Creating a Culture of Safety

Taking part in training is one element of a culture of safety. Here, Chris Bruner, CTSP, of Kingsborough Atlas Tree Surgery, Inc., a 13-year TCIA member company based in Santa Rosa, California, runs an ASTI-funded Chain Saw Specialist Workshop hosted by BridgeWood Tree Care Services. Photo courtesy of BridgeWood Tree Care Services, a TCIA member company based in Elk Grove, Calif.

Creating a culture of safety. Before we discuss how to do this, let’s take a deeper look at what a culture of safety truly is!

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture and safety as follows:


• The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group

• The characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

• The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

• The set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

• The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations


• The condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss

• To protect against failure, breakage, or accident

So, if we use some of the dictionary explanations, a culture of safety is the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group to protect against failure, breakage or accident. Another definition could be the characteristic features of everyday existence, shared by people in a place or time, that create a condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss. However, the definition I think best applies is the set of values, conventions or social practices associated with a particular field, activity or societal characteristic to protect against failure, breakage or accident.

A culture of safety is something that is, by design, built and taught; it is not some inherent condition. The belief system of survival of the strong and elimination of the weak, that superiority over others somehow “magically” makes a person void of mistakes and mishaps, is not a culture at all. Far too long we have operated on this belief system in tree work, the thought that “Rules and safety standards are for others but not me,” or that “Safety is everyone’s responsibility, so I don’t need to make it solely my focus.” This belief is full of flaws and clearly is not stopping the number of injuries and deaths in our industry. We must stop looking at others and finding fault in their actions and start taking responsibility for what we believe and stand for.

To create a culture of safety, we must first identify the factors that make up our culture.

• Who are we safe for?

• Mastering your craft

• Your safety first

• Be the leader

Who are we safe for?

Before we can build a culture of safety, we must identify the reason we need to. Do you have a daughter or son you want to see graduate or get married or whose child you want to hold when born? Do you have a wife or husband you want to grow old with and share memories with? Maybe it’s a hobby or project that claims your focus when not at work. Whatever it is, we all have someone or something we would step in front of a bullet for, yet each and every day we chance throwing it all away for some natural growing giants that can never replace what we would lose. I know, I have heard it all: “It won’t happen to me, I’m too good to have something happen to me, those rules and guidelines are just for the dummies who aren’t as good as me.”

If you believe those statements or any variation of such ideologies, I have a challenge for you. For the next month, follow the rules and guidelines and see if you suffer in your job. We all have car insurance and/ or home insurance, not because we know we will need it but in case we do, in case something goes wrong. The safety rules and guidelines are there not because you intend to screw up and get hurt, but because things can go wrong, and when they do, the consequences can be beyond harmful!

Master your craft

So you think you’re better than the rest and you’re too good at tree work to get hurt. Or maybe you identify yourself as professional and you know the risks you are taking when you don’t follow the rules and guidelines and are willing to accept the injuries or deaths that can occur if things go wrong. Well, I hate to break it to you, the truth hurts, but if you think that way, you are not a professional. True professionals focus on mastering their craft. To master any craft takes 10,000 hours of doing it correctly each and every time. Think I’m wrong? Let’s look at some folks who unquestionably are professionals and masters of their craft.

Michael Jordan shot tens of thousands of free throws and spent hundreds of thousands of hours dribbling and being on a court working on his art, his skill, his craft. He did all of this within the rules of the game; he didn’t work on carrying the ball or traveling before shooting a jump shot. He didn’t shoot free throws with his toes in front of the line. He never once took a short cut in his discipline while becoming a master of his craft.

Wayne Gretzky spent every second of practice like it was an actual game, from the moment he began crafting his skill as a kid. No shortcuts, no chances outside of the rules. He developed his skill within the constraints of the game he loved, and therefore is largely seen as the greatest hockey player of all time.

Employees with Pine Valley Tree Service, an 11-year TCIA member company from Gillette, New Jersey, review their safety-training binders during a tailgate safety meeting prior to starting a job. Photo courtesy of Hans Tielmann III.

These two, along with hundreds of other athletes, businessmen, businesswomen and industry leaders, will go down in history as among the best because they dedicated themselves not only to their craft, but to developing their skills within the guidelines of their craft. They are or were deliberate in their actions and disciplined in doing it right every time.

Discipline at its core is about loving yourself more than the easy way of doing something. Being disciplined means you choose to do something a certain way when there are other ways to try to accomplish it. Being disciplined means not giving in to the easy way when you know you need to do it the right way. Discipline is about creating habits, because habits create repeatable actions that lead to consistent outcomes. Safety comes from being disciplined in habits that lead to positive outcomes, because being a professional is more important than being just another regular ol’ tree worker.

Strive to be better than you were yesterday and better than you are today.

You want to point your finger and laugh at the workers in beat-up pickup trucks who “aren’t as good as us.” Yet the reality is, each time you choose to work outside the rules and guidelines of our industry, you are no more professional than they are. Keep in mind that we were all that individual in this industry at some point. It might have been your first day, week, month, year(s), but for some amount of time, we knew nothing or little about what we were doing. We developed into the skilled professionals we strive to be because we invested in developing our craft. Someone took time to invest in us to make us more than what we were. We are better because we were invested in. So next time you see one of these tree crews at the gas station or mini mart that is “less than” you, take some time and maybe invest in them.

Your safety first

This is not about the lie we have been told, that everyone is responsible for safety or that safety is everyone’s priority. Your safety first is about taking responsibility for yourself and your faults. It’s about stepping back and looking inside yourself to see how you can be better. To place safety as the priority in your work focus is the next step to mastering your craft. Placing your safety as your first priority is the step it takes to create the culture we desire. It’s not safety first, it’s about your safety first – being accountable to those who count on you, to those who want you to come home every night just the way you left.

It’s about wearing your helmet and not one-handing a saw, because you know you can do better than what you’re doing. Your safety first is about realizing you matter more than the money you earn. You are worth more than an organic piece of nature that didn’t call you for assistance. The simple fact that we have workers getting hurt and dying weekly because they value the tree, or the money that comes from that tree, over themselves is just baffling. Remember, this tree is just a tree; it isn’t a dying child inside a burning building that you have to risk dying to save. It’s just a tree!

Be the leader

Be the leader in your life, in your team’s work, in your company and area! I talk to people all the time who have hundreds to thousands and even tens of thousands of social-media followers who don’t always operate within the boundaries of safety. I’m not perfect either. I have screwed up and I have done wrong, and I own that. But each day I strive to be better than the day before. I strive to shape those around me to be better than they were the day before as well. You are the leader, and it’s time to start acting like it. Those at the front who aren’t willing to master the craft and place their safety over everything else – and who aren’t being safe for anyone – aren’t leaders. They are just standing up in a crowd. Stop standing up in the crowd and stand apart from the crowd. Be the change in this industry that is needed. For far too long we have injured and killed workers because we have been unwilling to take a stand.

Creating a culture of safety isn’t about the company, the crew or even the industry as a whole. It’s about yourself. It’s a choice, a goal, a vow you have to take each day. To company owners who want a culture of safety within their company, I say it is time to stop talking about it in meetings and start growing individuals into being the safe workers they should be. It’s time we start by placing the value on our workers over the work. When a “job” is worth more to the workers than their own existence, you have failed as a company and an owner.

Crew leaders, it is time to stop just directing people in their work. It’s time to stand up and lead. Begin to shift the focus from just developing skills to helping your people develop a life for the people they love sharing it with. When you start your job, talk about those kids and spouses. The work we do has potentially tragic and real consequences. Stop hiding those loved ones away. Talk about them each and every day. Mention them before a worker makes a climb or a felling cut. Put their safety first and make their coming home to those who love them your number-one priority.

Most of us have never had to tell a loved one that their father, mother, son, daughter, wife, husband isn’t going to be there tomorrow because you didn’t do your job in keeping their focus on safety. But it’s time to stop beating your chests about being a professional and time to start mastering your craft within the rules and guidelines we have. If you don’t like the rules and guidelines, get off the sidelines and get involved. We are one of the only industries that still gets to write its own rules and guidelines for what we do. Stop complaining or just disregarding the rules because you somehow have more knowledge than the rest of the industry. Get involved in creating or revising the Z133 safety standards or A300 tree care standards.

Professionals don’t complain about things, they work to change things. They don’t thumb their noses at the guidelines of their craft, they work to master their skills within those guidelines. I’m sure as you finish reading this, some of you will think I’m just a keyboard warrior or have never actually worked in tree work. But feel free to reach out to me any time via Instagram, and I will gladly have a civilized conversation about any of the things I believe in.

But don’t think for one second that safety isn’t important and that those rules and guidelines are just there to prevent you from doing the work that needs to be done. I personally lost a good friend who operated outside of those guidelines, and that tree wasn’t worth his life, wasn’t worth the countless memories he could be making and wasn’t worth the pain and loss all his friends and family and I have gone through.

Very few things in this life are worth losing your life over. A tree or a tree job will never be one of them!

Travis Vickerson, CTSP, Certified Arborist, NCCER Crane Operator Certified and a TCIA Qualified Crew Leader, was recently appointed vice president of operations for Chippers, Inc., an accredited TCIA member company with offices in Vermont and New Hampshire. This article is based on his presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO in Charlotte, North Carolina, last November. To listen to an audio recording of that entire presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online, at, under the Publications tab, and click here.

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