Emergency Preparedness: Promoting a Culture of Safety

Jan-Feb 2013

The reality of our industry is that it is dangerous and there is great opportunity for mishap. As arborists we can only attempt to work safely in what is often an unsafe environment or situation. Although most agree safety is important in the industry, sometimes our words don’t synchronize with our actions. Production and the “getter done!” mentality can often overshadow and compromise safety. All parties involved from management to the production crew must be aware when this begins to happen, and stop and reprioritize. 

Unfortunately, due to privacy issues, most reported industry accidents are kept confidential and inaccessible to the industry, while even more go unreported and are swept under the rug. These are lost opportunities to learn and analyze for the betterment of the industry. We must use every tool at our disposal to create and enhance the safety of our workplace. It is my belief that through the incorporation and implementation of EP protocol and AR training specific to company and job relevance, industry accidents can lessen in number and severity. This will propel our industry’s professionalism and legitimacy. 

In this article I will avoid focusing on specific EP and AR scenarios but instead on the proactive ways we can better prepare and cope with unexpected events during work by creating a suitable and functional EP and AR framework. As this is a complex and vast subject, this article in no way can cover all aspects, but I hope to at least initiate further dialogue on the subject.

Emergency Preparedness
Most companies integrate an EP plan in one form or another at the workplace, although sometimes they may be unaware of it. It is my belief that EP starts by creating a culture of safety and accountability – ensuring licenses, certificates and training is all up to date, as well as proper forms and paperwork is done properly and diligently. Success is achieved when all people involved understand that shortcuts and ill planning are unacceptable and safety is non-negotiable. 

On-Site EP. The most common EP is likely the tailboard talk or project risk assessment. This can be a verbal discussion, but is better to be documented while viewing the project at hand. Remember that in the eyes of the law, if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen! These on-site meetings and forms can vary in complexity and thoroughness depending on the company and the task. For example, you may not need a 30-minute meeting regarding a crabapple prune, although extra time and documentation may be advised for a large high-risk removal. 

Some information recommended for a project risk assessment form or tailboard talk includes but is not inclusive to:

  • Date
  • Location: include the full address and 911 number and if deemed necessary, the closest major intersection
  • Crew: full names and designations of positions
  • Task: brief description of the task(s) to be preformed
  • Risks: tree structure, hydro, bees, etc…
  • Targets: buildings, cars, pedestrians, etc…
  • Risk Abatement: what can be done to limit risks, i.e. flagged-off area, disconnect power, etc…
  • Emergency Info: 911 address, closest hospital, rescue plan, rescuer designated, location of phone and first aid kit, etc…

I must admit that in the beginning, I was hesitant to mandate that a risk assessment form be completed for every project. I was concerned it could take too much time. I now find it extremely useful as it focuses the crew on the task at hand, clarifies their specific roles, highlights risks and special concerns and maps out the plan of attack. We have adapted our forms to the needs of our company and continue to refine them to enhance function and clarity. We make sure that all members of the crew have input and contribute information and ideas to create a more comprehensive plan. We also have all crew members sign off on the plan; this gives them ownership and responsibility and ensures everyone is on the same page (literally).

Safety/Post Accident Meetings. Depending on the size of a company, safety meetings may be mandatory, but I recommend all companies have regular safety meetings as well as special meetings after an accident/issue arises. These meetings can dissect the issues while still fresh in everyone’s mind and find out what chain of events lead to the undesired result. Open discussion regarding breakdowns and required changes in technique, protocol, equipment and even communication can help lessen the opportunity for a similar event to happen again. If we do not learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them! On the flip side, I also find meetings useful regarding success and a job well done, and will often have a meeting tracing our steps and reviewing a project that went exceptionally well.

Communication. I often find when dissecting an incident that a communication breakdown is the root cause. How many of us have started a sentence or heard a co-worker say, ”Well, I thought she/he was going to do this….” An assumption should not replace communication. Many times communication at the jobsite can collapse due to a variety of reasons including personal issues, friction among the crew or a misunderstanding of responsibilities. Proper communication can take the form of a well-presented safety meeting or utilizing a command response system of “STAND CLEAR!” and “ALL CLEAR!” while working aloft. 

The fact is there may be times when your co-workers have each other’s life in their hands. It’s important to realize that open communication is a necessity in a safe workplace and a clear understanding of responsibilities and expectations are part of a well functioning EP. This clarity should start with a company specific standard operating procedure manual (SOP). An SOP defines the guidelines of how your company functions on a daily basis and all employees and management should have access to an SOP and have a clear understanding of it.

Aerial Rescue  
AR is a topic deserving of its own article. Similar to the work we perform, AR has numerous variables and characteristics and is not often covered with blanket statements of techniques. There is no one right AR technique; focus should be placed on the right AR technique for the situation. As I have said before regarding other aspects of the industry, the main criteria should be safety, then efficiency. A company can limit some of the variables by performing regular AR training covering a variety of scenarios, which may include spar pole, static rope or stuck or pinned. These training sessions are very useful in ironing out issues in regards to gear and system compatibility, to discuss potential issues and solutions, and to build teamwork. The key to the training is to repeat it so it can become second nature and decrease the chances of mistakes when an emergency actually occurs. 

Equipment. The equipment used for AR should be compliant, accessible and familiar to the whole crew. They should all be comfortable using it properly. Something I’ve discussed with several arborists is having standard company climbing systems. This can make it easier to prepare an AR as there are less variables and the AR training is tailored to these specific systems. Although this is something our company has not implemented, I do insist during AR training that crew members describe the systems they are commonly using and any special considerations/limitations/characteristics of said system.

Crew Limitations. We are often told we are to never work or climb alone. But if we climb with a crew that is unable assist in an aerial emergency situation due to lack of training or ability, are we not still working alone? Be it you, an employee or even a crew, realizing abilities and limitations can be beneficial and can prevent an accident from occurring. During AR training, find out if anyone on the crew is not comfortable performing an aerial rescue. Finding out in advance is better than finding out when a real situation arises. 

We had a situation like this during the past season. One of our climbers left leaving a two-man crew, one climber and one ground support person. Although the groundie had been involved in all our AR training, it was in a non-aerial role. He brought to my attention that he did not have the technical knowledge or confidence to climb and perform a rescue. Since then we have had some in-house climbing and AR training geared towards his skills and competence. I’m grateful that he came forward and let us know his concerns and was self aware enough to know his limitations. 

By fostering a culture of safety and accountability through proper documentation, communication and current and constant training, we can reduce preventable accidents and injuries while continuing the progression of industry. It is a lofty pursuit and the industry as a whole must be diligent and deliberate because as the saying goes, safety is no accident.  

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