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October 14, 2009

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Working at height- Turning over a new leaf

Arboriculture is classed by the HSE as one of the UK’s most dangerous industries, with many of its risks and hazards linked to work at height. Those commissioning such work, as well as the operatives themselves, have been slow to fully embrace safety requirements in this area so now, the industry itself has produced guidance to support the relevant legislation, as Paul Hanson explains.

There are many situations in which safety and health professionals will be asked to work with arborists to design ‘safe systems of work’ for work at height. Tree-surgery works are an integral part of the service delivery and/or requirements of a wide range of employers — for example, local government (typically housing, highways and environmental services), rail infrastructure management teams, dedicated highways agencies, electricity distribution network operators, environment agencies, facilities management, and construction companies.

There are around 10,000 individuals in the tree-work industry1 and, in the five years between 2003 and 2008, the HSE recorded 20 fatalities among this working population (which includes forestry), of which seven involved work at height.2 At an average of 1.4 deaths a year, these are clearly dangerous odds. Of the 10,000, the number that actually undertakes work at height will be considerably smaller, further shortening the already frightening odds of aerial tree-care operatives losing their lives at work.

What makes arboriculture such a dangerous industry? Clearly, working at height — often from a rope and harness — coupled with the frequent use of chainsaws to remove trees or tree limbs, in whole or part, is a seriously alarming combination. The safety and health professional is likely to have to deal with both directly employed and/or sub-contracted staff, of whom the majority will be significantly more aware of the hazards and risks associated with their day-to-day undertakings. However, the following should be borne in mind:

  • Moderately experienced arboricultural operators are inclined to be more than a little complacent about the familiar hazards and risks associated with their work;
  • By nature, the arboricultural population is resistant to change (especially legislative); and
  • Arboriculture as an industry engages more thrill-seeking young people than other professions.

In addition to the particular hazards and risks presented by working at height, arboricultural workers are exposed to many other associated hazards that are common in other industries: noise, vibration, severe laceration, abiotic and biotic disorders, to name but a few. In most instances these hazards, risks, and their control measures are managed very effectively, and arboriculture is no different, being well served by industry-specific advice through the HSE Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG) suite of guidance notes3 for these generic risks.

However, the industry has experienced some difficulties in coping with changing legislation in recent years. The guidance given in the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 and Work at Height Regulations 2005, while not specific to any single industry, clearly encompasses arboriculture. Disappointingly, however, the arboricultural community has not entirely embraced the spirit of these regulations, striving at times (at quite a senior industry level) to find loopholes among the detail to allow ‘tried-and-tested’ work practices to continue — the same practices that are behind the industry’s relatively high accident rate.

There are champions for common sense in the tree-care industry, who, working closely with the Arboricultural Association (AA) and the HSE, have produced additional guidance4 in support of the regulations to enable tree workers and arborists to deliver tree care at height in compliance with those regulations. To facilitate understanding of the Work at Height Regulations the AA’s publication ‘A Guide to Good Climbing Practice‘, now enjoying its first re-print, gives detailed information on the application of work at height to undertake tree-work operations from a rope and harness.

Mechanical means

However, it is somewhat incongruous that the AA’s tree-climbing guidance assumes that employing rope and harness access techniques is the preferred choice for delivering tree care at height, when the Work at Height Regulations begin with the principle that employers must “do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone falling”. In practice, this means:

  • Avoid work at height where possible;
  • Where work at height cannot be avoided then the work must be properly planned, appropriately supervised, and carried out safely;
  • Those planning, undertaking and supervising work at height must be trained and competent
  • The use of mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) must be considered ahead of rope-access equipment; and
  •  Before work commences, a rescue plan must be prepared and sufficient information and equipment made available on site to allow it to be put into effect.

The HSE expects the arboricultural industry to adopt this route to decision-making, and consequently, there has been a significant increase in the application of MEWPs for tree work at height since the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations. Unfortunately, guidance on the use of MEWPs in arboriculture has been slow to follow, meaning arboricultural employers have either continued with rope-and-harness work-positioning techniques, or simply muddled through in the use of MEWPs, often having been trained in construction-based operational techniques.

The use of MEWPs for tree-care operations is not new, but what is new is the variety of vehicles available for use (although to date, European manufacturers have not designed MEWPs specifically for arboriculture). In 2008, the Arboricultural Association published ‘A Guide to the Use of MEWPs in Arboriculture’, which was a significant development in the delivery of professional tree-work at height. The guide contains information on managing the use of MEWPs for tree-work operations effectively and safely, and is aimed at:

  • those involved in the planning, management and control of MEWP operations associated with arboricultural work;
  • arboricultural MEWP operators; 
  • arborist users of MEWPs;
  • hire and supply companies hiring to tree-work companies;
  • those involved in training arborists to use MEWPs; and
  • general MEWP operators who may be involved in tree work.

The guide provides information relevant to: machine selection, work-at-height planning, hazard and risk assessment specific to MEWP use, rescue planning, and the application of MEWPs for tree work. It also includes advice on the use of MEWPs in amenity tree care, electrical utility arboriculture, and roadside tree-work operations.

The only reasons tree-care professionals need to access trees at height is to undertake such tasks as pruning, felling by section, detailed inspection, or installing bracing systems. MEWPS are often the safest way of working on diseased or dying trees, and they are also particularly suitable for work in urban areas, and in situations where tree-climbing is difficult, or arduous because of tree species or form, or where there is a number of adjacent trees to be worked on. These days, machines are designed for use in very narrow access situations, with four-wheel drive, adjustable tracked access, and a host of other features to suit a multitude of sites and situations.

Conclusion

For much tree work at height, therefore, a MEWP may be more effective, efficient and safer than conventional rope-access systems, but only where the right MEWP is employed for the particular site. There have been, and will continue to be, incidents where health and safety is compromised because the wrong MEWP is used, so it is vital that safety and health professionals, working for employers that undertake tree-work operations directly or indirectly, familiarise themselves with current best practice in the arboricultural industry.     

References
1    Lantra (2007): Trees and Timber Industry Occupational and Functional Map
2    HSE Fatal Injuries in Farming, Forestry and Horticulture — www.hse.gov.uk/ agriculture/resources/fatal.htm
3    HSE Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group — www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/forindex.htm
4    www.trees.org.uk/publications.php

Paul Hanson is chair of the Scottish branch of the Arboricultural Association and MD of Arboretum Internationale Ltd.

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