PPE for the Climber

PPE, an acronym for personal protective equipment, is an abbreviation now widely recognized by the public due to COVID-19. Face masks, shields, gloves and gowns were all in short supply back in March and April, as they were understood to be essential PPE for patients and health-care professionals, for reducing exposure to and transmission of coronavirus. The public also was advised to wear masks to reduce transmission, and these became about as hard to find as toilet paper.

While the acronym PPE may previously have been unfamiliar to the public, it was well known to tree workers. PPE is equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards. These are defined as any source of potential harm, and tree workers are exposed to a multitude of hazard sources during arboricultural operations. They include operating power equipment and being struck by falling or swinging objects, as well as moving objects such as a running chain on a chain saw. These are common hazards for all tree workers, but climbers must also contend with the hazards of working at height and in proximity to electrical conductors.

Climbers also take an additional risk – working alone. While there is a crew on the ground, the climber may be 40 to 100 feet or more above them, and it is a long 40 to 100 feet if anything goes wrong. How many crews do you know where there is only one climber? Many have only one worker who has the equipment, knowledge and skill to work aloft.

While hazard refers to potential harm, risk is the probability that the hazard will cause harm. If an incident occurs on the ground, for example, a crew member struck on the side of the head by a rigged limb, help is close and emergency medical services (EMS) has easy access to the patient. This is critical to a favorable outcome, as hypoxia – where the brain is deprived of adequate oxygen – is a possible secondary brain injury. If the same incident occurs aloft, the outcome may be fatal due to the lack of immediate EMS assistance. The greater the risk, the greater the need to pay attention to PPE – wear a helmet.

Note that PPE does not eliminate a hazard. The purpose of PPE is to minimize the outcome of an incident. While the tree care industry works to eliminate, modify or avoid hazards, PPE is designed to provide protection when bad things happen. It is your last protection against serious injury. This is one of the limitations to PPE. It can provide a false sense of security. If I am climbing while secured by a line, I may think I cannot fall, so who cares if I swing out and try to catch a limb? If I am free climbing, I am going to be very careful and deliberate in my moves. Either way, I can fall or swing into a limb, but the risk in the former scenario is that I am depending on my PPE to protect me from a bad decision.

This is not an endorsement for free climbing. It was a common practice until the 1920s, when using a climbing line – secured to the climber by a bowline-on-a-bight or a saddle – came into use. However, even into the 1970s, climbers routinely used the line for working the tree, not ascending. You still free climbed to near the top of the tree, then set your line around the trunk using a limb as a stop. The line was not really part of your PPE.

Climbing in the early 1970s had much simpler PPE requirements. You had an arborist saddle (probably with just two D-rings) and a half-inch, three-strand manila rope (if you were really into gear, you also had a rope snap) for working through the tree. But PPE? Helmet? No, too hot, it catches on branches and falls off. Safety glasses? No, maybe sunglasses on a sunny day, but that was about it.

Now PPE is an essential part of tree climbing. The PPE for climbing is outlined in the current ANSI Z133 2017 Safety Requirements for Arboricultural Operations. It includes:

  1. head protection that conforms to ANSI Z89.1 and Class E helmets where working in proximity to electrical conductors;
  2. eye protection that conforms with ANSI Z87.1;
  3. clothing and footwear appropriate to the known hazards and approved by the employer;
  4. a climbing line and at least one other means of being secured (a work-positioning lanyard); and
  5. a handsaw.
    If the climber is operating a chain saw while aloft, then an additional PPE requirement is:
  6. hearing protection.

These are not universal requirements. Other countries have industry standards and government regulations that differ. The United Kingdom’s Health Safety Executive (HSE) lists PPE requirements for climbers as a safety helmet, eye protection, protective boots and non-snag clothing, and when operating a chain saw in a tree, hearing and leg protection. The UK’s Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG) Tree-climbing operations (AFAG 401) recommends Type C leg protection for aerial work (all-around chain-saw-cut protection), however, if too hot – heat-stress concerns – Type A (chain-saw-cut protection for front of legs only) may be appropriate.

There are no requirements in the United States for leg protection while operating a chain saw aloft. However, chain-saw pants are becoming more popular. These have a good fit, are made of breathable fabric and provide saw protection. Some might argue that most chain-saw cuts aloft are upper body, so why the need? They are right, to a point. Most fatal chain-saw cuts aloft are to the upper body, but there are still significant chain-saw injuries to the legs while aloft.

So, what does the well-equipped climber carry as PPE these days? First, the basics: a helmet, safety glasses, saddle, climbing rope and handsaw. If a climber also is planning to operate a chain saw, then hearing protection is a requirement, as is a second means of attachment (such as a work-positioning lanyard).

Let us move beyond the basics. The climber also might want gloves to protect against skin punctures from spines and small stubs. A pair of comfortable saw pants to provide better protection against chain-saw lacerations is another possibility, along with boots that provide support and grip.

Maybe go a little further on that helmet and have one that protects against top as well as side impacts (remember swinging rigged branches) and has a chin strap. Also, consider one with a mic for clearer communications with the crew. A visor might be nice as well to protect against chips and other debris.

While incident data becomes more anecdotal the farther back one searches, a review of tree-worker-incident literature does not show that climber falls made up a greater proportion of injuries back in the 1930s to 1970s. This is surprising, since PPE was almost unheard of back then. We climbed by foot-locking without being secured. We climbed trees trailing the line behind us and did not tie-in until we reached the top. We had many of the same hazards, principally working at height and in proximity to electrical conductors.

Why not more incidents? Dr. Dennis Ryan, professor emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said it best. To paraphrase: “We did not have more fall fatalities back then because if you did not think you could do it [climb the tree], you didn’t try.” His comment was not meant as a boast, but an acknowledgment of our limitations.

And this circles back to PPE and the relationship to risk tolerance. Risk tolerance is the willingness of a worker to accept risk. Individuals who engage in high-risk activities, such as tree climbing, may become accustomed to the hazards and accepting of the risk. If they are provided a means of reducing the risk – the outcome of an incident – they will push their limits in another direction, as they already accept a set level of risk.

What influences high-risk tolerance? There are a number of factors you would expect to see – complacency, overestimating capability, not understanding the risk – but there is another one, and that is overconfidence in PPE.

We have a lot more gear today, and it all can improve climbing safety and efficiency. But too often we rely on the PPE to protect us from bad decisions. Remember, the most important PPE you have is not your helmet, but what is below your helmet.

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