Be a Pesticide-Compliance Superhero!

correct PPE
One value of a superhero is safety – using PPE and protecting themselves, others and the environment from harm. Shown here in correct PPE is Kathleen Mackey, Davey Resource Group, Northeast Ohio. Photo by Melinda Yoho.

What is a pesticide-compliance superhero?

A pesticide-compliance superhero has impeccably clean and organized storage areas, no outdated pesticides, stellar PPE and a knack for avoiding spray drift and unintentional exposure to non-target plants, humans and natural resources. They pass inspections with flying colors and are viewed as exemplary. In the PHC industry, this is pretty much as good as it gets.

Like a traditional superhero, the pesticide-compliance superhero excels by being guided by their core values. However, unlike most superheroes, a pesticide-compliance superhero is only human –-a mere mortal! – so they still have flaws.

A quote in a book titled “Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way” says heroes are warriors of everyday life whose sacrifices and noble deeds benefit us all. We’ve certainly seen this with how our essential workers handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and in how people in our industry manage everything from storm damage to hazardous trees to invasive insects and diseases. As essential workers, I definitely think our noble deeds benefit us all – and especially the trees!

Now let’s learn how we can put that “super” in front of hero. As we go through the qualities of a pesticide-compliance superhero, think about how they compare to those of Batman, Spider-Man or most of our other comic superheroes.

Characteristics of a superhero

Dilemma of morals: In a lot of cases, it could be between what the hero wants to do and what the hero should do. No matter how bad the villain can be, there is a moral code that needs to be followed – the Superhero Code of Conduct. Batman and other superheroes have a no-kill policy, no matter how evil the villain.

Acquire help: Batman always had his fabulous butler, Alfred, to help him along the way. In some Batman movies, he also has his sidekick, Robin, there to help him.

Adapt: During one tough time, Alfred reminds Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, of the words Bruce’s father had said to him when he was a child: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” This leads Bruce to gain the confidence to keep fighting in the midst of chaos.

Research: Another key element is that Batman researches his enemies to learn their true weaknesses. Also, having knowledge of his powers allows him to keep track of progress and see where there’s room for improvement.

One of the most important – and probably the most difficult – stages of superhero achievement is learning the difference between doing what is right and what is easy.


Now let’s talk a little bit about superhero values.

  • Safety: Using personal protective equipment (PPE), protecting themselves, others and the environment from harm.
  • Integrity: Always doing the right thing, even if no one is watching.
  • Leadership: Expected to delegate tasks and responsibilities.
  • Expertise: Having powers, gadgets, money, detective skills (Batman).
  • Perseverance: Never giving up.
  • Stewardship: Working to serve others and putting others’ needs before their own.

Coincidentally, these values are the same values we abide by and share as employees at The Davey Tree Expert Company. I’m sure these values also are present in all of your tree care companies. We live by them already, which means we can use them to achieve compliance.

Applying a soil injection
Lake Barrington Shores Illinois plant healthcare tech

How can we use the superhero mindset to be compliant?

Now we’re getting into the ultimate question: How can we use the superhero mindset to be compliant in our plant health care (PHC) programs? Well, the most obvious, overarching way to do this is to play into our values that we already practice on a regular basis. I’ll give you three examples.

Safety: Valuing safe practices over production. Sometimes this means taking a PHC vehicle that’s leaking materials out of service so you can get it repaired, even when you’re in the heat of apple scab season. It also is taking the time to figure out ahead of time where the closest hospital is.

Expertise: Ensuring that your technicians are trained properly and certified in the way your state requires. They’re handling chemicals that are effective but could be dangerous. Knowing what product to use, and how to use it, could mean the difference between life and death for the tree you’re treating. Also, pest ID requires detective skills!

Stewardship: Keeping the environment in mind when applying pesticides. This means knowing when not to use pesticides, in circumstances where alternate control options should be used. Just like a superhero doesn’t use their power unless they need to, pesticide applications should be a last resort.

The 10 steps

And now, I would like to tie this all together. Let’s see how you can earn a cape of compliance for your PHC department by following these 10 steps.

  1. Just like with any superhero story, we’re starting at the beginning. Here, you’ll assemble your team. Find good hires you trust to handle pesticides for your business. People with a willingness to adapt and learn. Become a certified applicator to lead your heroes to victory.
  2. Now you’re the master. It’s important to properly train your apprentices and get them certified like yourself. Be mindful of the laws of your state related to supervision of uncertified applicators, so you know what credentials and documentation your team needs.

This step is certainly easier said than done – every state has a separate set of regulations, all with different testing, recertification and supervision requirements. This is the ultimate trial and tribulation, but once you’ve mastered this, you’re ready to take on the responsibilities of operating a pesticide business.


  1. Villains can be looked at as pests, but the ultimate villain could be ourselves when our powers lose control. We must be prepared for the worst-case scenario. To prepare for any emergency, I think of three “P”s: product, plan and pack.
    Know your product. What are the main hazards associated with that product?
    Have a plan. Know where your nearest hospital is and have the right emergency phone numbers on hand for quick action. Practice your emergency response plans and spill procedures with your office.
    Make sure you pack your spill and decontamination equipment in the truck with you. To be proactive, you also can ensure you have pesticides stored properly in a clean, orderly area that’s locked.

Moral dilemmas

  1. Then, for moral dilemmas, we need to recognize the pesticide codes of conduct – read and follow pesticide labels and be familiar with your federal, state and local laws. Our no-kill policy should be looked at as a no-misuse policy – we abide by the label at all costs. This could look like taking the extra time to calibrate your equipment.
  2. Next, get help and use your resources. Batman couldn’t accomplish all he did without Alfred and Robin, and we shouldn’t be expected to accomplish things on our own, either. Get acquainted with your local extension agents, department compliance officers, company compliance officers and any additional training offered by your department. Find websites you can use to obtain
    pesticide-applicator credits in a pinch.
  3. With all these tools under your belt, you’ve got the ability to adapt – to new PPE, state regulations, invasive pests, and new technologies. Even when the world throws these elements of chaos our way and we falter, we must remember what Batman’s father said – “We fall so we can pick ourselves back up.” When new things are thrown our way, we can adapt by using new methods of application that are highly effective but also reduce exposure.
foliar sprays
While foliar sprays can be excellent treatments for insects and disease, there are many safer and more efficient alternatives. Shown here is a PHC technician from Davey’s Kent, Ohio, office. Photo by Melinda Yoho.

How has our industry adapted?

While foliar sprays can be excellent treatments for insects and disease, there are so many other ways we can treat trees that do less harm to the environment and/or the applicator. These include trunk injections, soil injections, basal-bark sprays or even drone applications for vegetation management.

These are all ways our industry has adapted to ensure their applicators and the environment are exposed to fewer pesticides. Ideally, we want all our product applied to go toward killing the pest and helping the trees, and not going off target. We’ve truly come a long way from broadcast spraying back in the early days of pesticide application.

10 steps continued

  1. Research: We need to research our enemies – the pests – to know what product is required to cure our trees. Proper identification of the pest is the first step to an effective integrated pest management program. If we don’t know what we’re dealing with, how are we truly going to know how to combat it? Knowledge of pest biology, ecology and control options is crucial, so doing research before an application is important.
  2. As for the knowledge of power, we are looking for ways to track our progress that stand the test of time. For us, it’s recordkeeping. Every state has different recordkeeping requirements, so ensure you’re keeping all the right records that your state requires. This can be an important step toward avoiding fines with a state department of agriculture inspector.
  3. Putting all of this together will lead to obtaining street cred – keeping our clients happy and confident in what we’re doing for them. Without these prior foundations – getting trained, knowledge of the code, doing our research, adapting – we could not sustainably keep our clients happy. Our PHC programs should be customized to fit their needs, just like how every Batman mission is a little different depending on the villain he’s facing and their plans.

Final step

  1. This leads us into our final step – doing what is right, which may not always be what is easy. There are a lot of decisions we need to make when using pesticides, such as which products to use that are most effective but also least impactful on the environment.

Also, we may need to decide whether or not pesticide applications are even necessary or helpful for our given situation. For example, if your tree is covered in aphids, it might be your first instinct to use a non-selective foliar insecticide to take care of them. This may not be the right thing to do, though, especially if there are pollinators in the landscape.

The right thing to do might be to wait for natural predators to take care of them first, or to release a colony of green lacewings to finish the job for us. All the prior steps will not just make you qualified to make decisions like this one but will make you confident in your ability to make the right decision. Once you get to this point, you’ve earned your superhero status.

10 Steps to Becoming a Pesticide-Compliance Superhero

  1. Hire qualified candidates who are adaptable and eager to learn.
    They don’t need to have prior training; but should have an interest in learning and applying pesticides safely.
  2. Train your team according to state regulations.
    States have different training and testing requirements for certifying and supervising pesticide technicians.
  3. Be proactive so you’re prepared for emergencies.
    Store and transport pesticides properly, and be armed with spill kits, PPE, decontamination supplies and all labeling.
  4. Abide by federal, state and local pesticide regulations.
    The label is the law!
  5. Use your resources.
    Identify your go-to extension agent, compliance officer, websites and courses to get recertification credits in a pinch.
  6. Adapt to new pests, laws and technologies.
    Use methods of application that limit environmental impacts and exposure to the applicator.
  7. Do your research.
    Proper pest identification is the first step to an effective integrated-pest-management program.
  8. Keep thorough and complete application and training records.
    Sometimes, department inspectors only check your paperwork. Having it readily available is the first line of defense. Some states even have sample recordkeeping forms on their department websites.
  9. Create custom programs that align with each client’s landscape.
    No more pesticide cocktails!
  10. Apply pesticides the right way – only when you need to, with the least impact.
    Remember – do what is right, not what is easy!

It’s more than being compliant

I want to stress that being a pesticide-compliance superhero in the tree care industry is important when developing PHC programs. We’re not just being compliant here. We’re leading an industry to an age when pesticides are used effectively, safely and intentionally.

Pesticides get a bad reputation in the media, and for good reason. There are agricultural blanket sprays and Roundup lawsuits, and even links between pesticides and human diseases. However, due to the nature of our industry and our ability to educate our clients, we have the opportunity to improve the image of pesticide use. We can show our clients that when an applicator has knowledge of customized PHC programs, pesticides can be effective while doing minimal harm to the environment. This is a powerful tool.

With great power comes great responsibility

And with powerful tools, it’s important to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. This phrase was popularized by its use in one or more Spider-Man movies and is known as the “Peter Parker Principle,” but it’s a proverb that’s been reiterated back to at least the French Revolution and a principle that has been practiced even longer. The principal was, and continues to be, an integral part of everyday life.

Here in the tree care industry, we work with powerful chemicals. We have the power to kill noxious weeds, rid trees of devastating insects and cure or manage disease. We even have the power to educate clients and change the public’s perspective on pesticides.

However, we must remember that the power of pesticides is a privilege. We must use them responsibly if we want to keep using them to benefit the tree care industry.

Audrey Sellepack is the pesticide compliance specialist at The Davey Tree Expert Company, an accredited, 51-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio.

This article was based on her presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To watch to a prerecorded video of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online at and, under the Resources tab, click video. For February Digital Edition click here.

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