Photo courtesy of Davey Tree Expert Co.

In the fall of 2017, Crawford Landscaping Group pushed its chainsaws to the limit as crews worked 65-hour weeks to clean up debris from Hurricane Irma. On a daily basis, the Naples, Florida-based contractor dedicated its crew members to use chainsaws to trim debris and trees in the aftermath of the storm.

“It was not easy,” says Phil Buck, arbor division manager. “We probably had 60 people running chainsaws at any one time during Hurricane Irma.”

However, Buck didn’t have 60 people on his tree care crew. He had a team of about 22 at that point. But with increased demand for cleanup work, Buck invited nearly 40 of Crawford’s maintenance crew members to join the tree care crews to speed up cleanup work for more than 100 clients who needed help.

While most of the maintenance crew had been at Crawford for a while, few of them had any experience operating a chainsaw. So, maintenance crew members received a quick crash course from experienced tree care workers on safe equipment operation, and the managers kept a close eye on them.

Although the equipment training for crew members was minimal and some equipment was lost, Buck says the company was fortunate it had no injuries and got the work done on time.

But the situation did serve as a wake-up call to improve training efforts.

“We had a brainstorming session after we were done with the initial cleanup on what we needed to do differently,” he says. “Chainsaw safety was one of them.”

Routine safety.

Hosting big training events for cross-training and new hires is important, but contractors say it’s also good to remind crew members throughout the year on safe equipment operation.

Cory Lester, owner and arborist at Lyndon Tree Care & Landscaping in South Hadley, Massachusetts, says he hosts a weekly safety meeting with his crews to discuss various topics: electrical hazards, personal protective equipment, chipper safety and chainsaw safety, to name a few.

“We go over all the safety features on the chainsaw, how to start the chainsaw correctly, go over kickback – what that means and how to prevent it – and proper footing,” he says.

Lester’s foreman will gather the crew members together to discuss a safety topic for about 15 minutes either before heading out to jobs or during a lunch break once a week. They use a safety book from the Tree Care Industry Association to find discussion topics. Some topics are repeated, but he says that stresses their importance. Although that might get redundant, he says it’s more important to give workers a refresher to avoid complacency.

At Crawford, Buck also hosts bi-weekly safety meetings with his tree care crews. “It’s not always easy to find a topic to talk about, but a lot of times it might be driven by an accident,” Buck says. “Normally, we recycle the chainsaw and chipper safety and driving thing pretty frequently, three times a year.”

Everyday safety.

In between safety meetings, it’s also a good practice to teach safety lessons on site and in the trucks, particularly when it comes to equipment.

Jared Alexander, an arborist at Vermont-based Treeworks, says he likes to call out unsafe practices as they happen. So, if he sees a crew member who has a bad position while using a chainsaw, he stops the crew member on the spot and calls out the issue.

“If I see they’re in a position where they’re not balanced, you stop the guy and ask him if he sees the situation,” Alexander says. “There are so many things that could happen – what you’re cutting (could) come back and hit you. So, you ask them if they see the situation and if there’s anything they could do to be safer.”

If a situation might affect several crew members, he says he stops all operations to have a quick safety talk on site. For example, if a seasonal crew member picks up a branch that gets caught in a climber’s rope as he walks it over to a chipper, he would stop everyone to point out the potential danger. While this scenario might seem small, he says there’s nothing small when considering the consequences if the branch pulled the rope the wrong way with the climber still in the tree.

“These are not little things. These are very important and have severe consequences,” he says. “Cases like this, you don’t just bark and point. You shut down. You get the chipper turned off and explain what’s happening and what could go wrong because it needs to be on forefront of mind.”

He notes that employees generally respond well to these impromptu meetings. Alexander advises continuing to have these conversations with crew members back at the shop or in trucks so there’s constant dialogue.

At Lyndon Tree Care, Lester says he encourages his co-workers to join tree groups or tree climber groups on Facebook where users share knowledge on safety with one another. He says some people will even post news articles about accidents that happened in the field, which provides his crew members with a social platform to discuss safety practically.

“It helps a lot,” Lester says. “You can really look at accidents you might not even think about – examples of guys doing dumb stuff, so your guys know not to do that.”

Buck adds that communicating equipment safety tips with new and seasoned crew members alike is key to preventing accidents.

“Training should be an ongoing thing,” he says. “Build a culture of safety every day.”