Tree care is inherently dangerous work. This shouldn’t be accepted as “the way it is” or worn as a badge of honor. Tree care can be less dangerous today than it was in the past. Three factors that have impacted safety in the industry over time are:
• Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – Safety gear is continuously improving.
• Education – TCIA and others provide low-cost, effective industry training to improve safety for tree care workers.
• Mechanization – With machinery, fewer people are needed to do the work.
These factors have the potential to impact tree care safety, but not all of them are attainable or the right fit for every company. Mechanization can reduce the likelihood of employee injury, but equipment is expensive, requires training for proper use, needs maintenance and won’t be the right tool for every location. Two simple factors still provide us with relatively low-cost ways to impact safety in the field. The first is adherence to accepted safety standards of practice, and the second is consistent use of PPE. I am aware these are not groundbreaking ideas. They are fundamentals.
I recently reviewed 45 ongoing workers’ compensation claims totaling just under $6 million in lost wages, medical and legal expenses. The following five scenarios are claims I pulled from the review.
Scenario 1: A tree care company was using a bucket truck for a removal. The portion of the tree the employee had just cut did not fall as planned and struck the bucket. The employee was thrown from the bucket, fell 40 feet and landed on the truck. Miraculously, he lived, but he has had four surgeries and is still in physical therapy. Medical expenses and lost wages are nearing $600,000, and the claim is ongoing two-and-a-half years later.
Scenario 2: A tree care employee’s right eye was pierced by a branch while clearing brush. Three years later he has had two surgeries, takes medication and wears glasses. He was fortunate not to lose the eye, but vision in the injured eye is less than 50% and he struggles with depth perception. The current total for this claim is $180,000.
Scenario 3: A ground worker was in the drop zone while a tree was being pruned. He was struck by a dropped limb and hospitalized with a fractured left shoulder, broken ribs and a punctured lung. He has returned to work but will have mobility issues in his left shoulder for the rest of his life. This claim is currently at $140,000.
Scenario 4: An arborist was making a pruning cut; his chain saw kicked back and struck his left hand. He had surgery that day to repair his index finger and thumb and is still being treated by a physical therapist. The total for this claim is currently $78,000.
Scenario 5: In 2018, an employee was let go for repeated no call/no show. He hired an attorney and filed a cumulative-trauma suit. The claim has been denied and no payments have been made to the claimant, but medical examination and legal expenses for this claim are currently more than $16,000.
I’ll start with the last one first. I chose Scenario 5 to highlight the importance of implementing and adhering to good hiring practices. Prior to COVID-19, nearly every tree care company I talked to told me they were booked weeks out and their biggest challenge was hiring enough employees. The temptation in the busiest times is to hire someone – even if it means hiring anyone.
Unfortunately, the employee hired out of desperation rarely works out. Will he or she show up on time? Respect your equipment? Act like a professional while wearing the company shirt and driving your truck? Will that employee put in a fair day’s work, adhere to your rules and work in a safe manner? Most of the time the answer is no, but sometimes it’s worse than no. Sometimes they get a lawyer and file a vindictive workers’ compensation claim.
I chose the first four examples because in each one the injured person either lacked appropriate PPE or failed to follow industry-standard safety practices. These incidents would have been eliminated or at least minimized by:
• fall protection;
• safety glasses;
• managing the drop zone through established rules and communication; and
• two-handed chain-saw use.
Instead, all four employees suffered injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and the total cost of the four claims is currently $998,000.
“I believe in the basics: attention to, and perfection of, tiny details that might be commonly overlooked. They may seem trivial, perhaps even laughable to those who don’t understand, but they aren’t. They are fundamental to your progress in basketball, business and life. They are the difference between champions and near champions.” – John Wooden, NCAA basketball coach
They can also be the difference between who goes to the hospital and who goes home at the end of the day.
Jeffry Blackman is program manager for the ArborMax Insurance Program, a program of Eydent Insurance Services, LLC, a 15-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.