in this field due to the significant safety challenges workers face every day. Statistics show the urgency in improving safety-management systems to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities, and it’s evident that a robust safety culture is paramount.

Tree care companies would benefit from implementing the ISO 45001 standard or similar management systems that require leadership commitment, establishing safety policies and procedures, defining goals and responsibilities, involving employees in training programs and continuously assessing opportunities for improvement and taking action.

Prioritize safety in all you do. Make safety a value and start meetings with a safety moment. Track safety performance regularly to identify trends and develop actions for improvement. Define safety responsibilities, make everyone accountable for safety, recognize good behaviors and ideas and spend time discussing hazards and how to control them.

By following these tips and adhering to proactive safety measures, tree care companies can improve safety culture and reduce the number of incidents in the industry.


ANSI Z133-2017. American National Standard for Arboricultural Operations – Safety Requirements. Retrieved from
CDC (2009). Work-Related Fatalities Associated with Tree Care Operations – United States, 1992-2007.
CDC (2017). Preventing Chain Saw Injuries During Tree Removal After a Disaster. Retrieved from
ISO (2018). ISO 45001:2018 Occupational health and safety management systems. Requirements with guidance for use. Retrieved from
Morris, G. A., & Cannady, R. (2019). Proper Use of the Hierarchy of Controls. Professional Safety, 64(8), 37–40.
NIOSH (2023). Hierarchy of controls. Retrieved from

Andrea Simonin, MSc, CSP, is the director of safety for SavATree, an accredited, 39-year TCIA member company based in Bedford Hills, New York.

1 Comment

  1. I 100 percent agree to everything I’ve read. Hierarchy has always been a big conversation piece for so many job sites.

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