Managing vegetation around utility corridors and in residential areas can be a dangerous occupation. There’s no shortage of hazards that tree-care professionals need to look out for. Depending on the particular worksite, your employees may have to contend with high elevations, strong winds, overhead power lines, traffic congestion and more. One way tree businesses mitigate these types of hazards is through comprehensive risk assessments, which should be conducted before workers ever strap on their climbing gear. But what specific risks pose the greatest threat to utility arborists, and how can tree businesses develop effective assessment strategies that check all the boxes?
Risk Assessment 101
Risk assessment is the process of identifying potential hazards, analyzing possible outcomes and taking steps to prevent on-the-job accidents. According to the American Society of Safety Professionals, conducting a thorough risk assessment can help mitigate operational hazards and improve employee safety, all while achieving your core business objectives. Industries face many different types of working conditions and environmental risks, so it’s important to build an assessment framework that aligns with your workers’ day-to-day routines. During the risk identification process, tree-care businesses should consider the following:
- Tangible and intangible hazards
- Occupational threats and safety opportunities
- Indicators of emerging risks
- Time-related factors
- Changes in worksite conditions
For utility arborists and other tree-care professionals, risk assessment necessitates a close examination of worksite topography, weather conditions, tree health and safety equipment. When working in residential areas, your workers should also be aware of surrounding infrastructure and traffic patterns, both for vehicles and pedestrians.
Every worksite is unique, which is why utility arborists should carefully assess the surrounding landscape for natural and manmade risks. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, falling objects and slips from high elevations are two of the most fatal hazards in tree care work. As such, your employees should carefully survey the area for overhead objects and sloped or uneven ground, while also staying aware of local weather conditions. Next, they should determine whether rigging, climbing or aerial lifts are necessary. If so, tree professionals should keep at least 10 feet away from power lines and other electrical equipment whenever possible. This is especially important if they are using ladders and gas-powered trimming equipment.
Once the worksite has been assessed, arborists should conduct a thorough inspection of any trees or woody plants they intend to trim, prune or fell. Tree risk assessments can help determine the likelihood that branches or an entire tree will fall, and the consequences of such an outcome. According to the Arborist Safe Work Practices Committee, tree-care professionals must inspect the structural integrity of every tree, including its root system, stem structure and crown. Some of the common warning signs of an unstable tree include:
- Wood rot and decay
- Fungal fruiting bodies or growth
- Grade changes and soil cracking
- Protruding root plates
This assessment process can also help climbers determine whether a tree is safe to climb and locate anchor points for their rigging or fall-arrest system. However, the ASWPC is quick to point out that diagnosing the health of trees is an inexact science and heavily relies on the arborist’s knowledge and experience. As such, it’s important to provide your workers with the training and certifications they need to safely conduct a tree care operation.
Beyond environmental risks, tree-care professionals should follow best practices in equipment and gear inspection to avoid a serious, or even fatal, malfunction. Regular equipment inspections are a critical part of OSHA’s general safety standards, and should be conducted for every piece of machinery and safety-related device. These include:
- Ladders, scaffolding and rigging systems
- Chainsaws, wood chippers and cranes
- Safety harnesses and support lines
- Hand tools, such as saws, pruners, loppers, etc.
- Personal eye protection and respiratory devices
Providing your tree-care crews with a handy checklist can help ensure they are properly inspecting their equipment before each use. You’ll find one in this webinar we hosted on complying with OSHA’s gear-inspection mandate. Workers should look out for clear mechanical flaws, as well as normal wear and tear that may impact the intended function of their equipment. Offering an in-depth training course on gear maintenance can also ensure your employees understand the risks posed by faulty machinery and safety systems.