The Culture of Arboriculture

Have you been hurt or experienced a near miss because you knowingly took a chance?

Can you think of a time when in an attempt to complete a job before dark or to salvage a bad bid, an accident occurred?

I recently was lucky enough to attend the ISA International conference and tree climbing championships in Australia. I enjoyed my time there very much and due to certain circumstances I was asked to give a presentation for Dr. John Ball as he was unable to attend. Dr.Ball is a professor at South Dakota State University and I have known him personally and professionally for many years. Giving another person’s presentation is a great privilege because you learn so much, and I thank Dr. Ball for considering and trusting me. I was particularly impressed in the way this presentation ended and it is the impetus from which I write this article. In my previous article I said I would be sharing specific methods for identifying tree failure potential and location and I will do that next issue.

The presentation summarized is about the causes of arborist fatalities, fatality statistics, and standards/legislation from a global perspective. It outlined what the fatality averages are in countries around the world and looked at their causes. It also explained what standards or legislation exists in countries around the world.

However, what struck me were the last couple slides where Dr. Ball states that even though training, legislation and standards exist in many countries the accident and fatality rates are still quite high and their causes similar, globally speaking.

This raises a thought provoking question – why?

While accidents and fatalities are lower in countries where mandatory training and credentialing exists and the incidents are lower in these countries than countries that do not have tree work specific legislation or standards, the accident and fatality statistics are still quite high. Globally, commercial arboriculture ranks in the top 5 most dangerous occupations.

In pondering the statistics I believe it has something to do with the culture of arboriculture. Generally speaking, people who enter this field and stick with arboriculture a year or two have some common traits; such as being a hard worker, a risk taker, and a ‘get ‘er done’ done mentality. I believe that this is in part why we have accidents and fatalities. Another significant contributing reason is that arborists deal with many variables and every tree is unique and poses different risks and challenges almost every time, regardless of the work being performed.

There is evidence to suggest that while we understand and evaluate risks and hazards we must do a better job in mitigating and eliminating the risks and identified hazards as part of our regular work practice.

We need to use our intelligence, caution and preventative measures to protect ourselves when doing tree work. It is not enough to have standards, legislation and certifications and to simply evaluate risks and document the assessment procedure. We need to act on the identified risks and diligently address them by putting in place barriers or eliminating the hazards as part of the work plan.  This is important for all aspects of tree work and for the types of equipment that are being used.

Chippers are one of the most dangerous tools we use and yet chipper training or standards that outline safe chipper operation are very limited in most cases.  Another area to give more consideration to is electrical awareness, as electrocution tops the list for fatalities to commercial tree workers according to the sectors of government who investigate fatalities.

As tree workers it is incumbent on us all to change the hard and fast production mentality and actively practice safe work practices that include not only risk assessment but management as well. We need to prioritize and focus on the equipment and activities that are statistically the most dangerous, such as limits of approach, electrical awareness, chipper and chainsaw operation.

Many of us were trained to work hard and do almost whatever it takes to complete jobs in a profitable manner and in certain situations take changes that shouldn’t be risked.  I know I saw this happen as a ground worker and carried forward this thinking when I began to lead crews. Thinking back to my days in the production field I can remember when we hustled to finish a job before dark to avoid the time and costs of returning the next day. I also can recall accidents and near misses that at their root were caused by this thinking.  This mentality can develop a culture that leads to problems. Legislation, training, licensing and certification is not enough; we need to more diligently apply risk reduction strategies, work in ways that reduce or eliminate identified risks and through communication and work strategies demonstrate to all that this is important.

Everyone one of us who works with others on a crew or in a lead role is a trainer and we need to think about what message we are sending to the next generation of tree workers – what  are we teaching them?  

An important message should be that safety is paramount and that when it comes to safety we do not let other factors push us to take the chances that make arboriculture one the most dangerous occupations.

Until we see a measurable reduction in the statistics we have justification to improve. When the statistics show a reduction then we may have been successful in changing the culture of arboriculture.

The presentation ended with a photograph of a placard on a large piece of industrial equipment and it said; ‘This machine does not have a brain, use yours.’ Shields, guards, emergency stops, brakes and PPE are not enough – we also need to change our thinking and habits.

Experience, thought, planning and actions that reduce and eliminate risks is the most important piece of safety equipment we have. It is in our heads.


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