Working EAB Trees Safely: Educate, Assess, Blueprint

May 20, 2013
By Earl Simmons, Safety Supervisor, Wright Tree Service

I have had the opportunity to work on many hazardous trees over the years, and I have done it and seen it done safely. But during a recent project dealing specifically with hazard trees across the state of Michigan, a very alarming pattern was emerging. The purpose of this article is to share the hazardous pattern my coworkers and I found and how we are dealing with it, with the hope that it may lessen or even remove the hazard for many of you.

The Problem

The project entailed removing hundreds of hazard trees from sub transmission ROW. First, a helicopter flying the lines would identify the hazard trees and   structure numbers. Then, the crews would arrive and assess each job. In most cases, the trees were dead ash at the edge of, or just off of, an established ROW.

At the beginning of the project during morning safety talks with the crews, they began to share near-miss stories.  I will share a few of them:

The first near miss happened on a job entailing a span of smaller diameter ash trees, all dead. The plan was to set ropes in the trees and pull them either parallel to or away from the lines. The crew was using a Johnny ball and throw line to set their ropes. They weren’t satisfied with the placement of the Johnny ball and decided to pull the ball out to try to reset it. The Johnny ball snagged on the pull through, and the crew ended up pulling the tree over without a notch or a cut made.

The next near miss came from another crew with the same plan, only in this instance it was a large ash. The rope was set, and part of the crew wanted to test their pull. As they tensioned the line, the entire tree came over. Again, no notch or cut was made.

The final near miss shared from the crews working on this project was from an employee who climbed a large healthy hickory about 10 feet from a large dead ash. This time the plan was to traverse over to the dead ash, which still had several smaller branches intact, and take the top out at a height that would in no way reach near the lines. As the climber came down 25-30 feet from the hickory and swung over, the tree showed excessive movement back toward his tie-in. the climber immediately came down and asked to get specialty equipment to do the tree. This was the last ash tree that was attempted to climb or traverse to.

All of these near-misses occurred in varied locations around the same time frame of a day or two.

The last near miss I would like to share came from a friend of an employee who did tree work for a country club. After sharing the near-misses above with bucket truck crews on a separate contract who were preparing to remove several ash trees from distribution voltages, a foreman asked if he could share. He told of how his friend climbed up several ash trees and pieced them down to a spar, notching the spar after the brush was removed. He said his friend climbed up one ash tree and realized he had forgotten to refuel his saw. He descended and walked over to fill the saw, when the tree he was just in came crashing down. This is an alarming story for all who have heard it and has helped change the way the crews approach dead ash trees. Envisioning a climber in a tree moments before it fell makes you stop and think. I’m sure any frustration he had about having to come down was lost in that moment.

The stories above showed a hazardous pattern. The ash trees were not like other dead trees we had worked on.  Even with some epicormic shoot growth and a few leaves on the trees, crews were finding many failures at the root flare and trunk of the trees.  The methods we were using had to change.

All of this occurred at the beginning of the project, and over a several month period through the project’s completion, no more near-misses of this sort occurred. I believe that this was because of three main things the crews focused on and excelled in. I have taken the steps we used and created an acronym for easy memorization: E-A-B. E stands for educate our employees, A stands for assess the trees, and B stands for blueprint (meaning design, structure or organize) a plan.

The Plan

E: Educate our Employees

Our employees were provided with some basics about ash trees and Emerald Ash Borer. But what I believe helped the most in changing our approach was time set aside each day and each week for discussion. This may have been the biggest factor in the safety of the crews throughout the project. The crews were willing to put any egos aside to share something that may help prevent a coworker from being hurt. Now, I understand that this type of openness isn’t the case in every area or with every group of employees, so here are a few ways we attempted to get this started:

Lead by example: Someone has to be the first; why not you?

Don’t punish the reporter: This can end any open communication you just created.

Keep it anonymous: This could mean creating a drop box or allowing it to be lead at the crew level. In my case, we appointed a safety committee. Every crew has one member on this committee. The committee holds the discussion, and the direct supervisors aren’t present.

Schedule time: This may sound like common sense, but if you don’t plan for it, normally it doesn’t get done. So, set aside a time to share.

Make it part of your culture: I like to explain “culture” with a notable quote I read by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Sow a thought and you reap an action, sow an action and you reap a habit, sow a habit and you reap a character, sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Obviously a destiny it not where we put our energy trying to change how things end. Destiny carries an idea of unchangeability when it is reached. The true power in changing how it ends is focusing on where it all starts. Every time we meet a person, we can either influence them for the better or for the worse. It can be easy to push away from the openness when we don’t like what is heard. It is also easy to get frustrated when things don’t seem to change. If we make this discussion part of a routine, it becomes part of our culture.

A: Assess the Risk

Assessing the risk is the second part of the plan. In an attempt to get a more consistent level of assessment, we cover four main areas while inspecting. This is tied together for my employees with the last point, “Blueprint a plan,” because it is done on a Job Briefing that labels the areas we look at. The four areas are:

Overview: The view of the whole job. This could be of the tree or the group of trees from a distance. In the near-miss cases mentioned above, we could see several ash tree failures close by, which was a huge indicator of the health of what remained.

Root flare and ground: This is where most of the failures we found occurred. Checking for fruiting bodies, heaving, decay, and smell are all in this group.

Trunk: This is the main stem, where checking again for decay or fruiting bodies is required, but also cracks or strange bark features.

Crown: This time we are looking at the tree a little closer than the overview, noting any dead limbs, weak branch unions, insects or animals, among other things.

All of these items can be found in a checklist on the Job Briefing form we fill out while surveying our job sites; what I have listed isn’t complete. Taking the time to assess everything is critical, as is getting participation from every person on site.

B: Blueprint a Plan

In this last section of the plan, we put it all together. The Job Briefing is part of this. We determine what type of equipment is needed. We communicate our plan to each other to keep everybody on the same page. Knowing when to postpone the job until the right equipment arrives is key in safely and productively completing the job.

On our project, we determined not to climb or traverse to any trees. Off road aerial baskets were used to complete a lot of the work in rural areas; standard bucket trucks were used on roadside trees, and backyard buckets were used behind homes where standard trucks couldn’t get.

All elements of the plan above had a part in ending the string of near-misses with the crews I work with. The tactics weren’t new and trendy but rather applying the tried and true. They were working on our culture of safety by sharing near-misses, thoroughly surveying the job sites, documenting what was needed, and keeping everybody on the same page.

The E-A-B plan may not work for every area, or address every individual concern. The purpose is to create a springboard for others to develop their own plans. Safety is a right and a personal responsibility of every employee, and it takes a team effort.