My Certified Tree Care Safety Professional (CTSP) Journey

Austin Wheeler, far right, shares a laugh while on the job with a BluRoc crew. Photos courtesy of the author.

In the fall of 2014, I was a sophomore at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. Much like any 19-year-old, I did not know what I wanted to do in my career. I was fortunate to have two roommates who were enrolled in the Safety and Occupational Health and Applied Sciences (SOHAS) program. They constantly urged me to enroll in safety classes, as it was a growing industry and becoming a premier program at the college. I finally gave in.

Austin Wheeler

In the spring of 2015, I was seated in the second row in Safety 101 and heard an hour-and-a-half-long lecture about agricultural safety that felt like a sermon intended just for me. At that time, I spent most weekends on my family’s small horse farm in rural western Massachusetts mucking stalls, burning brush and watching my father and grandfather knock down trees for firewood. I was hooked. By the end of the semester, I had a few certificates to add to my resume and was badgering my father about the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

In the following years at Keene, I was a member of the student section for the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) Granite State Chapter and a public-relations officer for the Safety Honor Society – Rho Sigma Kappa. My hard work in safety studies paid off when I was awarded two scholarships, the ASSP Granite State Chapter Scholarship and the Bruce LeVine Mellion Excellence in Architecture, Safety Studies and SPDI Scholarship. I graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in SOHAS and began my safety career with Reed & Reed, a general contractor specializing in wind-power services, as a safety intern for their Deerfield Wind Project. This is where I was first exposed to fall-protection systems for climbing wind towers. Little did I know, I would eventually find myself climbing trees with a similar system.

A turn to arboriculture

I began my arborist career in April 2018 as a health-and-safety technician with BluRoc, a construction and land-
clearing company based in Northampton, Massachusetts. My primary functions were to assist in technical writing, health-and-safety program review and policy development; to maintain accurate logs and recordkeeping for the Health and Safety Department; to ensure employees were properly onboarded and entered into reporting portals; to work closely with the health and safety team to support implementation strategies and to develop weekly toolbox-
talk topics and generate a weekly safety report. This is where I got my first taste of tree care standards and work practices, as BluRoc had two line-clearance crews at the time.

Fast forward to 2019, and I was put into the field as a field safety coordinator, where I took all my knowledge of BluRoc’s health-and-safety programs and applied them to our job sites. In June of that year, I sat for and passed the Board of Certified Safety Professional’s (BCSP) Associate Safety Professional (ASP) examination. Around the same time, BluRoc began their Land Clearing Division, and I was assigned to develop a clearing safety standard and health-and-safety plans for land-clearing jobs across the eastern U.S.

A safety meeting in the field. “Sometimes the hands-on approach is the best way to learn and also builds trust and camaraderie with employees in the field,” says Austin Wheeler.

It was not until early 2020, when BluRoc’s Land Clearing Division expanded to include utility right of way (ROW) integrated vegetation management (IVM), that I really sank my teeth into the tree care industry. I saw an opportunity to learn about a new industry and a need to develop a new safety program that was compliant with OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269, ANSI Z133 and client standards.

Excited about the opportunity, I started following crews around Massachusetts and Connecticut, trying to soak up any and all tree care knowledge from BluRoc’s climbing crews. I was taking chain-saw lessons from them, learning about their climbing gear and even chipping brush and climbing trees with them. Sometimes the hands-on approach is the best way to learn and also builds trust and camaraderie with employees in the field. As the summer was winding down and I was beginning to write the company’s Tree Care Safety Program, BluRoc joined TCIA.

I began recognizing everything TCIA had to offer, from training employees to educational resources to the CTSP credential. My former supervisor, Evan Haskins, CSP, CTSP, first told me about the certification when he put three of our climbers through TCIA’s Crew Leader Qualification training. Once I dug into the CTSP program and learned what it was all about, I knew I needed to get this certification if BluRoc was going to succeed in this industry.

The CTSP workshop helped me understand training and its effectiveness to a higher degree. The workshop also led me to include BluRoc’s field-level employees, the crewmembers who will have to comply with it, in every step of developing the Tree Care Safety Program. Everyone from saw hand to climbing supervisor got to review the program at each step. This was a great way to increase involvement and help build a strong safety culture in the Land Clearing Division.

The CTSP test was the knowledge check I needed to know if I could finish writing BluRoc’s Tree Care Safety Program. It also reemphasized the importance of making sure employees are qualified and trained to do the work they perform. Thankfully, TCIA’s Tree Care Academy (TCA) provides an easy-to-use platform that can qualify all levels of workers in various skills for the tree care industry. At BluRoc, I was able to develop a training curriculum based on job classifications that correlate with the TCA programs. At the beginning of 2020, BluRoc had three employees with TCIA Crew Leader Qualification certificates. By the mid-point of 2021, BluRoc will have 25 to 30 employees with at least three TCA certificates per individual. Some employees will have up to nine TCA certificates if they reach the crew-leader level.

The best part is that the program I developed through knowledge gained while becoming a CTSP not only benefits BluRoc but also benefits the employees who go out there and do the work 8 to 10 hours a day. These trainings are a great way to assure that BluRoc’s tree care workers are qualified for the work they perform, and they provide them with certificates they can put on their resume as they progress through their tree care careers. The CTSP reminded me that I’ve had great mentors, including my supervisor, Maurice “Zeke” Dumas, BluRoc EH&S director; Sonny Carrell, BluRoc safety specialist; and former co-worker Neil Warner, who have pushed me and allowed me to expand my network of tree care professionals.

Acquiring the CTSP credential elevated my position from field coordinator to EH&S continuous-improvement specialist and generated an ANSI Z133-compliant safety program. I plan to use the knowledge gained from the CTSP process in my pursuit of the BCSP’s Certified Safety Professional exam this fall.

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