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Safety Advancements in the Line-Clearance Industry

Progress over the last decade has made the industry a safer place for line-clearance workers.

When I started working for an investor-owned utility in 1974, I was fresh out of high school and had little knowledge of safe work practices and policies. I was truly fortunate to collaborate with people at the utility who cared about my safety and made sure I developed safe work habits that I still espouse today.

Thirty-four years later, I transitioned to the tree care industry and quickly discovered that I had much to learn about line-clearance work. While vegetation management companies at that time had extensive safety policies and programs in place, there remained certain practices that were accepted under the guise of “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Fortunately, through the arduous work of many fine safety professionals from the line-clearance industry, today those practices are no longer acceptable.

Line-clearance organizations have worked tirelessly and invested millions of dollars in the development of a true safety culture across the industry. We have collectively raised the bar for the safety performance of our workers. During new-hire orientations, we rarely hear the phrase “that’s not the way my former employer did that” any longer. Regardless of the model you are using – whether it’s behavioral safety or human performance, or a hybrid method – line-clearance organizations have the expectation that all of our employees will work safely, and if they cannot work safely, the job shall stop. We have reduced injuries to historically low levels and must continue to develop an industry-wide culture where safety is the priority.

Safety Partnership
A number of line-clearance companies have representation on the Utility Line Clearance Safety Partnership. This group was formed in 2000 with representatives from eight of the largest line-clearance organizations in the United States. It has grown to 14 members who meet at least twice annually to discuss critical issues that are present or may be emerging within the line-clearance industry. The partnership is represented by legal counsel who update the group on regulatory issues. OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard for COVID-19 vaccinations is one example. We were given updates on the progress of the ETS as it unfolded. Member companies of the partnership benefit from having a credible source for information as opposed to each of us doing our own extensive research. When we meet either in person or virtually, it does not matter whose name is on your shirt – we are all working together toward a common goal of reducing incidents within our industry.

Drop-Zone, Chainsaw and Grounding Rules
Workers being struck by objects from above remains the number one cause of injuries and fatalities in the tree care industry. Thus, line-clearance companies have adopted drop-zone policies that have dramatically reduced the number of struck-by incidents across our industry. Drop-zone policies typically define the area around the tree that workers on the ground shall not enter without permission from the workers aloft. The drop zone may be defined by setting up a perimeter of cones at a predetermined distance from the drip edge of the tree. Drop-zone policies also define the distance at which workers on the ground shall stand when trees are being felled. This is typically a minimum of 1.5 times the height of the tree being felled. This ensures that workers on the ground will not be struck by the falling tree. Establishing a proper drop zone was added in 2013 to the ANSI Z133 consensus standard regarding safety requirements for arboricultural operations and expanded in the 2017 revision.

The safe use and operation of chainsaws is imperative within the tree care industry. While they do not occur often, incidents involving chainsaws do happen. In the past, when chainsaw cuts have occurred, we often find that the operator failed to keep two hands on the saw while operating it. Two hands on the saw with thumbs wrapped around the handles ensures that in the unlikely event that the saw kicks back, the operator can keep the saw from contacting any part of their body. Line-clearance companies have long prohibited the practice of one-handed chainsaw use, and we have seen steady declines in chainsaw-related soft tissue injuries due to our efforts.

The use of visible safety grounds has become widely adopted across the line-clearance industry. It is now a frequent practice that line-clearance crews request visible grounds, particularly during storm work. Historically, our utility customers have been very accommodating when tree crews ask for outages while conducting non-storm-related line-clearance tasks. However, the practice of grounding during storm events was not a widely accepted expectation in the past. Through the collaborative efforts of the line-clearance industry and our utility partners, our workers are now offered an extra level of protection. Because our workers are qualified line-clearance workers and not qualified electrical workers, they shall continue to treat all conductors as if they are energized and maintain the prescribed minimum approach distance.

PPE
As safety professionals, we often refer to personal protective equipment as the last line of defense against incidents. Thanks to our training and coaching efforts, as well as advancements made in the tools we use across the industry, our workforce is now less likely to injure themselves than they were in the past. The use of chaps or cut-resistant pants, safety eyewear, hearing protection, safety-toed footwear, full body harnesses for aerial lift work, gloves, head protection and high-visibility attire is required of all our workers. Technological advancements in PPE continue to improve the overall protection, comfort and appearance for end users.

Certifications and a New Endorsement
Our customers expect that safety professionals who support the contract workforce are knowledgeable about the standards and regulations that apply to the utility industry. Many of our frontline safety professionals came to safety from the field and bring vast line-clearance experience with them. It is not uncommon for line-clearance safety professionals to have credentials from the International Society of Arboriculture, the Tree Care Industry Association and the Utility Arborist Association. As an industry, we must continue to offer our workforce exceptional support from our safety teams.

I am proud to have been part of the team that developed the new utility line-clearance arborist endorsement for Certified Utility Safety Professionals (see https://usoln.org/endorsements). Together with Mark Kimbrough from Townsend Tree Service; Gerry Breton from Lucas Tree Experts; Chris Dichard from Asplundh Tree Expert; and Mark Werndorf, Ted Granger and Catherine Cox representing the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network, we developed the body of knowledge and a battery of test questions for the endorsement. This endorsement should serve as a catalyst for line-clearance safety professionals to join our peers across the utility industry in earning the CUSP credential. We also anticipate that current CUSPs will earn the endorsement to add to their credentials.

Conclusion
Those of us who work as safety professionals in the line-clearance industry are immensely proud of our progress over the last decade to make the industry a safer place for our workers. None of this would have been possible without the efforts and great work of our safety teams and the exceptionally hard work of our line-clearance workers in the field. They are the heart and soul of our organizations.

About the Author: John Sullivan, CUSP, is the safety director for Tree Care of New York LLC, based in Alden, New York. Reach him at jsullivan@treecarenation.com.

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