By Paul George
A tree surgeon’s work inevitably involves working at height and, inevitably, this type of work presents some serious and unavoidable hazards. Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that around 16% of accidents related to tree work involve a fall from height, whilst 6% of injuries are due to impact with branches or tree trunks during uncontrolled swings.
The truth is that some of these accidents would have been avoidable if the proper health and safety practices were adhered to. In this article, we are going to look at some of the health and safety best practices for aerial workers, specifically those aimed at tree work.
Legislation and Regulations for Aerial Workers
There is a raft of legislation around the health and safety of employees and contractors working at height. In addition to the general duty of care imposed on employers by the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974, there are specific regulations that apply, including Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR) and the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER), all of which are enforced by the HSE.
However, legislation can only do so much, and reports to the HSE reveal that the most common cause of deaths, and one of the most common causes of serious injury in the workplace, is still a fall from height.
The law is clear that it is the employer’s duty to thoroughly assess all tasks that employees are required to carry out, identify the hazards and implement control measures to minimise the risks. Equally, it is the employee’s responsibility to uphold the standards set in place by their employer, to remain vigilant over their own safety and that of those around them. By following the principles set out below, both employer and employee can ensure a more secure working environment.
- Controlling the risk
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 requires employers and contractors to ensure that all work at height is properly planned and assessed for risks, using what the legislation refers to as a “hierarchy of control measures”.
Essentially, this means that employers need to minimise risk by looking at safer alternatives to working at height if possible. An example of this could be carrying out work using an extending polesaw from the ground instead of climbing the tree. If working at height is unavoidable then the next option would be to use access equipment, such as work platforms. If this is not possible then the next line of defence would be to reduce the distance that a worker could fall if there was an accident.
With aerial tree work many of these alternatives are impractical or not possible to implement, so risk minimisation is necessary through providing adequate support from ground personnel and the proper personal protective equipment.
- Personal protective equipment
Appropriate, well-fitting and adequately maintained personal protective equipment (PPE) is necessary when working as a tree surgeon. High visibility clothing is also essential in many circumstances such as working on roadsides or railways.
Head protection is vital to prevent serious head injuries. For working at ground level, a helmet approved to BS EN 397 is required, whereas, when working at height, HSE recommend a mountaineering type safety helmet with a 4 point chinstrap (compliant with BS EN 12492).
The risk of eye injuries from flying debris should be reduced by wearing a mesh visor compliant with BS EN 1731. For some tasks, safety glasses (goggles) that adhere to BS EN 166 standards may also be needed.
Adequate noise cancelling personal protective equipment will be needed if the tree worker is using a chainsaw. This will also mean that visual communication signals need to be established between co-workers. For some tasks involving machinery that emit high noise levels (such as chippers), ear muffs with a rating of SNR31 or greater will be needed, sometimes referred to as ‘chipper’ muffs.
To guard against injury from chainsaws, the proper foot, leg and hand protection is required – Chainsaw boots (adhering to BS EN ISO 17249 standards) that can provide good grip, Chainsaw trousers, and Gloves compliant with BS EN 381-7.
The HSE Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG) recommendations are that the legs and groin area are protected with Type C chainsaw leg protection for “high all round chainsaw cut protection”, but should a risk of heat stress be identified due to the use of Type C trousers, then allowance is made for wearing Type A.
Working at height requires training, and those operating chainsaws require further training in how to use the equipment safely. Training is certified by Lantra Awards and City and Guilds. Training needs to be updated and refreshed regularly and it is the duty of all employers to keep their staff regularly updates on best practice with refresher courses. All new staff must go through extensive training and be supervised to ensure that they are putting what they’ve learnt into practice.
4. Ground crew
It is not possible to carry out aerial tree work safely without a responsible ground crew. HSE guidance is clear that the crew should always plan the job carefully with the climber, before any work starts.
The crew’s role is to constantly watch and communicate with the climbers and anticipate their needs. Ground crew tasks include:
- Passing up equipment as needed.
- Ensuring that the climbing and work ropes are knot-free, and removing kinks, tangles and branch wood.
- Keeping ropes away from things that could cause damage, such as equipment, machinery, and obstructions.
- Making sure that members of the public do not enter the work area, and traffic is diverted or prevented from entering the area
- Being able, trained and competent to carry out aerial rescue should the need arise
This requires total concentration and continual assessment of the work in progress.
A Final note on Chainsaw Work at Height
We’ve discussed best practice when working with chainsaws before, but there are specific requirements for workers using saws at height. Workers using chainsaws must receive appropriate training, which is refreshed as required.
Aerial work with chainsaws needs to be carried out by at least two workers. Personal protective equipment is essential. Appropriate signs must be displayed and members of the public excluded.
About the author
Paul George is the managing director of Landmark Trading Ltd, and has worked in the arboricultural industry for 14 years. Landmark Trading are one the the UK’s leading suppliers of arborist equipment. You can connect with Paul on Twitter, Facebook, Google + or call Landmark Trading on 01780 482231.