A New Approach to Training

Participants in a chain-saw training session are masked and distancing. Photos and graphic courtesy of the author and Wright Tree Service.

This past year has been full of challenges, to say the least, with growth opportunities, successes and failures. All of these have been taken to the extreme in the realm of education and training. With challenges come opportunities to grow and develop new systems while perfecting old ones, and this would prove true dealing with restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to share with you a few of the things we learned at our company in the last year and some of the systems that have made group trainings successful for us.

When everything shut down in March 2020, I had to step back and reassess a lot of different areas of my vocation and current role at work. As a team leader for safety education and training at Wright Tree Service, a 44-year TCIA member company based in Des Moines, Iowa, and with many other roles speaking, training and in climbing competitions the last 10-plus years, all my “normal” was about to evolve. I had spent most of that time on the road, more than 250 days a year, and in one month all of that came to a stop. While at first it was refreshing and interesting to wake up in the same place every day, it also was not very conducive to moving the needle in safety and training for the industry to which I owe so much. The challenge became, “How do we continue to provide quality training and education to the people in the field in a meaningful and safe way?”

Like most of you, we took to the internet. With Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls, we quickly became experts at reading lips while reminding people they were on mute, and discovered exactly how awkward camera angles and placement can be! Initially, these platforms were excellent for keeping relationships going and improving communication by adding facial expressions and body language. As the weeks began to pass, we started to use these platforms, as well as webinars, to deliver educational content in the form of presentations. We also added interactive elements, such as polls or surveys, in real time to get audience buy in.

Here is the entrance to a first-aid training session, with a welcome sign, hands-free thermometer and hand sanitizer.

From there, we added more video cameras and began showing live training on techniques and tools using either the real thing or scaled models and props. This can be effective, but is limited by time, video quality and the span of the audience’s attention. It also is limited to non-intricate or non-multi-step processes. We realized that to deliver content in a meaningful way – where people were engaged and interested and retained something – we still needed to have interpersonal contact for training. It is really hard to safely deliver all the many subtleties of aerial rescue or tree climbing via video chat, especially when the end user has little to no experience for reference points.

Figure 1: This is a diagram of a room setup for training with social distancing.

While pondering the challenge of hands-on training during a pandemic, I had an epiphany of sorts. We, as arborists, are some of the best managers of risk in the world! Think of all the areas of our day where risk is present, and how relatively few of those risks end with severe physical injury or death. What is COVID-19 but another risk in our routine? If that’s the case, then we just needed to look at how we manage all the other risks around us and apply the same principles or practices to this situation. We do this through elimination, mitigation, PPE and training.

Elimination:
• Limit the number of students.
• Get rid of as many common touch points as possible.
• Pre-survey and test students.

Mitigation:
• Provide space for social distancing.
• Don’t allow open food or drink.
• Sanitize tools.

PPE:
• Provide hand sanitizer, gloves and masks to all participants.

Training:
• Stress PPE use and care.
• Practice social distancing.
• Emphasize proper sanitizing.

Next, we had to implement these concepts into reality. We will start here with aerial-rescue training.

First and foremost, perform the recon and prep work of the training site in advance. The trees must be spread out enough so that social-distancing measures can be met. They must be pre-pruned and set with rigging to eliminate people congregating or multiple people touching the rigging. There should be one person, with proper PPE, designated to lift and lower the dummy. A general-session area should be large enough to adequately allow participants to maintain six feet of separation. There needs to be a power source for a microphone and speakers. With the distancing required, it is important for the presenter to be on a microphone. The mic should be of high quality and remove as much background noise as possible. We find that two large speakers on movable stands work best.

The day of training, hand-sanitizer stations should be established and visible. There also should be clean masks available. A no-touch temperature-check station should be established at the entrance to the training site. People should be grouped together with the crews or teams they normally work with whenever possible. Proper cleaning products should be available at all doors and touchpoints. Water and drinks should be set out separately from each other by a gloved person and not in a common cooler. Make sure to have multiple victims to rescue or alternate skills for teams to work on so they don’t congregate. For the rescue dummies, make sure everyone is wearing gloves when they perform the rescue. Sanitize and wipe down all parts of the dummy, the carabiners and textiles as much as possible between rescues.

Very little changes with other trainings. Once we know the risks, we can begin to implement mitigation, and the steps generally are the same. There are a few differences when we run a multiple-day training such as our General Foreperson school, where we focus on soft skills such as leadership, communication and training the trainer, as well as the tactile skills of arboriculture. When confined to the same hotel with the same group of people, we have to have a larger space, marked entrances and exits, twice-daily temperature checks and meal considerations. We have marked seating for each student at each station, and we divide the lecture and the workspace. In each space, the student has his or her own chair, workspace and hand sanitizer. I have included a diagram as an example. (Figure 1)

These are just some ideas and guidelines that have worked thus far. Make sure to follow all current state and federal guidelines for your area. This is an ever-moving target, and we need to adapt quickly to win. Thus far, we have provided multiple types of training in multiple settings and had no COVID-19 infections traced to the training.

Arborists need to be taught, safety is paramount and this is one more risk we can successfully manage – if we keep up with all federal and local recommendations and are diligent in adhering to our policies and procedures. Put the safety of the whole over the needs of one individual and realize there is always another day. Be patient, understanding and good humans, and meet people where they are. We will continue to be the most amazing group of folks doing the most challenging job and winning, no matter the risks we face.

Phillip Kelley is a safety team leader at Wright Tree Service, Inc., a 44-year TCIA member company based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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