As arborists, it is our job to make sure the interface of trees and our society, with all its infrastructure, is functional, and that trees and our society coexist. Mother Nature often stresses this relationship! When storms hit, arborists must clean up the mess and repair the trees that are left. Therefore, storm cleanup is a major part of arboriculture work.
Like any specialty task, storm work comes with a unique set of challenges and considerations. Unlike many specialty tasks, predicting when storms will hit and with what severity lacks precision. The saying “to be forewarned is to be forearmed” applies. With some preparatory tasks and training, tree-crew members can enhance their safety and become more efficient when disasters strike – when our skills and arboricultural talents are needed on a large scale.
While severe weather is unpredictable in severity and consequence, it tends to occur at predictable times of the year. Hurricanes hit during hurricane season, tornadoes come with summer thunderstorms and ice storms wreak havoc in the winter. As these different seasons approach, begin your preparation and planning. Certainly, storm events can hit at any time. But the season and prevailing weather will give a guide as to the type of storm that can be expected. As the dominant season approaches your area, begin to finalize and ramp up your preparations.
Do your emergencies tend to occur during hot weather or cold? Are power outages likely or rare? Will roads be blocked, and, if so, how? Understanding and preparing for the basic concerns and circumstances during a storm emergency will help you guide replenishment plans, training and essential equipment selection while you have the time and resources to do something about it.
After a major storm event, not all clean-up and restoration tasks can be done at once. Your normal work process will need to change. Job assignments and tasks completed should be ordered to deal with the most hazardous situations first. This leaves less-important tasks for after the emergency has passed.
Develop a plan to categorize work tasks by urgency. Use a triage system of process management that fast tracks incoming workflow by priority so the most critical work is attended to first. You may decide that trees posing an imminent risk to people or buildings, and/or blocking entry and exit from properties, should be addressed first. Be clear with your crews on the priorities so they can move from one job to the next. Whatever your decision on the order of work, develop the process before the storm!
Also decide who you will work for. The phone will start ringing, and you cannot address everyone’s concerns equally. Develop a plan here as well to reduce stress and streamline operations.
Many companies prioritize current clients over new calls. Some companies have specific commitments with large commercial contracts for storm cleanup. Again, whatever your situation, planning ahead on the clients you will prioritize in storm situations will help things go much smoother when everything gets hectic. There will be many decisions to make when the event happens. Make as many decisions as you can before the emergency arises so your time and effort will be maximized.
Making plans and laying out systems for handling high call volume and workloads will not only reduce your stress but is also excellent customer service. Storm work is a great revenue generator and an excellent opportunity to grow your business. Don’t let the opportunity slip by through lack of preparation.
Storm work creates a sharp increase in the volume of work. Your normal crews can easily get overwhelmed and overworked. The good news is that the initial volume of work is generally cleanup based. Of course, there will be technical work, but a great deal of the immediate and necessary tasks will be ground and equipment work.
Having all the team members at your company trained to handle basic cutting and chipping tasks can go a long way toward helping alleviate the pressure and spread the workload. Cross-train team members on all equipment so crews can be temporarily reorganized to best suit the work demands. Make sure all team members have a basic skill set, including knots, basic equipment maintenance, refueling procedures, job-site setup, PPE use and a foundational understanding of electrical hazards. We will address electrical hazards specifically in a bit.
As storm season nears, make sure your regular training addresses storm tasks, such as leaning or hung-up trees, assessing compression and tension in wood before cutting and electrical-hazards awareness, to name a few.
Equipment and process
Look to other work solutions beyond your normal operations. Hauling material away whole can save time and energy, but you need the equipment and the place to dispose of the material. Locate possible staging areas for brush and debris. Contact companies that specialize in green-waste disposal on a large scale and develop a professional relationship now, before you need it.
These areas also may be able to handle the high volume of chips you will produce when the final cleanup begins in earnest. Don’t let the disposal of materials slow down the work because you have no place to put it.
Take the time before storm season hits to discuss and lay out how you intend to address your operational needs for storm situations.
- Do you have enough basic PPE for any temporary crew members you may add?
- Can you rent the equipment you need?
- Does your team know how to operate the equipment?
- How will you fuel it up?
- Do you need special permits or licenses to drive/operate the equipment?
Simple tasks like going to the gas station for more fuel may not be possible for a few days. Your shop may not have power. Your team members may not have power at home. Make a list of all the basic things you need for daily operations. Develop a plan to have these when you need them or an alternative way to accomplish tasks. Buying a generator to power your work tasks may not be possible the day after the storm hits!
Take care of your people
Storm work can be stressful and action packed. It may be necessary to work
longer-than-normal hours for more than the normal number of days. Make sure your team is taking breaks during work and from work. The temptation when faced with seemingly endless work is to keep going and work harder. However, breaks improve decision-making and enhance safety. Breaks allow for proper hydration and time to fuel the body.
Increase the frequency of breaks. Use break times to reassess the work site and complete basic maintenance tasks like cleaning air filters and sharpening and refueling tools and equipment.
Try to complete the most physically demanding work earlier in the day. Save less-demanding tasks for when the team is worn out and tired. Stop work if safety is being compromised.
Making sure your team gets adequate sleep is crucial. The sleep-deprived brain acts much like one under the influence of alcohol. Decision-making and reaction times are all hampered when a person is sleep deprived. Adequate sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity!
The worst hazard is the one not seen. Make sure your team is doing thorough, documented work-site assessments. Emergency and urgency increase risk; your risk assessments should increase as well. Take the time to seek out the hazards and obstacles on every job site, no matter how simple the task may seem. Take time to make sure all crew members are aware of all hazards and obstacles. Make sure all team members on site have a hand in developing a mitigation plan and understand the plan and necessary precautions.
Your emergency action plan (EAP) also should take into account the circumstances storm events can create. Roads may be blocked. EMS may be overwhelmed, and response times may be slower. Mobile-phone reception may be affected, and sites not normally isolated may well be. Your EAP should reflect all of this and how you plan to deal with it. Develop a system of communication so the crew can relay needs and decisions to your home base.
While there are many hazards on the job site, electrical hazards are often the most insidious. Electricity can flow invisibly and in unpredictable paths. Normal safety equipment and spacing for electrical-distribution systems may be nonfunctional after a storm event. Wires and hardware may be hidden under debris.
A fundamental understanding of approach distances and how electrical-distribution systems work is necessary. There is a good chance you will have team members completing tasks they usually are not responsible for. They must be aware of approach distances and always err on the side of caution. Increase standard approach distances when in doubt. Don’t start a task until you are sure all electrical hardware is not energized nor will become energized as you work.
Workers must be aware of touch potential, step potential and generator backfeed
Touch potential refers to the situation where electricity may be flowing in an unintended path through something a wire may contact. A prime example of this is metal fencing or rain gutters. A downed line may be energizing these seemingly harmless objects, and an unaware worker may contact them in the course of work. (Diagram 1)
Step potential refers to how electricity disperses through the ground. As it travels away from the point of contact, it varies in electrical potential or charge. If a worker steps close enough to the discharge site, their feet may intersect two areas of potential, leading to a shock. (Diagram 2)
Generator backfeed occurs when a generator is used to power a building and the building is not isolated from the distribution system. If not connected – or disconnected – properly, the generator can send power back through a service panel out to a transformer and on down the secondary wires. How far depends on the current of the generator. (Diagram 3)
Visual inspection may not be enough to determine these hazards. A proximity tester can be used and is simple to operate with minimal training. (Photo 1) Making sure your work area is isolated and grounded by the utility is also a sensible safety precaution. (Photo 3) Making sure homes or buildings using supplemental power have the system properly installed also is necessary.
Having the equipment and ability to build and use a mechanical-advantage (MA) system is a vital skill for storm work. Large loads have been managed for centuries with ropes and pulleys. Not all areas are accessible to heavy equipment. Available equipment may be occupied on other, more-appropriate job sites. In these and many other scenarios, using fiddle blocks, tree-pulling kits and other various MA setups can help greatly. Take the time to learn how and when to use these tools. And have them available when needed.
Winching bollards, such as the GRCS (Good Rigging Control System) and Hobbs devices, can act like small cranes in a backyard. Used with skill and planning, they can lift, lower and winch. This can increase safety, efficiency and productivity with a very small footprint and a small investment in time. However, the time to get and learn how to use them is not on day one of storm recovery. Make these types of tools part of your workflow and gain basic competency with them before you need them in an emergency.
Storm work presents unique challenges and opportunities for tree workers and tree businesses alike. Planning and preparation can go a long way in making a stressful situation manageable. It would be impossible to detail every aspect involved. This discussion is designed to get you thinking now about how you would handle tasks during a storm event in the future.
Take the time and make the effort to train for the possibilities. Lay the groundwork for plans and equipment that will help you handle the increased volume of work. Storm work is an opportunity to show the strength of your company, not the time to develop it.
Anthony Tresselt, CTSP, is a consultant serving as director of safety and training for Arborist Enterprises Inc., an accredited, 31-year TCIA member company based in Manheim, Pennsylvania. He is also a writer, philosopher, student of gravity and independent trainer based in Manheim. His writing and thoughts can be found on his blog, gravitationalanarchy.com. His books can be found on Amazon. He is a co-founder of The Arborist Boot Camp (thearboristbootcamp.com), a transformational training experience for new tree workers. He is also a co-founder of Leadership Performance Mastery (valuebasedleadershipjourney.com), an online, self-paced, transformative leadership course for anyone looking to improve his or her leadership skills, regardless of whether they lead one or a thousand.