Recommended Best Practices for Tree Care Operations During COVID-19

This crew with Asplundh Tree Expert, LLC, in Proctorville, Ohio, stays safe by wearing masks whenever they can’t maintain six feet of distance. Photo courtesy of Asplundh Tree Expert, LLC.

As tree care businesses across the United States and around the world grapple with the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic and move to reopen, TCIA has compiled a guide of industry resources and “best practices” to prioritize health and safety in these rapidly changing conditions. It appears COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, so ensuring our members are implementing the industry’s best practices is critical now more than ever.

TCIA’s best practices include general guidelines as well as those specific to the tree care industry, and are outlined in detail in “Recommended Best Practices for Tree Care Companies During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a document available on TCIA’s COVID-19 Guidance webpage at tcia.org. This article will highlight some of those recommendations employers can use to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, as well as point out broad ways employers may choose to look at this situation and relate to employees.

It should be noted that SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a new virus, and much is not known about it. The practices outlined in this article reflect what we know at the time of writing. We are sure to learn more about the virus in the weeks, months and years ahead.

TCIA believes the best practices outlined in “Recommended Best Practices for Tree Care Companies During the COVID-19 Pandemic” and reiterated in this article are applicable not only to work, but to life outside of the office or job site. These best practices should not end when the employee goes home for the day. Employers cannot dictate how their employees behave while “off the clock,” but they can educate and encourage them to prioritize the health of themselves, their co-workers, their friends and loved ones and their communities. TCIA encourages our members to continue prioritizing health and safety while the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

Routine precautions & general guidelines

The following precautions are adapted from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19,” located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website; “Recommended Best Management Practices for the Arboriculture Industry During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” by Alexander Martin; and TCIA’s COVID-19 Guidance webpage on tcia.org.

• Maintain clean and hygienic workplaces.

◊ Disinfectants should be readily available to clean any surfaces that are touched regularly, including but not limited to vehicle interiors, door handles, power tools and operating controls. Disinfecting should occur at least twice daily including but not limited to the end of each workday.

◊ A list of EPA-approved products for use against the COVID-19 virus can be found on TCIA’s COVID-19 Guidance webpage.

• Promote regular and thorough hand-washing by any individuals involved with your business.

◊ In the absence of hand-washing facilities, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol by volume) should be readily available for all employees and visitors.

◊ Signs reminding employees of hand-washing and other cleaning techniques should be posted wherever appropriate.

• Visitors to the office or job site should be limited to the greatest degree possible. If a visit is necessary, all visitors should comply with all the best practices outlined in this document, as well as any applicable state law.

• Encourage employees to practice proper cough etiquette and hand hygiene.

• Encourage employees to avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands.

• Insist that employees stay home if they are not feeling well and/or display symptoms of infection (including but not limited to a new onset of coughing, sneezing, fever, runny nose or change in taste/smell). A list of common COVID-19 symptoms can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html.

◊ Continue to communicate and promote that employees must stay home, even if experiencing only mild symptoms consistent with those of COVID-19.

◊ Sick employees should follow the CDC guide, “What to do if you are sick.”

• Display all U.S. Department of Labor posters required by law in the workplace, keeping in mind that common areas where labor-law posters typically are displayed may be off limits during the pandemic. These posters can be found at https:// www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic.

• Employees should NOT share personal articles, food or water.

• Employees who are able should be directed to work from home, if possible.

• Client interaction should be minimized.

◊ Whenever possible, conversations with clients should be conducted via a telephone call, a video call or through email or text. Encourage the client to stay inside or away while employees are on the job site, where applicable.

◊ Estimates, invoices and other documents should be exchanged electronically, when possible. If the client does not have these capabilities, documents should be left somewhere where interaction between clients and employees is minimized, such as in a mailbox.

• Some states and municipalities require all members of the public to wear masks when outside of their home. Businesses should always comply with the laws in their jurisdiction. Where the use of a mask is not required, all employees still should wear masks when social distancing is a challenge.

◊ The CDC guidance on wearing a mask or face covering can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html.

Wearing a mask is one of the most highly recommended practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

General measures specific to the arboriculture industry

Employee rotation and disinfecting

• Whenever possible, prevent the rotation of employees to different crews, work sites, duties or time slots to reduce the risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19.

• When possible, employers should arrange for employees to arrive to work in staggered shifts in order to limit the number of people in one space at any given time.

◊ Employers also may encourage employees to arrive at the job site directly rather than reporting to a central location, if feasible.

• Where employee rotation cannot be avoided, employees should properly disinfect all surfaces, including but not limited to the interior of offices, door handles, vehicles, heavy machinery and workplace gear and tools in accordance with CDC disinfecting protocols.

Food and water

• Employees should NOT share food or water with other individuals.

• Employees should arrive at work with enough food and water for the workday.

• Employees should avoid eating in fleet vehicles or other enclosed vehicle areas whenever possible.

Employee rest periods (meal break, rest break)

• Employees should maintain a minimum of 6 feet (2 meters) from other individuals during rest periods/breaks.

Crew meetings

• Safety meetings, job-site briefings and other crew meetings should be conducted with a minimum of 6 feet (2 meters) between employees.

Distancing

• Employers should designate one employee to handle jobs that involve contact with shared tools, surfaces, vehicles, etc.

◊ For example, one employee should handle locking/unlocking the office door every day, one person should be responsible for loading/unloading tools from the truck, one employee should drive the truck to the job site, etc.

• To limit employee-to-employee contact, changes to crew assignments should be limited as much as possible.

Frequent handwashing is part of our brave new world.

Workflow

• Employers should identify “choke points” and “high-risk areas” prior to employees returning to work. These are areas where employees typically congregate or where social distancing is more challenging.

• Employers may consider posting signs reiterating the need to social distance in these areas or to avoid them entirely.

• For the tree care industry, choke points may include but are not limited to:

◊ Truck toolboxes

◊ Refueling areas

◊ Shop areas

◊ Vehicle cabs

◊ Landing zone

◊ Chipper-infeed area

◊ Lunch area

◊ Rigging lines

Employer/employee recommendations

• Employers should recognize that COVID-19 can result in stress and anxiety among employees.

• Safety needs to continue to be a priority for all tree care industry workers, and employers should recognize that, during these difficult times, employees may need more support in order to remain focused on each job at hand.

• Employers should inform employees if they may have been exposed to the virus, but not disclose personal medical information for an employee who is suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19.

• Employers should consider ceasing operations when an employee has tested positive for COVID-19 or the crew has come into contact with a client who has tested positive for COVID-19. State or local health-department protocols may be applicable in this situation; employers should familiarize themselves with the procedures in their jurisdiction.

• Employers should reimburse the additional mileage for employees who use personal vehicles to drive to job sites and provide an allowance for employees to supply their own water.

• Employers should encourage cashless transactions, especially electronic, remote or online payment platforms. Face-to-face interaction with clients should be eliminated or reduced as much as possible.

Key employer considerations

As tree care companies operate in a world impacted by COVID-19, several key questions must be answered on a regular basis. Below are some sample questions employers should be thinking about regularly as tree care companies continue operations:

• Are our procedures up to date with our state’s health-department guidelines?

• Do we need to take additional precautions for a certain job? When we operate in a certain area?

• Should certain jobs wait until the threat of COVID-19 transmission in the community is reduced? Is the job something we consider “essential?”

Considerations for employee temperature checks and COVID-19 prevention

So-called “temperature checks” are becoming increasingly popular for employers as their employees return to work. This process typically involves an employer taking the temperature of all employees prior to work each day and sending the employee home if they have a fever, a symptom of COVID-19.

Employers should carefully consider the entire process of temperature checks if this is a route they choose to explore. Confidentiality is key, and employers should carefully consider whether staff , a third party or the employees themselves (through self-reporting) should oversee the process.

Proper training, PPE, a space where confidentiality can be maintained and a proper thermometer (preferably no-touch) are some of the considerations employers need to address before setting up a temperature-taking program. It also should be noted that fever is an imperfect measure for determining if an employee has COVID-19; plenty of people have demonstrated the ability to transmit the disease without showing any symptoms.

As we learn more about COVID-19 and how the disease is transmitted, more information about temperature checks and other screening capabilities are sure to come out. TCIA encourages all employers to carefully consider the pros and cons of this practice, and to set up controls to ensure safety, reliability and confidentiality are observed if you are considering the use of temperature checks.

Considerations if an employee tests positive for COVID-19

• Employees should self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.

• When an employee reports signs or symptoms of COVID-19, the employee should not show up to conduct in-person work, and should notify their direct supervisor immediately.

• If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, he/she should notify the human resources director (or another applicable individual) immediately.

• Employers should notify state officials if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

• Employers should notify all relevant personnel, including employees, customers, vendors, etc., with whom the diagnosed employee has come in close contact. The employer should request all personnel who have been in close contact with the employee self-quarantine for 14 days. Confidentiality of the employee who tested positive should be maintained.

• Employers should notify all employees of the fact that an employee (who shall remain anonymous) has tested positive for COVID-19. This message shall include the following:

◊ Reminder to all employees of CDC and local health-department testing guidelines.

◊ Reminder to all employees of policies and procedures that have been put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.

◊ Acknowledgment of the emotional impact this news and all COVID-19 news is having on members of the employer’s organization, and encourage employees to contact their supervisors with any questions or concerns.

• Employers should arrange for a thorough cleaning of the areas of employer’s facilities with which the employee with a confirmed case came in contact. Such cleaning should follow all applicable CDC guidelines and cleaning standards.

TCIA’s “Recommended Best Practices for Tree Care Companies During the COVID-19 Pandemic” (https://www.tcia.org/TCIA/News/COVID-19/Tree-Care-Best-Practices-for-COVID-19.aspx) document and TCIA’s COVID-19 Guidance webpage are fluid resources and will be updated as more becomes known about COVID-19 and as best practices for avoiding its spread change.

MORE INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC INFORMATION

Alexander Martin’s “Recommended Best Management Practices for the Arboriculture Industry During the COVID-19 Pandemic” includes more recommendations specific to tree care operations in addition to those mentioned in this article. These include sharing of PPE, management of fleet vehicles, management of heavy-machinery operations, management of small-engine equipment and hand tools, refueling, pruning practices, felling operations, tree climbing, rigging and tree planting. The complete report can be found at https://www.tcia.org/TCI-publications/pdfs/Martin-Best_Management_Practices_COVID-19_Pandemic.pdf.

Here are a couple of examples.

Section 5.0: Personal protective equipment specific to arboriculture

There are inherent risks of transmission of COVID-19 through the sharing of personal protective equipment (PPE) specific to arboriculture, including but not limited to helmets, ear protection, eye protection and chain-saw-protective clothing. Accordingly, the following recommendations specific to PPE are:

Section 5.1: The employer should make available the necessary PPE for employees. This would reduce the possible sharing of PPE.

Section 5.2: No employee should share PPE with another individual. Employers should prohibit the sharing of PPE.

Section 5.3: PPE should be in the care of the employee to whom it is assigned.

Section 5.4: PPE should not be stored loosely within fleet vehicles or other enclosed areas. PPE should be stored in separate air-tight containers as assigned to individual employees.

Section 6.0: Management of fleet vehicles

Section 6.1: An employee should be assigned to a specific fleet vehicle, wherein that employee should be the only individual to drive or operate the fleet vehicle unless fully and completely sanitized.

• No other employee should enter or operate the fleet vehicle for any reason, including but not limited to reversing, hitching a trailer or wood/brush chipper, getting keys for an exterior tool compartment or operating any controls within the vehicle, including but not limited to strobe switches or the power take off (PTO).

• Rotation of fleet vehicles between employees should only be done when the fleet vehicle is properly disinfected.

Section 6.2: Fleet vehicles should be sterilized twice daily, including but not limited to the end of each workday.

Section 6.3: No more than one employee should occupy a vehicle at any one time unless a passenger compartment is isolated and with an independent ventilation system.

Section 6.4: Employees should drive their personal vehicles to the job site when there is an insufficient number of fleet vehicles available for employees to adhere to physical-distancing guidelines and Section 6.3.

Section 6.5: Employees who must arrive on site in their own vehicles should operate and park their vehicles in a manner in accordance with local statutes.

Section 6.6: An employee’s personal vehicle should not be used during the arboriculture operations, including but not limited to acting as a blocker vehicle behind a chipper.

Aiden O’Brien is TCIA’s advocacy & standards manager, and can be reached at aobrien@tcia.org.

Alexander Martin is a Certified Arborist and a student in the urban-forestry program at the University of British Columbia, Canada. His comprehensive report, “Recommended Best Management Practices for the Arboriculture Industry During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” is adapted from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Occupational Health Guidelines and has been reviewed by public health professionals. It can be found at https://www.tcia.org/TCI-publications/pdfs/Martin-Best_Management_Practices_COVID-19_Pandemic.pdf.

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