Every business faces risks that can affect the owner(s) personally, financially, and legally. For tree service companies, the risks are far greater than for most types of businesses. Not only must you deal with common business- and employee-related issues, you also have industry-specific risks related to safety, equipment, chemicals, and your customers’ properties.
As a business owner, it’s important to protect your company from possible liability arising from the work you do, the equipment you use, your employees’ actions, and the materials they handle. Without the right tree company insurance coverage, your tree service business is at increased risk of failure from the costs of damage, loss, injury, and lawsuits.
Learn more about the types of insurance coverage arborists and tree service professionals need, including examples of each type and how they help protect your business.
Below are the typical exposures faced by a tree care company. Most apply to all arboriculture providers, but some are more relevant to those who offer plant health care (PHC), large or hazard tree removal, tree risk assessment, or other specialty services.
- Liability risks – A wide range of risks, including damage to your customer’s property, injuries to others, negligence or serious errors
- Environmental risks – Problems caused by chemicals or toxic substances used in your work
- Fire hazards – Loss or damage to your property or equipment caused by fire
- Property – Damage to buildings and contents due to a covered cause of loss, such as a fire
- Transportation risks – Theft, damage, or destruction of tools or equipment while in transit to or from a job site
- Crime – Theft, assault, or other crimes against or by you or your employees
- Employee-related risks – Work-related illness or injuries sustained on the job
- Commercial auto risks – Accidents involving company vehicles (or employees’ vehicles while working for you)
This category covers a huge range of potential risks for your tree care business, from damage to a customer’s property to injuries sustained by bystanders watching your crew at work.
If your business has a location that’s open to the public, such as an office where customers come to pay their invoices, then you’re also at risk for anything that might happen on your property.
Examples of Liability Exposures for Tree Service Companies
- A customer slips or falls on wet flooring or trips over equipment while visiting your office.
- On a job site, falling tools, branches, or other debris may injure a passerby, damage cars or other property, or fall onto power or communication lines.
- If you operate machinery, such as chainsaws, chippers, or stump grinders, flying debris can easily cause serious injury to anyone nearby and send debris through windows.
- Stump grinding, trenching, excavating, or picking up debris or logs with a hydraulic grapple can cut through underground lines, such as water, sewer, gas, electrical, or communication lines.
- Heavy equipment, such as bucket trucks, cranes, and skid steers, can damage items underground (for example, septic tanks, leach fields and irrigation systems), nearby structures (such as driveways and patios), and lawns or landscaping.
- Trees can unexpectedly fail or fall in the wrong direction, landing on a house, vehicle, hedge, other trees, etc.
- Heavy equipment can sink into soft ground and need to be towed out, seriously damaging the customer’s landscape (cranes and bucket trucks can also fall over).
- Knocking down an electrical line from the street to the house can cause a short circuit at the meter, resulting in flames, burn marks, a damaged meter, etc. (in the worst case scenario, it can burn down the house)
How to Reduce Liability Risks
- Restrict areas of operation with barriers and warning signs plus other precautions to warn the public and keep them safe.
- Consider a General Liability Policy
Professional Liability Risks
If you provide tree care advice, or services based on that advice, you open your business up to professional liability risks. Advice or services that result in a customer’s loss can generate claims of negligence or giving poor advice/service that you’ll have to defend yourself against and/or pay for.
Examples of Professional Liability Exposures
- You advised that a tree was not at risk of imminent failure, but two weeks later it fell over during a storm and hit the customer’s garage.
- The spray tank wasn’t properly cleaned after using herbicide and the next spray job resulted in dead plants.
- An employee sprayed the wrong weight of horticultural oil, or did it at the wrong time of year, killing the treated plants.
- You recommended an expensive treatment option to correct a problem with a customer’s prized tree; the treatment didn’t work and the customer sues you for not just the cost of the ineffective treatment, but also for the cost of removing and replacing the tree.
- You accidentally sprayed a blue spruce with horticultural oil, turning the needles green.
- Your PHC tech applied the wrong dose of herbicide, fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, etc., harming the treated plants or failing to correct the problem.
How to Reduce Professional Liability Risks
- Get a second opinion from a seasoned arborist if you’re uncertain about the best approach to a specific tree care problem
- Ensure that all employees follow a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) when using chemicals
- Consider a Professional Liability Policy (also called “Errors and Omissions”)
As a tree care professional, you likely use fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other chemicals as part of a plant health care program. You also use gasoline, diesel fuel, hydraulic fluids, solvents, and other fluids to maintain and operate equipment and vehicles.
All of these substances carry a risk of illness, injury, or disease for your employees, clients, and the general public who are exposed to them. There are also environmental impacts, particularly when chemicals are applied incorrectly or spilled.
When something goes wrong, whether it’s due to an application error or accident, there’s a serious environmental liability exposure for your tree service company.
Examples of Environmental Exposures for Tree Service Companies
- Chemical overspray may damage nearby vehicles, structures, walkways, etc.
- Chemicals that are applied incorrectly, as well as improper disposal of chemicals and waste products, can cause runoff, pollution, or contaminate soil, groundwater, ponds, rivers, swimming pools, and nearby wells
- Leaking equipment can release fluids (e.g., hydraulic fluid, antifreeze, oil) that damage driveways, poison pets or wildlife, and kill plants
How to Reduce Environmental Risks
- As a tree service business owner, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your employees are properly trained and licensed for chemical applications.
- Make sure that all necessary permits and certifications are up to date.
- You must also comply with all state, federal, and local regulations regarding proper storage, use, and disposal of chemicals and waste products.
With all of the chemicals stored on-site, many of which are flammable, there’s always a risk of fire.
Examples of Fire Hazards
- Oil- or solvent-soaked rags used to clean equipment can spontaneously combust if improperly stored
- Chemicals can leak and combust
- A cigarette that wasn’t completely put out lights up a pile of sawdust
How to Reduce Fire Hazards
- Store all solvents, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. in a well-controlled area, in the appropriate containers, and with labels firmly affixed.
- Post no-smoking signs in areas where flammable substances are stored or used, and ensure that non-smoking rules are followed.
- Ensure that smoke detectors are installed in appropriate locations and that batteries are changed regularly.
- Check fire extinguishers regularly, and keep them fully charged and readily available.
- Consider a Commercial Property Insurance Policy.
The property associated with a tree service business typically consists of a building (perhaps with an office) and a storage yard housing vehicles, tools, chemicals, or equipment. Some properties may include mulch, firewood, wood chips, logs, or other materials. You may also keep live trees and shrubs on your property in preparation for planting jobs.
Examples of Property Exposures for Tree Care Companies
- Live plants may be damaged by frost, animals, disease, or insects
- Vandals may spray graffiti on your building or trucks
- Wildfire may damage or destroy your property
- A hailstorm can smash all of the glass in windows, vehicles, or structures such as greenhouses
- A hurricane may blow the shingles off the roof (or even take the roof right off the building)
How to Reduce Property Risks
- Install a security system
- Ensure your building(s) comply with all local, state, and federal building codes
- Consider a Commercial Property Insurance Policy
Because tree work is done on your customer’s property, you’ll need to transport any necessary tools, equipment, or materials to the job site. That puts your business equipment, goods, or tools (e.g., chipper, skid steer, chainsaw, ladders, pruning shears, etc.) at risk from theft, damage, or loss during transit.
Examples of Transportation Exposures for Tree Care Companies
- Chainsaws are stolen from the back of your truck while parked
- Your trailer or towed chipper comes unhitched while driving, destroying the chipper
- Equipment was not properly secured and is damaged as it slides off the back of your trailer
- You get caught in a massive traffic jam on the way to a job site with a truck full of arborvitae for a planting job; without protection, the record high temperatures bake the arborvitae to the point that they’re beyond salvage
How to Reduce Transportation Risks
- Keep an eye on your vehicle(s) at all times
- Ensure that doors and windows are locked and all equipment or tools are secured
- Consider an Inland Marine Policy
Even if you use the best hiring practices, such as conducting a thorough background check, there’s still a risk that an employee will engage in some sort of crime.
Examples of Crime Exposures for Tree Service Companies
- An employee may steal equipment, tools, office supplies/equipment, checks, or cash from you
- An employee may steal items from your customers while on their property
- An employee (or ex-employee) may deliberately damage equipment and property
- An employee may forge your signature or use your computer to make a purchase
How to Reduce Crime Risks
- Keep duties like ordering, billing, and disbursement separate and with regular reconciliations.
- Have strict guidelines detailing when and how employees are allowed to accept payments off-premise.
- Implement an inventory management system to ensure that no tools, equipment, materials, etc. are missing.
- Check your financial statements each month.
- Consider a Crime Insurance Policy.
We all know that the tree care industry is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Employee-related risks are everywhere due to the operation of machinery and equipment, working at extreme heights, uneven ground, unstable trees that can react in unpredictable ways, plus the exposure to underground or above-ground cables and power lines.
Sometimes, job-related injuries are a result of employee error or taking shortcuts, while others are unpredictable accidents.
Examples of Employee-Related Exposures for Tree Service Companies
- Chainsaws, chippers, and stump grinders can all result in serious cuts and possible amputation
- Injuries from lifting are common and include hernias, sprains, and strains
- Working at heights can lead to falls
- Equipment and safety equipment failure can lead to falls
- Poorly maintained or overstressed machinery can fail
- Boom failure on a bucket truck while the employee is 40ft up in the bucket
- Tree failure while a climber is in the tree
- A tree falls the wrong way or kicks back when being removed
- Struck-bys are one of the most common injuries (and fatalities) in the tree care industry
- Wasp, bee, or other insect stings can cause serious allergic reactions
- Lung, skin, eye, and other problems can arise from exposure to chemicals used on the job
- Electrocution from accidentally cutting a secondary or primary power line
- Suffocation from being trapped under palm fronds
- High-pressure hydraulic fluid (e.g., from a pinhole leak in a hose) can pierce skin and poison the person
- Chemical injuries from spraying (e.g., high-pressure spraying into tall trees with chemicals dripping down)
- An employee doesn’t use proper PPE and gets injured (e.g., something in the eye, teeth knocked out, saw cut on leg, head injury)
How to Reduce Employee-Related Risks
- As a tree service business owner, it’s your responsibility to put in place – and enforce – strict safety protocols for all employees.
- Weekly tailgate safety meetings, daily safety briefings, and going over each job before starting work can all go a long way in reducing employee safety exposures.
- Regularly and thoroughly inspect and maintain all equipment, including bucket trucks, ladders, safety harnesses, ropes, chainsaws, etc.
- Consider a Workers’ Compensation Policy
Commercial Auto Risks
Getting yourself, your crew, and all the necessary equipment and materials to a job site requires one or more commercial vehicles, such as a pickup truck, chip truck, bucket truck, or car. Although you and your drivers are always careful, accidents can and do happen, leaving you with potential legal liability for vehicle-related injuries to others or damage to their property by one of your vehicles.
Examples of Commercial Auto Exposures for Tree Service Companies
- Material, equipment, or debris in the back of your truck or trailer isn’t properly secured (or the tie-down straps break) and falls out while driving, causing damage to another vehicle or structure (and possibly injuring a driver or pedestrian)
- Driver takes a turn too quickly and overturns a chip truck or bucket truck
- Trailer jack-knifes while backing up, damaging both the trailer and truck
- Snowy, icy or wet conditions cause loss of control (such as skidding, sliding off the road, or not being able to stop quickly enough)
- You accidentally cut someone off on the highway and run them off the road because you couldn’t see them while towing a large trailer
- The truck wheels aren’t chocked while parked on a slope and your truck rolls down the hill and hits a tree
- A tire blow-out on a truck or trailer causes loss of control, resulting in an accident
- Wind, road conditions, or excessive speed causes fish tailing and loss of control
- You back your truck or trailer into something that you didn’t see
- You hit a pothole while driving on the highway and break an axle or wheel
- An employee forgets to put the boom all the way down on a bucket truck and takes out all the secondaries as they drive down the street
- You don’t notice the maximum height warnings and hit a low overpass with your bucket truck
How to Reduce Commercial Auto Risks
- Make sure all drivers know what to do in the event of a collision or overturned vehicle, including how to clean up any spills, broken glass, or debris.
- Ensure every driver has a valid license that’s appropriate for the type of vehicle they’re driving.
- Run MVRs before anyone is allowed to operate company vehicles.
- Keep all vehicles up to date on maintenance.
- Keep logs, licensing, and other important records at a central location.
- Consider a Commercial Auto Policy
Minimize Your Tree Service Business Risks
While some risks related to tree work are an inherent part of the job, there are many things you, as the business owner, can do to minimize the risk for your employees, your customers, and your business. Being aware of the potential exposures (outlined above) is the first step. Putting in place safety processes and training programs can go a long way in reducing the chance of something happening to your crew members or others.
However, even with the best plans in place, risk cannot be eliminated. That’s where a tree service insurance policy comes in. It can help protect your business from any financial losses associated with the many risks faced in the tree care industry.
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