When tree care workers balance 50 feet in the air while wielding sharp tools, the margin of error can be a thin one.
The perils of what can go wrong have been demonstrated starkly this month in the Kansas City area with the deaths of three men in tree-trimming accidents.
“What happened in your area is a symptom of a national epidemic,” said Peter Gerstenberger of the New Hampshire-based Tree Care Industry Association.
The industry consistently ranks among the five most dangerous occupations in the United States, he said. Last year, 79 people died from tree-care-related accidents. In 2012, it was 84.
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“It is a huge concern,” Gerstenberger said. “It’s probably our chief concern.”
The persistence of fatal accidents prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release a hazard bulletin this month.
“Too many tree care workers are being hurt or killed by well-known industry dangers that can be prevented if employers take the necessary precautions,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, in a written statement accompanying the bulletin.
The three area incidents involved the three most common ways tree care workers are killed: electrocution, falling and being struck by falling branches or trees.
On June 16, Carlos Enrique Gomez-Escobar, a 35-year-old employee of a tree-trimming company, died in Parkville when a metal piece of his safety strap touched an electrical wire.
Four days later, 47-year-old Larry Dean Webb of Olathe fell about 60 feet to his death while trimming a tree in Gardner. An independent contractor, he had owned his tree-trimming business for 15 years. His mother, Janice Hurley, described him as “very safety-minded.” Authorities told her that it appeared he accidentally cut through a safety rope with his chain saw.
Then last Sunday, a falling branch killed Steve Anson, the longtime baseball coach at Washburn University in Topeka, as he trimmed trees on property he owned in rural Jefferson County, Kan. He was found with a large tree branch on top of him, the county sheriff’s office said.
Those incidents show that the hazards imperil both professionals and do-it-yourself homeowners, Gerstenberger said.
“The difference should be that the professionals should have more skills, training and better tools,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”
Very few places in the country require training or certification to do the work.
“If you have a pickup truck, a chain saw and a ladder you can be in the tree care business,” he said. “There are really no laws to prevent someone from doing that.”
Statistics show that proper training and licensing can reduce fatalities. Earlier this month, the Tree Care Industry Association published an analysis of fatalities from 2009 through 2013.
Of 408 fatal incidents, only 9 percent involved tree care association members, who account for about 75 percent of the industry’s business volume.
The association offers accreditation for members based on stringent safety and training standards.
Gerstenberger strongly advises homeowners not to undertake tree-trimming work themselves.
“A homeowner, a chain saw, a tree and a ladder is a surefire formula for an accident,” he said.
Trimming trees around power lines can be particularly hazardous, no matter who is doing the work.
Electrocution caused 17 percent of fatalities from 2009 through 2013, according to the industry association’s data.
Although some area power utilities require homeowners to keep vegetation cleared from around the lines leading to their houses, they work with homeowners to have it done safely.
Kansas City Power & Light customers who think vegetation may be compromising the power line that runs from a utility pole to their homes are asked to submit a request online. If a KCP&L representative agrees vegetation poses a threat, the utility will schedule a time to disconnect and then reconnect the line, allowing a homeowner or contractor to trim safely.
The Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kan., uses a similar procedure.
“What we always tell people is never personally trim a tree near a power line; hire a trained and qualified crew to do the work,” said David Mehlhaff of the board. “Let the pros handle it, err on the side of safety and get the work done.”
Independence Power & Light often has its contractors clear individual lines to homes.
“We would rather do that than put a homeowner in danger,” said Leon Daggett of the Independence utility.
Investigators from OSHA are looking into the Parkville and Gardner incidents, said Barb Theriot, OSHA’s area director in Kansas City. Because Anson was a private individual, OSHA does not have jurisdiction to investigate.
It will be several weeks before the investigations are complete, Theriot said.
OSHA’s priorities for the past several years in the Kansas City region have included falls and overhead power line safety, she said.
Whenever agency compliance officers see work being done around power lines, they stop and make sure it is being done safely, she said.
Many residential injuries or fatalities begin with do-it-yourself homeowners underestimating the hazards, said Brandon Hendrickson, president of K.C. Arborist Tree Care.
Sometimes accidents occur when a person is working alone, he said. His crews always include someone trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid.
“We always have a second person who can get into the tree,” said Hendrickson, who along with his crew leaders has been certified by a professional tree care association.
When requested to perform work that involves utility lines, his workers observe a minimum safety distance of 10 feet. If the work would take them closer, they contact the appropriate utility company instead. That company takes care of it.
Sometimes, Hendrickson said, homeowners work without appropriate safety equipment, such as hard hats, chain saw chaps, safety glasses and hearing protection. Or, they attempt to reach particular limbs while on ladders, which represents a risky move while using a chain saw.
“The biggest thing we see with most individual homeowners is trying to work off ladders and the ladders getting knocked over,” Hendrickson said. “Sometimes a limb will spring up when somebody cuts the tip off it.”
Many inexperienced homeowners may not be expecting a possible recoil from that branch, prompting a possible fall, he said.
Hendrickson and his colleagues secure themselves in a stable position within the tree before beginning work.
“We are always secured by a rope and saddle, and we are always tied off to two lines,” he said. Workers attach the lines to different points in the tree so that one serves as a backup in case the other one fails.
On a recent morning, Bryan Hendrickson, a general foreman with K.C. Arborist, demonstrated how he uses a leather tree saddle and the ropes. He opened a gear bag holding the rope and large carabiners, or coupling links, that secure the ropes.
He took a beanbag attached to a smaller, lighter rope and threw it over a branch. By pulling the beanbag down, he can hoist a climbing rope. This rope is secured in place before workers approach a limb or branch. The tree saddle, meanwhile, carries a second safety rope.
Bryan Hendrickson and his colleagues perform gear checks once a month — but never on their own gear. The theory is that a different tree professional will more likely notice a fraying rope than the person who just used it.
“Once a month, somebody else goes through your equipment,” he said. “Just to get a second opinion.”
Customers of Kansas City Power & Light can find information about tree-trimming polices at www.kcpl.com/about-kcpl/safety/tree-trimming-and-planting/your-responsibility.
Customers of the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities can call 913-573-9522 to schedule a troubleshooter to review a power line near a tree.
Customers of Independence Power & Light can find information at www.ci.independence.mo.us/pl/TreeTrimming.aspx.
The Tree Care Industry Association provides information on hiring a qualified contractor at treecaretips.org.