Climbing Gear: A Growing Risk to Tree Companies

Gear hazards are everywhere. Worn-out climbing harnesses, bridges replaced with rope scraps, non-functional carabiners, ropes stitched on home sewing machines – the list goes on and on. Photos courtesy of the authors.

Tree-climbing gear used to be so simple – a leather-and-webbing harness with buckles and heavy steel D-rings, a wire-core flip line and spikes. Maybe even a climbing rope. The good old days, indeed. Today, it seems like a new climbing contraption shows up each week. Everything feels expensive. We have specialty tools that range from industrial-grade rope to untested, garage-based “innovations,” and still there is a lack of clarity on who is responsible – for its purchase, its regular inspection, deciding if it should be used on the job and if and when it fails.

The complexity of modern climbing gear is overwhelming for most business leaders. We hire climbers and trust their decisions. Then climbers bring personal gear to work, and too few have been trained in proper gear inspection.

The result: gear hazards are everywhere. Worn-out climbing harnesses, bridges replaced with rope scraps, non-functional carabiners, ropes stitched on home sewing machines – the list goes on and on. The fact is, climbers (all of us) can make poor choices about equipment. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of awareness. We become attached to our favorite hardware. We fail to inspect our equipment. New gear feels overly expensive. New gadgets look cool on social media. And climbers love to push limits – on your job site. Let’s face it, our profession struggles with attitudes about safety.

It’s easy to understand how unsafe climbing equipment can lead to a serious injury or fatality. Here are three examples of real incidents directly related to gear failure.

1. Harness bridge failure – A climber ascends the tree and sets his final tie-in point. He begins working and loads his harness normally. The harness bridge fails, and the climber falls 50 feet. He does not survive. An investigation reveals that the harness bridge was previously replaced with an unsuitable material that failed under normal loading.

2. Lanyard failure – While removing a small tree, the climber is working from spikes and a wire-core lanyard, without a climbing line. The lanyard fails at the factory termination, and the climber falls 20 feet. He does not survive. An investigation finds corrosion in the lanyard termination that was not discovered due to a lack of inspection.

3. Carabiner failure – An experienced climber is advancing his tie-in point, attached only by a lanyard while resetting his climbing line. He changes body position and the carabiner opens, causing the climber to fall 35 feet. He is seriously injured with a broken back. Fortunately, he survives the incident. The climber later acknowledges that he regularly used a screw-gate carabiner on his lanyard, which he forgot to lock this time.

In our roles as business leaders, supervisors, gear inspectors and safety trainers, we see tons of climbing gear. An alarming portion of that gear is unmaintained, poorly configured or beyond its reasonable service life. Those observations led us to ask, who is responsible for the condition of a climber’s life-safety equipment? Is it the climber or the company? Who is responsible when climbing gear fails?

With a combined 23 years in this profession, we still felt unclear of the answers. So we went on a research journey and spoke with a variety of industry experts, safety professionals, insurers and accident investigators. We reviewed OSHA regulations, ANSI standards and manufacturer documentation for common climbing gear. Here’s what we learned.

Safety practices in tree care are defined by several important regulations and standards. Let’s start with the big picture. The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 defines who is responsible for safety in the workplace. This is found in Section 5, often referred to as the General Duty clause. It reads:

SEC. 5. Duties

(a) Each employer –

(1) shall furnish to each of his (sic) employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

U.S. federal law is clear that the employer has the primary role in workplace safety. However, it is not solely the employer’s responsibility. It’s a reciprocal relationship with the employee.

SEC. 5. Duties (continued)

(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

Tree care also is governed by another part of U.S. federal law. Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) addresses safety. Because there is not a “vertical” standard for tree care, we fall under General Industry (29 CFR Part 1910). Within that, Subpart I discusses personal protective equipment (PPE) and Subpart D talks specifically about fall protection, both of which are highly pertinent to climber safety.

A common point of confusion is whether climbing equipment is PPE or simply “tools of the trade.” The truth is that OSHA specifically refers to personal fall protection as PPE. These references are found in hazard bulletins, industry-specific publications and formal letters of interpretation. Defining climbing equipment as PPE has serious implications that employers need to understand.

Regarding Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) OSHA regulations (29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), employers are required to:

• prepare a written hazard assessment for each type of work;

• provide employees with appropriate PPE to mitigate hazards;

• enforce the use of PPE at all work locations;

• provide training on proper use of all PPE; and

• document all policies and training.

Specifically regarding Personal Fall Protection (29 CFR 1910 Subpart D), employers are responsible to ensure that:

• fall-protection equipment is inspected on a regular basis by a competent person;

• inspections are documented; and

• inspection records are kept on file for the service life of the equipment.

Inspect your employees’ climbing gear immediately. Include both company-owned and employee-owned items.

There are several key points here. First, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does regulate safety in tree care. And U.S. federal law is clear about the employer’s responsibilities in workplace safety. Second, climbing gear (personal fall protection) is personal protective equipment, and the employer is responsible to provide appropriate PPE, train employees and enforce use of PPE in the workplace.

The ANSI Z133-2017 for Arboricultural Operations – Safety Requirements reinforces these standards within Section 3: General Safety Requirements by stating that tools and equipment “shall comply with applicable OSHA regulations.” It reaffirms that employers shall instruct employees in proper use, inspection and maintenance of PPE, which includes climbing gear (personal fall protection).

After digging into the safety regulations, we spoke with accident investigators to understand how they would look at an incident related to failure of climbing equipment. It was no surprise their responses mirrored the regulations. These investigators shared the questions they would ask.

In our roles as business leaders, supervisors, gear inspectors and safety trainers, we see tons of climbing gear. An alarming portion of that gear is unmaintained, poorly configured or beyond its reasonable service life. Those observations led us to ask, who is responsible for the condition of a climber’s life-safety equipment? Is it the climber or the company? Who is responsible when climbing gear fails?

• Did the employer identify and document job hazards and define PPE required to mitigate those hazards?

• Did the employer provide appropriate PPE to employees OR have documented policies for employee-owned PPE?

• Did the employer train employees in PPE inspection?

• Did the employer document regular inspection of PPE?

• Did the employer train employees in proper PPE use?

As explained by the investigators, they would only get into employee behavior after determining whether the employer fulfilled his or her responsibilities for workplace safety. In other words, the investigation will begin with the employer’s policies, training and inspection records rather than employee actions.

Climbing gear is personal protective equipment (PPE), and employers have the primary responsibility for safety.

This input from accident investigators provided the clearest answer to our original question – Who is responsible when climbing gear fails? As we learned, the primary responsibility is with the employer. The employer must demonstrate that he or she has met the requirements for workplace safety before the employee’s (climber’s) actions are questioned.

Now, think about your own company. How thorough are your policies, training and documentation? How well are those policies enforced? And who will be held responsible for a serious injury or fatality? The fact is, we all have room for improvement. Every tree company, no matter the size, can be better in this area. Here are three steps you can take to improve safety immediately.

First, inspect your employees’ climbing gear immediately. Include both company-owned and employee-owned items. Be thorough and retire/replace as needed (per manufacturer instructions). Schedule the next full gear inspection and enforce daily pre-climb inspections.

Second, train your employees to properly inspect climbing gear. Begin with manufacturer documentation for each item purchased. Review inspection procedures at safety meetings. Climbing competitions are a great learning opportunity; every legitimate competition begins with gear inspection. Consider attending formal training with a manufacturer representative or training organization, and be sure to document all training events.

Third, establish logical gear policies for your business. Make a list of approved climbing gear and of items that are not approved for use on your work sites. Will you allow employee-owned equipment, and what standards will you apply? Create an inventory of assigned gear for each climber and plan for replacement of consumable items, such as ropes, hitch cords, harnesses, etc.

This research journey took us into the weeds and back again. The answers to our questions are clear; climbing gear is personal protective equipment (PPE), and employers have the primary responsibility for safety.

Now it’s your turn to take action. Use the steps above to improve safety at your company. Take responsibility to protect your climbers and your business.

Craig Bachmann is lead arborist and manager of Tree133, LLC, a TCIA member company based in Seattle, Washington. He is a Certified Arborist, holds a TRAQ credential, is a Certified Tree Worker – Climber Specialist, an OSHA-30 cardholder, an arborist skills trainer and an ITCC head judge and gear inspector.

Mike Tilford, CTSP, is director of general tree care for SavATree, a 34-year TCIA member company headquartered in Bedford Hills, New York. He is an ISA Certified Arborist, Municipal Specialist, a Certified Tree Worker – Climber Specialist and an ITCC head judge and gear inspector.

This article was based on their presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online, under the Publications tab, and click here.

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