Identifying Your Next Crew Leader

One of the most valuable roles to fill for any size company is the crew leader. Just what is a crew leader, and what qualities make a “good” crew leader? Photo courtesy of ACRT.

Working for a company that provides arborist training across the entire United States, we find that one of the most common questions we hear from line-clearance contractors is, “Do you know any good workers looking for a job?” It’s ubiquitous from coast to coast. Companies big and small are looking for qualified candidates for all positions, and applicants are too few and lack the training or credentials employers are looking for. The fact of the matter is, good employees are made, not found.

One of the most valuable roles to fill for any size company is the crew leader. Just what is a crew leader, and what qualities make a “good” crew leader?

The ANSI Z133 safety standard defines a crew leader as, “the qualified arborist designated as the individual in charge of a specific job or group of workers.” This is intentionally broad, as the crew size and what they are responsible for can vary widely. A crew leader can be the foreperson of a two-person bucket-truck crew or a three-person climbing crew, or oversee a much larger number of skilled climbers, ground workers and equipment operators. In the line-clearance industry, the importance is magnified, given the inherent hazards of the work involved. Ensuring you have the right person in the right position at the right time can be the difference between a successful, incident-free company and a company that has high turnover, frequent incidents and low morale.

Where do you find the right candidate to lead your crews, and what should you be looking for in an employee that lets you know this person has the successful characteristics to train to be an effective crew leader?

There are some fundamental qualities that any crew leader must possess, including reliability, responsibility, accountability and skill.

  • Reliability: The crew leader needs to show up for work every day, be on time and coach all employees to do the same.
  • Responsibility: The crew leader needs to take responsibility for his/her crew and the company’s equipment, adhere to company and industry safety policies and hold crew members accountable.
  • Accountability: We all make mistakes, and we all continue to learn and get better. Crew leaders should be able to hold themselves and their crew members accountable, but use near-misses and non-critical errors as opportunities to build skill and judgment and avoid disciplinary action when possible.
  • Skill: The crew leader needs to have a strong skill set and be competent at the tasks the crew is to perform. This does not mean that the crew leader needs to be the “best” climber or bucket operator. He or she simply needs to be qualified and competent to make reasonable assessments to manage, assist and supervise their crews.

Generally, the ideal candidate will be a long-term employee. This person knows your company, has grown with your company and has a vested interest in seeing your company succeed. Ideally, this person has received training as a crew-leader trainee under the current supervisor of your crews. A position as important as this should not be rushed. Placing a “green” or unprepared person in such a role sets the whole operation up for failure or at least some tough lessons. Dedicated and specific training must be provided. Tasks involving customer interaction, crew management, job-site setup and planning and public relations, along with crew work evaluation, should be rotated regularly among their duties.

All crew leaders who will work with tree crews performing line clearance must know the basic standards as outlined in the ANSI Z133. They should have a copy, digital or in print, that they can reference as needed. They will use this to evaluate their own and their crews’ actions on a consistent basis. Crew leaders also should review the requirements of OSHA 1910.269, which lays out the regulations that govern what they do on a day-to-day basis.

In terms of specific knowledge for crew leaders in the utility industry, they should have a background as a climber or aerial-lift operator, or preferably both. Being a Certified Arborist, Certified Tree Worker and/or a Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) is ideal. Holding a commercial driver’s license (CDL) will most likely be required.

The work of a tree care worker is inherently hazardous, but a qualified crew leader will be able to lead a crew and mitigate those hazards, ensuring the completion of a successful operation. Photo courtesy of ACRT.

A list of qualifications for a quality crew leader, and a suite of training topics, can include:

• basic tree biology and identification knowledge;

• physical ability to climb using a rope and saddle;

• proven ability to lead others;

• willingness to follow through on a job to completion;

• knots used in climbing and rigging;

• chain-saw proficiency;

• tree-removal techniques;

• ability to assess a hazard tree;

• knowledge of company and regional policies;

• storm-recovery experience;

• pesticide and label knowledge;

• PPE and knowledge of other tree care equipment;

• CPR/first-aid training;

• ability to chart an electrical system from generation to distribution;

• equipment operation experience;

• techniques for directional pruning;

• electrical-hazard training; and

• an attitude that is positive and constructive, that allows this individual to be a coach and mentor to all crew members.

This list can be mixed, matched or added to according to your needs as a company, but in general, this is a collection of skills, knowledge and experience that every crew leader in utility work and line clearance should possess.

The list of skills and knowledge a crew leader should be trained on is long, and, in the line-clearance industry, it is essential given the nature of the work involved. The good news is that the training can be ongoing and long term, and any company can tailor its own process. Documenting that process benefits both the individual and the company.

The ANSI Z133 notes in section 8.6.1 that, “Before beginning any tree removal operation, the chain-saw operator and/or crew leader shall carefully consider relevant factors pertaining to the tree and site and shall take appropriate actions to ensure a safe removal operation.” The work of a tree care worker is inherently hazardous, but a qualified crew leader will be able to lead a crew and mitigate those hazards, ensuring the completion of a successful operation. Ensuring everyone gets home safe and that the business continues to grow and provide a benefit will be on a crew leader’s mind.

It takes many years to become an individual who is prepared enough and skilled enough to lead other workers in tree care operations. Here, Mark Chisholm, CTSP, director of operations with Aspen Tree Expert Co., Inc., a 33-year TCIA member company based in Jackson, New Jersey, leads a rigging training session at TCIA EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. TCIA staff photo.

It takes many years to become an individual who is prepared enough and skilled enough to lead other workers in tree care operations, but ensuring that your crew leader has proven experience and ability and knows the regulations of the industry is essential to ensuring a safe and productive operation. Hopefully, the aforementioned professional qualities, skills and areas of knowledge will help you determine if an individual currently working in your company has what it takes to take the next step into the position of crew leader on a line-clearance crew.

Craig Murk is a Certified Arborist and Journeyman Line Clearance Tree Trimmer and is currently an arborist training supervisor with ACRT, a provider of training for line-clearance arborists and a 34-year TCIA Associate Member based in Stow, Ohio.

Alex Subak is arborist training coordinator and school director for ACRT. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and history, a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and a teaching certificate from Kent State University.

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