Life-Changing Lessons Learned After Serious Incident

Because of the sensitive nature of this report and the incident that prompted it, Frank (not his real name), owner of a seven-year TCIA member company based in California, asked that his and his company’s names not be used. He came to us with the following information, saying, “I feel there’s something to be learned here, and I think there’s value to telling the story. That’s why we’re all part of TCIA.”

The limb lying on the ground is an example of the size of the branch that failed. Photos courtesy of “Frank.”

As Frank tells it, the incident occurred June 10, 2020, not long after lunchtime. “It was a warm, clear day, not windy, so weather wasn’t a contributing factor,” he says. “The crew was working on an approximately 75-foot broad-spread oak, a species that was not uncommon to us. There were two or three climbers on the job and three ground workers, and the tree was in the backyard of a private residence.” He adds that he was not personally on site at the time of the incident, but was rotating through visits to other job sites that day, including this one.

“We’re not a big company, so I visit each site every day,” he continues. “We had scripted out the work to be done at the site first thing that morning, and we have skilled-enough climbers that I felt confident they could choreograph their own climb (route) to achieve the job objectives.

“Part of the goal was to reduce branch-end weight,” Frank explains. “This was a multi-stemmed tree with no dominant central leader. You would almost need to tie in to each stem individually in this tree. In a tree with a central leader, you can more easily place an overhead or ‘high’ tie-in to assist in accessing any lateral branch.

“Based on what I heard second-hand when I got to the site, there was an inability to tie in above the climber to access where the work needed to be done,” he says. “So he used a ground-anchored, stationary rope system (SRS) and climbed even with or slightly above his primary suspension point. I’m a 25-plus-year veteran of tree care, and this is an acceptable method in this situation.

“Because of the climber’s inability to tie overhead, a climbing line was placed in a substantial branch union approximately three feet below the climber. The climber then proceeded to utilize his ‘flip-line,’ or body-
positioning lanyard, to secure himself into the smaller-diameter (3 to 4 inches) branches above the aforementioned rope, near the work to be performed.

“At one point, his body movement caused the branch he was ‘flipped’ into to tear out, and he fell about 4 to 5 feet, until he came into contact with his primary suspension point. His rope ran through a 6-inch branch union at that point, which is very appropriate for the species of oak we were working on. But he either landed on the lateral branch, which then broke, or his fall caused a shock load that tore the limb off, and he did a free fall to the ground, about 40 to 45 feet. So it was not an equipment failure, it was a branch failure. The limb came all the way to the ground with him, and as horrible as this sounds, it snagged on a fence and somewhat decelerated his fall to a concrete patio, which probably was the saving grace that allowed him to live.”

Frank says there was no indication prior to the job that the tree branch might create a risk situation. “We had competent arborists perform an assessment of the limb afterward, and there was nothing to show it might have failed,” he notes. “I was familiar with this tree and had been in it myself, since we’d cycled through maintenance for this particular tree at least three or four times.”

“Frank’s” hand is showing the diameter of the limb at its attachment point.

Among the climber’s injuries were a broken pelvis and a fractured and/or dislocated shoulder. “Because of HIPAA, the medical staff, first responders, et cetera, can’t tell you anything about the extent of the injuries,” says Frank. “You don’t know if he’s paralyzed, going to die, nothing. Your gut hurts, and you’re praying this guy lives. If you have a soul and you care for your employees, this is one of the worst things that could happen.”

Frank says his climber was in the hospital at least two months and out of work for several months, but thankfully has returned to work, if in a somewhat-limited capacity. “I love this guy, he’s an exceptional employee,” he adds. “He now is my safety leader and is helping to draft all our updated safety policies.” Frank adds that his company also is moving in the direction of having a CTSP on staff.

According to Frank, there are two takeaways from the incident that he’d like to impress upon others in the tree care industry. “Number one, there were huge medical bills involved. If you’re not insured or doing what you should be, or are defrauding workers’ comp, you’re taking a hell of a risk. And the second, even more important thing, you could lose your employee. He could have died or been paralyzed. It’s a soul-wrenching moment when you look family members in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I hope he lives.’”

Finally, Frank says the time immediately after the incident was one of self-reflection. “These big ones really make you re-evaluate,” he notes. “I’ve always been safety conscious, and I felt confident that I’d actively participated in and conducted good training. I feel we’re in the upper 10% of having competent climbers, and we have the right training and equipment. So I re-evaluated our work culture.

“In retrospect, I felt he (the climber) did not isolate his rope as well as he could have,” he continues. “So I asked myself, ‘Did I train him well enough? Should someone on the ground or another climber have said something if they noticed something didn’t look quite right?’ I realized that somehow, crew psychology had failed, and there was a cloud of complacency that had developed. I feel culpable in that area, that I didn’t have a strong enough attitude toward safety. I feel I let the psychology of our crew flag a little, as far as them doing their own, individual thing. I don’t want to be a dictator, but I need to have things done the way I know is right. I will forever beat myself up about this, wondering what I could have done differently.”

Frank took other steps, including immediately implementing quarterly, day-long safety training and greater safety documentation. He also realized he was trying to cover too much ground with 20 full-time employees. “There’s only one of me, and I was trying to do too much. So I slashed my company in half by seniority, and I’m already seeing huge improvement.”

Frank concludes, “You have to teach passionately and give those near misses their due attention. They should speak to you and cause that psychological shift. In this profession, we walk around with a proverbial target on our backs each and every day. To even attempt to minimize the risk we face as tree care professionals, we must embrace the risk as real and imminent. To be a true risk manager, you must be willing to say the right things to the right people at the right time. Do not delay when it comes to safety.”

Final note: Frank’s company was cited by Cal/OSHA under a tree care-specific regulation for failing to provide an effective fall-protection plan, essentially finding fault with the way the climber tied in, and he was handed a substantial fine. At the end of the day, according to Frank, OSHA didn’t buy into anything that resembled an excuse and held the company to strict criteria for providing a safe work environment for its employees. Although Frank appealed and his appeal was considered, a citation still was issued to his company.

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