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Hiring a Trained Arborist

Arborist Adan Ortiz of Ortiz Tree Service maneuvers near the top of a Washingtonia palm on a private campus facility in Southern California. At an altitude of more than 50 ft., the consequences of a mistake here are severe. Any superintendent hiring of a tree professional should insist on arborist certification. Photo by Guy Nelson

Department of Labor statistics note that tree care, even when done by certified professionals, has a high rate of accidents and fatalities. Institutions can protect themselves from tragedies (and possible lawsuits) by refusing to allow anyone but trained arborists to climb trees and use power equipment in trees.

In an incident reviewed here, a fatality resulted when a property owner failed to review certification documents and hired a worker with limited training.

The International Society of Arboriculture provides the following advice about the need to employ certified arborists.

If pruning involves working above the ground or using power equipment, it is essential to hire a professional arborist. An arborist can determine the type of pruning necessary to improve the health, appearance, and safety of your trees.

A professional arborist can provide the services of a trained crew, with all of the required safety equipment and liability insurance.

There are a variety of things to look for when selecting an arborist:

  • Membership in professional organizations such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA).
  • Certification through ISA's Certified Arborist program.
  • Proof of insurance.
  • List of references (don't hesitate to check).

Avoid using the services of any tree company that:

  • Advertises topping as a service provided; knowledgeable arborists know that topping is harmful to trees and is not an accepted practice.
  • Uses tree climbing spikes to climb trees that are being pruned; climbing spikes can damage trees, and their use should be limited to trees that are being removed.

A crew takes advantage of winter's lack of foliage to prune a bur oak. The need for expensive and specialized equipment and training means that most tree care firms specialize in trees alone. Photo: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Learning from Past Tragedies

Universities, amusement parks and other facilities often hire their own certified staff arborists. These tree professionals are trained to follow safety rules, but there is always room for more knowledge. One way is to review past accidents, which are compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In September, 1996, a 28-year-old tree trimmer died when the branch he was anchored to snapped and dropped 60 ft. to the ground. The New Jersey incident is one of several listed at the Department of Labor's Tree Care Industry Hazard Recognition web site.

These incidents make for grim reading, but can help identify hazards and prevent future incidents. The advice below was compiled in a report reviewing the tragic death that happened more than a decade ago.

The web address is:

Recommendation # 1:

Arborists should use appropriate fall arrest systems when working in trees.

Discussion: According to his employer, the victim was tied off to the tree with his climbing line at or below the level at which he was working. He straddled the limb, which grew diagonally upward from the tree and which he planned to cut, and was about 20 feet from the tree trunk.

Because of the distance from his tie off point to where he was working, he was able to fall freely for at least 20 feet. According to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) rules, personal fall arrest systems should be rigged so that the worker can neither free-fall more than five feet nor contact any lower level. His safety line may have failed because of the extra stress placed on the rope by the combination of the weight of the limb plus the tree trimmer.

The tree climber had wrapped his lanyard around the limb, effectively tying off to it. According to experts, this is not an acceptable practice. Lanyards are to be used to assist with balance and stabilization when on a limb, not for fall protection.

Recommendation # 2:

Arborists should use appropriate cutting techniques.

Discussion: When cutting the tree limb, the climber made an undercut and then a back-cut. However, according to the company owner, the climber made the cut on the side of the limb so that the limb fell sideways instead of straight down to the ground. The undercut should have been made on the bottom so the limb would have fallen in the direction of the weight of the branch.

Recommendation # 3:

Employers should provide appropriate training and supervision to employees.

Discussion: The company owner stated that he would have roped the tree differently; he would have made a false crotch and attached the rope to the top. He would also have made the cuts in the branch differently. It is essential that employers and senior arborists train less experienced workers in safe tree climbing and rigging and supervise them to be sure correct methods are used.

The number of tools involved in professional tree trimming is substantial and require experience and training. Climbing into trees with power tools is not something you "learn at home." Photo: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Recommendation # 4:

Employers and employees should be aware of the dangers of drugs and other substances that may impair judgment or alertness.

Discussion: The medical examiner’s report noted a toxicology test positive for drugs. The FACE investigation did not determine if the victim was under the influence or if this may have contributed to the incident. However, the FACE project recommends that employers and employees be aware of the dangers that drugs (including prescription, non-prescription, and illegal drugs) and alcohol may present in the workplace. Safety training should include strong warnings about the use of drugs that may impair a worker’s judgment, alertness, or physical abilities.

Recommendation # 5:

Arborists should be properly trained in identifying hazardous trees and in safely trimming or removing them.

Discussion: Some trees and their environments may present a safety hazard to arborists during trimming or removing them. It is important that arborists and tree trimming companies obtain appropriate information on safety regulations and methods of ensuring safe working conditions. Attendance at training and participation in professional organizations fosters improvement of skills and awareness of new equipment and trends in tree care and safety. Training programs should be approved by organizations such as the National Arborist Association or the International Arborist Association. Arborists should also be aware of OSHA regulations and American National Standards Institutes, Inc. (ANSI) standards.

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June 18, 2019, 9:02 pm PDT

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