Today’s Lesson: Wake Up and Pay Attention

“May you dance as if no one’s watching, sing as if no one’s listening and live every day as if it were your last.” – an Irish saying

That is one of my favorite toasts. In my travels throughout the world of arboriculture, I’ve come to paraphrase this saying so it speaks to the heart of embracing the “culture of safety” we hear so much about these days: “May you work safely even when no one is watching, and live every day so that it won’t be your last.”

I absolutely love the life I have led in the 51 years since June of 1971, when I joined my father’s tree service as an adult (I don’t count dragging brush and stacking wood since 1958). This is the 100-year anniversary of the founding of M.F. Blair Tree Experts, my father’s former company.

While I’ve served as an expert on tree-maintenance safety and arborist equipment, one of the many clients of my consulting has been the Department of Labor, on behalf of OSHA, involving incidents in tree care. Through these cases and many others, I have certainly learned a lot about the incredibly broad spectrum of tree services at work every day in this country. From the sublime to the ridiculous, I can tell you that it does not make any difference whether your company is huge or if it’s just you and a ground worker, your safety on the job site, as well as getting there and back, is utterly dependent upon every decision you make. Choose wisely.

I deal with those who choose unwisely on a daily basis. Some of those people know better and deliberately choose to take a shortcut they have gotten away with for years – until they didn’t! Others should not be allowed to operate anything more complex than the flush valve in their jail cell.

Through all this experience, I have come to the solid conclusion that, with the proper resources, supervision and skilled personnel, virtually all tree-maintenance operations can be done safely. There is no doubt that falls, struck-bys and electrocutions figure heavily into our fatality and serious-injury statistics. But there’s more to this than meets the spreadsheet. These things don’t come out of nowhere and strike without warning.

Tree-work-incident analysis has determined that many of the dominos that get set up along the way to paralysis or a fatality may be traced to any combination of the following factors; and believe me, this is not a comprehensive list.

The dominoes

1. The wrong equipment or poorly maintained equipment was used. I have worked on many cases directly related to the catastrophic failure of a boom carrying a worker.

2. The personnel assigned to the job did not possess the skills necessary to perform the work safely. YouTube is loaded with examples of the climber almost getting killed while attempting something well beyond their skill set. The videos of trees falling on trucks and houses are also quite informative.

3. Personnel who knew better deliberately chose to take shortcuts that created an unsafe condition, i.e., climbing up on the chipper’s feed table to free a stuck log without shutting everything down.

4. Someone in a position of authority
orders crew members to attempt an operation for which they are not adequately trained or equipped or properly supervised. “Do the job or I will fire you” is not a particularly desirable motivational pep talk.

5. The condition of the tree was not taken into consideration when the work plan was formulated. A dead tree must be able to withstand rigging forces if roping limbs and trunks is part of the plan. If the tree is not stable enough, a crane, aerial device or other means of access must be employed. Many tree workers have been killed or injured for life for failure to properly assess the overall condition of a tree before entering it.

True example: The work order said, “Remove large, dead red oak.” The work plan said, “DO NOT CLIMB. Use aerial lift.”

The crew leader/climber decides the aerial lift doesn’t suit him. He comes down, puts on his climbing gear, flies back up and enters the tree. Full stop! What’s wrong with this picture? Because the work plan changed, the crew leader in charge was obligated to make a new assessment of the tree before entering to determine if it was safe enough to climb and strong enough to withstand the rigging forces it was going to be subjected to.

Well, he didn’t, and as it turned out, it wasn’t. When the roped-out leader slammed into the main stem, the stem sheared off below the climber, sending everything to the ground. The climber lived but sustained life-altering injuries. OSHA wrote a slew of expensive citations.

6. “The Cool Hand Luke Syndrome.” What? Failure to communicate. Struck-bys are a notorious side effect of the worker aloft not knowing the location of the workers below.

7. Driver’s education. Dr. John Ball informs us that vehicular incidents en route to the job, on the job and trying to get home are taking their toll on our work force. Most insurance companies now provide video lessons on defensive driving at no cost to the insured. Let’s review.

Spotting the driver when backing up: At this point, the spotter needs to be sure not to contribute to the statistics on “pinned/caught/trapped in.”

Buckling up: Think of it as PPE for your body. Think of it as a reasonable “do it or else” company policy.

Making sure everything is cradled, hitched, safety chained or otherwise secured.

Once again, YouTube provides hours of entertainment showing what happens when the driver fails to make any of those simple pre-checks and precautions before driving to their doom.

8. Lack of situational awareness. An active job site has a lot going on. Depending upon your assignment, things are happening either above or below. If you’re on the ground, then, in addition to being aware of the situation overhead, there may be things happening all around you also requiring you to be aware. If you’re the one working aloft by rope and saddle or in an aerial lift, those moving targets on the ground are your co-workers. Situational awareness for you is knowing where they are at all times. Do not fail to communicate.

There are numerous definitions of situational awareness. Google is a great resource. For instance, though it was designed specifically to the combat mindset, the concepts of the Cooper Color Code are directly transferable to a potentially hazardous environment. You know, like a tree job.

Example adapted to tree work. Condition White: Totally relaxed, unaware and unprepared. Save that for your recliner on Sunday. Yellow: Caution. This is the best state to be in from the time you leave for work until you arrive safely home. You are aware that danger lurks, and you need to be able to identify it and react if necessary. Orange: Something doesn’t look right and is looking worse by the second. Red: Too late, “something wicked this way comes.”

In combat or when threatened, you must be prepared to react. On the job, that car you thought was going down the street erratically and too fast just plowed through the cones and the “Men Working In Trees” sign and is heading for you! If you hadn’t been in Yellow to be aware, Orange to recognize the hazard and Red to jump out of the way as the car slammed into the chipper you were feeding, you’d be dead. It’s happened; make every effort to ensure that it doesn’t happen again on your shift.


Before you get so busy that you find yourself using that as the excuse not to do things you know you should, do this:

Go back over the above list and see if you recognize any close calls or full-on disasters that fall under the main categories. Think about what you did with the close calls. Did you stand down on the most serious ones and go over “How, why and what are we going to do to prevent this in the future?” Good on you, mate, if you did. For shame if you didn’t.

Go through a full equipment check before you get too busy. PPE, ropes, climbing gear, rigging equipment, pruning tools and all power equipment (from handheld on up through 18-wheel vehicles and 90-plus-foot booms). Repair, replace or destroy whatever fits into any of those categories. Think it’s too expensive to do this? A new rope or a brake job is a whole lot cheaper than what happens when they fail at the worst possible time in the worst possible place.

That’s enough for now. I hope I’ve entertained you a little, thrilled you a little and chilled you enough for you to consider and then act upon any of these suggestions that resonate. Here endeth the lesson.

Donald F. Blair, CTSP, is director of the M. F. Blair Institute of Arboriculture, founder of Blair’s Arborist Equipment, LLC, in Hagerstown, Maryland, and a member of TCIA since 1982.

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