We hear it all the time – OSHA doesn’t know anything about tree care. It’s a myth throughout our industry that we work in a “no-rules” environment. In that situation, PPE is optional, right? Wrong.
There is no gray area on personal protective equipment (PPE). It needs to be utilized all the time, every time. PPE is the last barrier between a worker and a serious incident. (see NIOSH graphic). But where does the responsibility for PPE come from? Moreover, who is responsible? It can be difficult for an employer to navigate the regulations and understand the application of them.
The role of PPE is, first and foremost, to protect the employee. However, if you are an employer, there are additional requirements that are critical to the success of your business. Last year, OSHA published a new “Enforcement Inspection Guidance for Tree Care and Tree Removal Operations” for the first time since 2008. While it is intended to be a document for compliance safety and health officials (CSHOs), it also can serve as an effective reference for employers looking for what PPE specifically applies to tree care operations.
In 2021, PPE-related regulations accounted for the highest volume of OSHA citations in arboriculture, whereas it was lower in the all-industry ranking. What does this tell us? First, it’s a problem. I’m sure everyone has driven by another company’s job site where workers did not have on hard hats or chain-saw-protective legwear. We know it’s a problem. Second, OSHA sees it as a problem as well. If it’s the highest frequency of citations and they have it included in the new CSHO guidance, we can deduce that they are looking for it. To understand what to do, we need to understand the regulations.
Section 3.1.3 of the Z133 references the requirements by stating, “Employers shall require that appropriate safety-related work practices be followed in accordance with applicable OSHA and consensus standards.”
So what standards apply to tree care? Turns out there are a few. There’s the obvious answer: the ANSI Z133 safety standard. The Z133, section 3.3.1, states, “Personal protective equipment (PPE), as outlined in this section, shall be required when there is a reasonable probability of injury or illness that can be prevented by such protection.” The requirements continue in 3.3.2 with, “The employer shall assess the work site to determine if hazards are present or are likely to be present and what type of personal protective equipment is required.”
Then there are OSHA regulations. The aforementioned myth is fueled by the fact that there is no specific OSHA regulation for arboriculture. The safety guidance is spread across multiple standard numbers. It took me a long time to understand this concept, but OSHA writes exceptions to standards or specific standards. They need to say when something doesn’t apply to arboriculture; we can’t just assume it is not applicable to the industry.
So, you’re an employer. What are your obligations? You must have a hazard analysis. Written verification of a workplace-hazard assessment was high on the list of OSHA citations for our industry in 2021. What does that mean?
Let’s use chain-saw operation as an example. Operating a chain saw could create the following hazards: lacerations, struck-bys, debris and exertion. Now, what PPE is required to mitigate those possible hazards? Head protection, protective eyewear, hearing protection and chain-saw protection. This information belongs in your company safety policy and needs to be identified in the job-briefing process.
The employer is obligated to identify the hazards, create policy and then enforce the PPE standards. “The Enforcement Inspection Guidance for Tree Care and Tree Removal Operations” states, “CSHOs shall also assess whether employers provide and ensure employees use required PPE in connection with hazards.” This is a whale of an issue.
There is an antiquated opinion throughout this industry (and many others) that the employee should pay for their own PPE. This is not the case. There are exceptions in the regulations for things like non-specialty boots or standard clothing that the employer is not required to provide. However, the list of PPE items the employer is required to supply is much longer. A correctly rated helmet, protective eyewear and hearing protection are the most common. Employers shall provide these to employees affected by the hazards noted in the assessment.
So, you’ve issued an employee their PPE. Done, right? No. OSHA 1910.132(f)(1) states, “The employer shall provide training to each employee who is required by this section to use PPE.” The section then goes on to describe the requirements for training. Use, maintenance, proper fit, lifespan and retirement criteria all fall under the obligations of the employer when issuing PPE. The standard goes on in 1910.132(f)(2): “Each affected employee shall demonstrate an understanding of the training specified in paragraph (f)(1) of this section, and the ability to use PPE properly, before being allowed to perform work requiring the use of PPE.” As always, document, document and document. OSHA regulations aren’t just about compliance – the regulations are there for a reason. Improperly fitting PPE can be as detrimental as wearing none at all.
ANSI Z133 aligns with the OSHA standard in 3.1.2, stating, “Employers shall instruct their employees in the proper use, inspection and maintenance of personal protective equipment (PPE), tools (hand and powered) and other equipment, including ropes and lines.”
So, you’re an employee. What are your obligations? OSHA 1910.132, Section 1.4 states, “Each person (employee or otherwise) shall be responsible for his/her own safety while at work and shall comply with the appropriate federal or state occupational-safety-and-health standards and all rules, regulations and orders that are applicable to his/her own actions and conduct.” So that’s a pretty fancy way of saying you have to follow the safety rules of the industry. You also need to adhere to the company policies set forth by the employer that are required by OSHA and the Z133.
Can you use your own PPE? Sure. Here’s the catch – 1910.132 (b) states that “where employees provide their own protective equipment, the employer shall be responsible to assure its adequacy, including proper maintenance and sanitation of such equipment.” Just because the employee owns it does not let the employer off the hook for safety ratings and condition. Some companies require that employees may only wear what is provided and mandate periodic documented inspections.
So what’s an employer to do? I know this sounds like a lot to do, but there are resources out there. Pick up a copy of the ANSI Z133 safety standard or get the digital version. TCIA has great resources for members on its website. Consult OSHA for guidance – that’s normally a cringe-worthy comment, but they’re not going to cite you for requesting guidance.
PPE is a critical investment for any tree care company. Perform a hazard assessment, create and implement policies and ensure the training is thorough, and it will, ultimately, pay off for you and your employees.
Mike Tilford, CTSP, is director of general tree care for SavATree, a 36-year TCIA member company headquartered in Bedford Hills, New York. He is an ISA Certified Arborist, a Municipal Specialist, a Certified Tree Worker – Climber Specialist and an ITCC head judge and gear inspector.