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Tree surgery is often performed to improve the health of a tree, to improve its appearance, or for safety reasons. Tree surgeons are also known as arborists. Their work involves planting, caring for, maintaining, hazard assessments of, and cutting down trees to make sure they are kept healthy. Tree surgeons work in a wide range of locations; these can include, but are not limited to, country parks, private estates, conservation areas, public woodlands, highways, local authority parks and gardens, and residential gardens.
Tree surgery is a highly skilled and extremely high-risk activity; it is actually considered one of the most dangerous jobs due to the constant working from height and using powerful machinery. During the last 10 years, 24 tree surgeons have been killed working on trees, so they need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a tree surgeon?
A tree surgeon will have knowledge of trees as living organisms and understand when, how and why specialist tree care is needed.
Their main tasks are varied and may include, but are not limited to:
- Felling and removal – this is one of the more commonly known aspects of tree surgery. Felling is the action of cutting down a tree either because it has been damaged beyond repair or has contracted a disease which needs to be prevented from spreading to the other trees surrounding it.
- Tree stump and root removal – after cutting down a tree, the stump and roots then need to be removed as they can cause rot or produce new plants if left.
- Tree pruning – this is to prevent trees from becoming dangerously heavy or simply too large.
- Tree pollarding – this is another method of pruning trees. Pollarding involves pruning all the limbs and branches of a tree until they are cut back to just stubs.
- Crown reduction – this is the process of removing a section of the tree’s canopy to control the overall size of the tree.
- Crown lifting – this involves removing some of the lower branches of a tree to create height.
- Dead wooding – this involves removing some branches and limbs of a tree that have died to make sure they don’t fall and cause injury or damage.
- Emergency tree care – this involves treating damaged trees or removing trees felled in storms, for example. This includes removing the roots and stump of the tree and clearing any debris left over.
- Tree planting – this includes performing groundwork, planting or relocating semi-mature or completely mature trees.
- Using power and manual tools.
- Carrying out routine maintenance for tools and rigging equipment and being able to determine when and what kind of maintenance is necessary.
- Transporting materials and equipment to sites.
- Tree inspections, tree surveys and tree management.
- Report writing.
- Advising on the most suitable trees for development areas.
- Selecting trees and designing schemes for landscaping.
- Managing contracts for planting and caring for trees.
Working as part of a team, tree surgeons liaise with, for example, local authority and commercial clients, conservation organisations, and homeowners when working on residential projects. Whatever the environment they work in, a tree surgeon will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work, tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks tree surgeons can encounter?
Working at height will always bring with it added risks and challenges. Perhaps the most widely recognised danger in tree surgery is falling from height; it is the biggest cause of serious injury and even death. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around 16% of tree-related accidents involve falling from a height, with 6% due to uncontrolled swings in the tree, which cause impact with the trunk or branches. Any work done at a height must be planned, supervised and carried out by qualified persons. A minimum of two people must be present during all aerial work, and one of the ground team must be available, competent and equipped to do an aerial rescue without delay should it be required. To eliminate work at height, tree surgeons should consider pruning low-level branches from the ground with long-handled hand saws or pole pruners, taking into account the hazards of over-reaching and working below the branches to be cut.
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 are referred to the most when it comes to planning work at heights. They outline specific measures to follow, as well as suitable safety equipment to use, for example a safety harness. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
Tree surgeons use several kinds of ladders in their work; ladders of different heights and both traditional ladders and tripod ladders where a stable base is necessary. Ladders should only be used as an access to scaffolds or for carrying out light work of short duration, and ladders must be tied and/or footed. Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPS) including cherry pickers, scissor lifts, self-propelled booms, vehicle mounted platforms etc. are often safer alternatives to ladders for tree surgeons.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of allowing tools to fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and check that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
On some projects, tree surgeons may be working on or near public highways where there can be the risk of encountering traffic and the general public. If there is a risk to the public, tree surgery work must be scheduled for quiet times or a highway closure obtained from the local council.
Tree surgeons must be specifically trained to work with hazardous equipment and tools such as, but not limited to:
- Stump grinders
- Cherry pickers
- Axes and splitting mauls
- Hand saws
- Timber trollies
- Climbing and load bearing equipment
- Blocks and pulleys
- Cable hoists
- Leaf blowers
Equipment presents a significant risk, so a tree surgeon needs to ensure that all tools and equipment that they use in the course of their job is fit for purpose. Ensuring tools are in proper working condition is key to ensuring safety on a job. Inspect all equipment before use and only use if in good working order. Under no circumstances should any machines be left unattended at any time, and store all equipment in a safe place to ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and doesn’t become a hazard in the workplace.
Manufacturers and suppliers of power tools and equipment have a duty under health and safety legislation to provide information on any hazards associated with their products and advise on their safe use. Users should ensure that they are in possession of this information, and make certain that the operators are instructed accordingly. Before using a machine, the operator’s training and experience must be checked to assess their competency. Competent persons carrying out planning of the use of machines should ensure that all work must be carried out to a Method Statement and that the Method Statement is a description of the safe system of work developed from a risk assessment of the task to be undertaken.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is caused by exposure to vibration such as from power tools. This typically affects tree surgeons when using, for example, chainsaws or stump grinders. Try to minimise exposure to vibration and take regular breaks when using power tools that can cause this issue.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for tree surgeons who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced such as having the use of trollies or lifting equipment to move heavy items, and all tree surgeons should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be caused by a variety of tasks at work, such as forceful or repetitive activity, or by poor posture. The condition mostly affects parts of the upper body, such as the forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. RSI is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a long period of time. Continuous standing and bending while working is a common source of discomfort and fatigue for tree surgeons. Frequent changes of body positions, including alternating between sitting and standing, help to avoid fatigue. Tree surgeons should be aware that breaks are important elements of the work. Breaks should be used to relax when muscles are tired, to move around when muscles are stiff, and to walk when work restricts the tree surgeon’s ability to change postures or positions.
Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas.
Key aspects of slips and trips include:
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Changes in level
Slips and trips affect the whole work area, so everyone should work to eliminate them by cleaning up spills or debris, even if they did not cause them. Dispose of all debris safely in a skip, bin or designated areas for waste collection, as the debris may contain nails or other sharp objects. Keep work areas clear, orderly and dry and free from leaks, spills, snow and ice, and make sure footwear with a good grip is worn. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
The work of a tree surgeon can be very noisy. Industrial noise pollution caused by machinery and loud tools such as chainsaws can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical well-being.
Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to:
- Stress and anxiety
- Productivity loss
- Communication issues
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Nervous disorders
- Neurological problems
Tree surgeons may be exposed to sawdust and fumes from tools, pesticides and fertilisers. All types of wood can create wood dust, and breathing it in can cause nasal cancer, serious lung problems and asthma. HSE figures show that 800 people lose their lives to cancer every year because they inhale hazardous dust particles. A further 39,000 suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the same particles.
Wood dust, shavings, chips or slivers can also cause injuries to the eyes or skin through splinters. Tree surgeons are most at risk from flying debris from the chipping, drilling, grinding and sawing of wood. Even a tiny splinter of wood can cause severe eye damage.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) are intended to protect individuals from potentially hazardous substances that they may use or come into contact with at work. Tree surgeons should always read container labels of pesticides, for example, noting any hazards, as it is essential that they understand the mixing of certain chemicals is a potentially dangerous practice. They should also use chemicals for their intended purpose only, following safe application procedures and storing chemicals in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. All corrosive and toxic chemicals, including pesticides, must be kept in secure stores. Quantities of flammable and highly flammable liquids stored should be kept as low as is practicable.
Occasionally tree surgeons may be required to work near overhead power lines. Work should not be carried out within 75 metres of un-insulated and 20 metres of insulated overhead power lines unless and until the operative has received the appropriate permit to work signed off by both the site manager and local electricity board supplier. The permit to work should not be signed off until the electricity board have confirmed the power lines have been made safe.
Tree surgeons are often exposed to extreme weather conditions, especially when they are working over long periods. Weather conditions such as high winds, heavy rain or hot weather can all present health and safety risks. Tree surgeons should assess the weather conditions before undertaking work and not undertake the task if conditions are unsuitable.
Too much sunlight, even on cool days, is harmful to the skin. In the short term, even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure is a sign of damage. Sunburn can blister the skin and make it peel and longer-term problems can arise. Exposure to too much sun speeds up the ageing of the skin, making it leathery, mottled and wrinkled. The most serious effect is an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Tree surgeons should use a high factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 on any exposed skin and, if possible, wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck. They should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is an issue for any project, and tree surgeons should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and keep from working outside at midday, when it is hottest, if possible. On hot, sunny days, tree surgeons should take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion.
Occasionally tree surgery work will be carried out alone, or at least some distance from others, so tree surgeons should ensure other members of staff know where they are and be fully contactable.
Tree surgeons transport materials and equipment to project sites, meaning that they are travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places throughout their day. It has been estimated that up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve somebody who is at work at the time. Health and safety laws apply the same to on-the-road work activities as to all work activities, and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety management system. Risk assessments for any work-related driving activity should follow the same principles as risk assessments for any other work activity.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by tree surgeons. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Tree Surgeons must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a tree surgeon’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to a tree surgeon’s health and safety including, but not limited to:
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, tree surgeons have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
- Hard hats or bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all sites where there is a risk of head injury. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – that is, the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection.
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances, such as wood dust. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Safety goggles/glasses – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying particles or dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – work sites are loud and tree surgeons can be often exposed to much of this noise. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Gloves – thick gloves can not only keep a tree surgeon’s hands warm, but they can also protect them from sharp tools and general damage from working with different materials daily. Their main purpose, however, is to provide additional grip when climbing up and down and transferring equipment and materials. Should a tree surgeon slip or fall when working at height, the gloves also provide an extra layer of protection against damage to the hands.
- Footwear – footwear is another important aspect of PPE to get right as there are lots of potential tripping hazards, slippery areas and sharp objects. Steel-toe boots that are non-slip are essential to protect a tree surgeon’s feet from any misplaced tools or heavy falling objects that can cause a lot of damage.
- Protective clothing – the clothing worn by tree surgeons should keep them warm and dry against the elements. Overalls are a good choice as they are less likely to snag on materials or the trees themselves, minimising the risk of getting caught and falling. Trousers with removable knee pads are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling. If they will be working in low lighting conditions, the protective clothing should be highly visible, especially if there are any vehicles in the vicinity, to significantly reduce the risk of accidents. High-visibility clothing allows all tree surgeons to be aware of each other’s positions at all times, meaning they can easily find them should an accident happen. Hi-vis clothing should be comfortable, non-restrictive and provide good visibility during the day, at night, and in poor weather conditions.
- Fall protection – for example, a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points and/or connectors. The risk of falling is high when working as a tree surgeon, especially if the tree is particularly tall. The most basic form of protection against falling is wearing a harness while moving around the tree or using a cherry picker, for example. This is essential when working on higher areas particularly where there is no safe platform to stand on.
- Sunscreen – tree surgeons should use sunscreen with an SPF minimum of 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, tree surgeons still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
- Mobile phone – tree surgeons require a method to maintain contact whilst on the road or when working alone.
What training should tree surgeons take?
While professional certifications are not necessary to work as a tree surgeon, many employers and potential clients are more likely to hire certified tree surgeons. Some relevant work-based qualifications include the City and Guilds land-based services Level 2 certificate, extended certificate and diploma in forestry and arboriculture, the ABC awards Level 2 certificate in arboriculture and the BTEC Level 3 qualification in forestry and arboriculture.
When tree surgeons are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all tree surgeons appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for tree surgeons might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Noise Awareness
- Ladder safety
- Assessing Risk
Tree surgeons should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for tree surgeons
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Ladder safety£20 + VAT View course
Noise Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course