Today’s climbing arborists work in an exciting time! The last decade saw a large influx of new equipment that can potentially make climbing safer and more efficient. This increase in options brought with it a long list of sellers and manufacturers. If you purchase equipment for yourself or for employees, you know that deciding what to buy or where to buy it can be a daunting task.
This can be a challenge for even the most veteran tree worker, but imagine yourself a new person in the industry navigating all these purchasing decisions. In an environment that already has inherent risks, it is important we use products that are reliable, safe and intended for tree care, so we can keep our focus on the work to be done.
As professionals in the industry, we recognized we need support in navigating this sea of equipment. For this article, we collaborated with another group of industry professionals to chart a course. Our map is a list of questions we suggest asking yourself before purchasing a product. These seven questions can help you decide if the product is the best product for you.
These questions are not hard and fast rules. You can choose which questions to ask yourself. And we won’t tell you what to buy or what not to buy. But buying the wrong item can be a costly decision in more ways than one. It may be money spent on something incompatible with your needs. Worse, the product could fail and send you to the hospital. We are simply trying to give you the confidence to make smart choices when you buy gear.
Question 1: Do the features and benefits of what I’m buying align with the intended use?
It’s important to know what you are going to ask of your equipment, the intended use. Will it be for climbing or rigging? Does the item simply improve comfort, or is it something that prevents a fall? If a locking mechanism is included, will the equipment be locked and unlocked often? If the item is involved in friction management, are you trying to reduce or add friction? Is the ability to tolerate heat important?
The more you understand the intended use, the better your chances of purchasing an item that will provide acceptable performance.
It’s also important to understand your expectation of the equipment’s lifetime. Is this something you expect to throw away after the first use, or are you expecting years of good function? Depending on the equipment, there may be an expected lifetime expressed by the manufacturer in their instructions. If not, you might check reviews, discuss with colleagues or ask the manufacturer or distributor.
Question 2: Would the consequences of equipment failure exceed my tolerance level?
Consider the consequences of failure between a carabiner and a throwline cube. Should a carabiner fail, the consequences could be dire, potentially resulting in death, depending on how it was used. Comparatively, the failure of a throwline cube might be expected and result in minor inconvenience.
Understanding what will happen if your equipment fails is important. Will the failure result in a fall or perhaps just a little discomfort? Will the failure result in a small decrease in efficiency of the rigging system or an overall failure of the entire system? How likely is the failure to cause personal injury?
If the consequence of failure is low and you’re looking to save a few bucks by purchasing equipment that is less durable and/or of lower quality, that might be OK. However, if the consequence of failure is high and you are unable to confirm the durability and/or quality of the equipment, you should reconsider. Sometimes it is difficult to confirm the durability or quality, especially when purchasing online. The importance of this confirmation correlates directly to the consequence of failure.
Sometimes a significant amount of research is required. This research takes time and effort, and can be challenging to perform accurately with concise results. There’s just so much information to sort through that finding the information needed to make a good buying decision can be a pain in the rear end. But know that this time is worth spending. And the more frequently you engage in this process, the easier it will become. You’ll build a network of trusted sources you can depend upon.
Question 3: Does the equipment meet safety or industry standards?
Unfortunately, the ANSI Z133 does not offer strict requirements for climbing equipment. How could they when there are minimal ANSI standards built around personal protective equipment (PPE)? The United States does not have the same government-issued regulations on PPE as does Europe. PPE is even defined differently in Europe. Therefore, in the absence of a specific regulation, it is on us as consumers to determine our own criteria for what we feel is safe for use in tree care.
How better to determine our own criteria than to develop intimate knowledge of the markings on equipment? As we dive down this rabbit hole, we decide how deep we want to go. We could just scratch the surface and look for a marking of any sort on the equipment, or even a recognizable manufacturer. We could dig a little deeper and confirm that the standard marking matches the equipment type. Or we could go even further and confirm that the notifying body indicated matches the address provided. If we investigate even deeper, we can inquire about the declaration of conformity. Where does it stop? That’s up to you.
Before going further, let’s define the terms we just used, and, as we deep dive, you can determine what level of confirmation meets your satisfaction.
The following will be a very high-level, not-overly-scientific look at industry markings.
Ordinarily, you will see the ISO logo not on the product, but on a manufacturer’s website. Look for ISO 9001. This is an indicator of quality control in its manufacturing facilities.
ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) is a voluntary consensus standard for materials, predominantly metals, plastics and textiles. The ANSI Z133 Safety Requirements for Arboricultural Operations, or Z133, does reference ASTM specifically for harnesses, gaffs and chain-saw protection.
The letters “EN” (from the German for European Norm) followed by a series of numbers (and sometimes a date) indicate a European standard, and its revision date, that the product is intended to meet. For example, many ropes we use for SRS are noted with EN 1891, which is the standard for kernmantle ropes. Europe has a fairly comprehensive list of standards that apply to tree care. As such, it is generally a good sign when a product has the EN marking, particularly in the absence of an equivalent American standard. In addition to the EN labeling, you should also find a testing mark.
The CE logo (for Conformité Européenne, the European safety-conformity standard) indicates the product has been tested and meets the European Union (EU) regulation 2016/425, meaning the product can be sold in the EU. A manufacturer cannot put a CE marking on the product if the EN standard does not require it. Additionally, if there is a CE marking, the manufacturer name must be clearly indicated somewhere on the product.
Unfortunately, there are known cases of fraudulent CE markings. There is some additional digging we can do to confirm testing. A declaration of conformity must be provided where a CE marking is used. This is basically a piece of paper confirming the product, the standard and the testing. Many reputable manufacturers will provide this readily on their website for customers to view.
You can dig a little deeper still. In addition to the CE mark, there should be a four-digit number, which is the notifying body where the product was tested. The manufacturer will need to provide details of the notifying body, including the physical address. This can be confirmed on the NANDO (New Approach Notified and Designated Organizations) database. Use this QR code to visit the NANDO database. Try typing 0082 into the field for Notified Body Number. This will get you the information for a notifying body in France that is frequently used.
Since Brexit, products coming from the United Kingdom now need to have the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) marking. This has had a slow rollout, but is now required for products sold in the UK. Note the four-digit number that indicates a notifying body.
The EAC logo is another testing mark, used to confirm the product has been tested and conforms to the Eurasian Customs Union. In short, this means the product can be sold in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Though not relevant to the U.S., it could be a good indicator.
Back in the USA
The American National Standards Institute is a voluntary standard in the U.S. There are not many ANSI standards that apply to tree care, but the Z133 does specify ANSI standards for head protection, eye protection, fall-arrest harnesses, respiratory protection and first-aid kits. Some products may be promoted as conforming to ANSI Z133. The Z133 is not a testing standard, but for some manufacturers, this is the only means they have to communicate to arborists that their product meets the standard, particularly ropes. Unfortunately, this means anyone can put this on their product. Due diligence on the customer’s part is encouraged.
The Underwriter’s Laboratory tests products for the U.S. and Canada. Like the CE standard, a unique identifier can be found to note the testing body. Though UL was originally focused on products that could cause fires or electrocution, their testing has now expanded into other areas.
Added credibility, but not relevant to tree care
Sometimes you might see logos that give the product credibility, but which in reality have no relevance to tree care. The following are markings that you might find on your equipment, but do not apply.
The National Fire Protection Association logo might be found on ropes and is a good indicator of a high heat resistance. But that is not a guarantee that the construction is compatible with tree-climbing equipment.
UIAA is intended for mountaineering and recreational climbing purposes (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme, or International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation). UIAA testing is a good thing, but may not be relevant for professional tree care.
This list of markings might seem daunting, but remember it is not necessary to memorize it to be a good consumer. This list is also not exhaustive, as you may find other markings on your equipment. Use this list to guide you on your journey as you decide what’s important to you and how deeply you want to dig into equipment testing. Or maybe you decide to leave the homework to someone else. That is entirely your choice.
In Part 2 of this article, tentatively scheduled for the July 2023 issue of TCI Magazine, we’ll look at our last four questions: Are the instructions comprehensive, is the manufacturer reputable, is the seller reputable and is pricing in line with similar products from reputable companies?
Tim Bushnell, CTSP and ISA Certified Arborist, is an arborist-skills specialist with The Davey Tree Expert Company, an accredited, 50-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio. He chaired the ANSI A300 Committee and participated as a voting member in current and previous ANSI Z133 revisions (2006 and 2012). Tim is a past head technician for ISA’s ITCC. Most recently, he received the TCIA Pat Felix Volunteer of the Year Award and ISA’s Millard F. Blair Award for Exceptional Contribution to Practical Arboriculture.
Alex Julius (she/her) is the employee-development and safety-training specialist at The Davey Tree Expert Company. She is a Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA) and Certified Tree Worker Climber Specialist, and is Tree Risk Assessment Qualified. She is the co-author of “Tree Climbers’ Guide (4th edition),” and resides in Urbana, Illinois.
Emmett Shutts, CTSP, is a supervisor of arborist-skills trainers at The Davey Tree Expert Company. He is a Connecticut Licensed Arborist and lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons.
This article was based on Tim Bushnell’s presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.