Tree-care professionals working in close proximity to power lines face a wide variety of occupational hazards. For one, utility companies cannot cut the power to their infrastructure without disrupting service for their customers. This means that right-of-way arborists must be aware of electrocution risks while pruning back trees and vegetation, especially when working at high elevations.
One of the most pressing concerns, however, is fall prevention, both from a safety and compliance standpoint. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, fall protection was the most frequently cited safety violation in 2019, while fall protection training ranked 8th on their list of cited standards. Since utility arborists spend a good deal of time working at heights, it’s important for tree care businesses to understand best practices in fall prevention and take steps to safeguard their employees from avoidable injuries.
A Brief Overview of OSHA’s Fall Protection Standards
Considering how common fall hazards are across nearly every industry, OSHA created a set of general standards that all businesses outside of construction must comply with. These safety standards include broad requirements for personal protection equipment and specialized directives for different walking/working surfaces. For example, OSHA’s 1910.23(b)(2) ladder standard dictates that all ladder rungs, steps and cleats must be spaced between 10 inches and 14 inches apart. Keeping track of these regulations can be challenging, yet they are essential for remaining compliant and protecting tree professionals from serious injuries, even death.
Alongside OSHA’s operational standards, the agency also enforces strict training requirements for any employee who may encounter fall hazards. Workers must be trained on the correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling and inspecting relevant fall protection equipment, including:
- Safety nets
- Warning lines
- Personal fall arrest equipment
Additionally, OSHA requires employers set up a safety monitoring system that allows supervisors to ensure all fall protection standards are upheld across all worksites. To that end, workers should be trained to assess and mitigate fall hazards that are specific to their line of work. For tree-care professionals, this means understanding the risks posed by overhead power lines, falling debris and uneven terrain. Since OSHA’s fall protection regulations are quite expansive, it’s important to review them thoroughly and keep an eye out for updates to existing standards.
Best Practices in Fall Protection for Utility Arborists
To help utility arborists and other tree-care professionals stay safe on the job, the Arborist Safe Work Practices Committee created a detailed manual that outlines how employers can help prevent fall-related injuries and compliance issues. First, all trees should be inspected for hazards prior to climbing or pruning. Once the hazard assessment is complete, arborists must have at least one ground assistant present before starting their work. This precaution is crucial for preventing avoidable falls and ensuring workers receive timely medical attention after an accident. For those actively working at high elevations, the ASWP recommends they be trained on the following:
- Proper knot tying
- Fall protection techniques
- Pre-climb inspections
- Safe ascent and descent methods
- Appropriate rigging proficiencies
Diving a bit deeper into the specifics, utility arborists should always inspect their gear before use, including chainsaws, pole pruners, gas-powered tools and climbing restraints. Any synthetic slings must have a load limitation label attached and clearly displayed. Additionally, all ropes, slings and connecting links used in rigging tree limbs should not be subjected to forces beyond the manufacturers’ recommendations. When pruning at high elevations, climbers should be tied in at least twice to ensure they have a safe, stable work position. This is especially important when in close proximity to power lines, as falling tree branches can cause a major electrical accident.
The ASWP places a lot of emphasis on hazard assessment, believing that strong fall prevention practices start with a deep understanding of the surrounding work environment. As such, utility arborists should make note of overhead wires, traffic and weather conditions, soil density and other biotic considerations, such as beehives and birds nests. Ultimately, the best way to protect workers from fall hazards is to cultivate a culture of safety, awareness and collaboration. When tree-care professionals look out for one another, there’s less risk of an avoidable accident and a quicker response to emergency situations.