By Gerald Conn, ACRT Inc.
Every employer works tirelessly to prevent work-related injuries for its employees. In addition to the pain, suffering and frustration of being injured, other factors make work-related injuries seem even worse for employees. Questions regarding the workers’ compensation process—lost pay, medical billing, repeat doctor visits and the associated paperwork—all contribute to the stress surrounding the injury.
Each year U.S. employers spend an average of $170 billion on expenses related to occupational injuries and illnesses, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The cost to employers for only the workers’ compensation portion of workplace injuries and illnesses averages $1 billion per week. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the hundreds and thousands of dollars it costs employees for hospital visits, treatments and missed work.
A basic in preventing or reducing the number of workplace injuries is to provide the proper tools and equipment to employees so they can perform their jobs safely. In the utility industry, equipment ranges from standard, personal protective equipment to technologies such as hand-held devices and the newest computer programs. No matter the level of sophistication, employees must be trained to operate their equipment and on how the equipment can help them achieve a safe work environment.
In Case of Emergency
A growing trend in the utility vegetation management industry is the use of GPS technology. There are many benefits in using GPS from an efficiency standpoint, but GPS is equally important for employee safety, especially for those who spend a lot of their time on the road. GPS technology can provide quick access to accurate directions, local traffic congestion and shortest routes to chosen destinations, helping employees drive smarter, which reduces the potential for accidents.
GPS technology also can be set to alert drivers and supervisors of activated engine lights signaling potential mechanical problems. This knowledge helps supervisors take steps to avoid potential breakdown situations or coordinate maintenance concerns. This is especially important for workers and vehicles in remote locations that might not have access to immediate assistance.
Foresters often are required to work in potentially treacherous locales, such as mountain ranges, that are large and usually remote. To heighten safety for these workers, portable, lightweight devices offer GPS location-based messaging and emergency communication via satellite that works virtually anywhere—critical where there is no cellular connectivity. These units can be preprogrammed to send emergency communications via 911, as well as signal for help for nonlife-threatening situations.
Tools for the Trees
For arborists in the field clearing rights-of-way around lines, managing tree pests and operating heavy equipment, having the right safety tools is critical.
Long debated among climbers is the best choice of personal climbing lines and hitch cordages. There is zero debate, however, on the importance and necessity of having quality rope and cordage that meet minimum safety requirements to allow them to climb properly. Options range from 12-strand solid braids, 16-strand ropes, double braids, 12-strand hollow braids and more. Climber preference typically lies in the application and climbing style, but companies are continuing to increase equipment options.
One preference for arborists is the Sidekick rope that helps lower lines from difficult positions within a tree canopy and decreases safety risks in high-hazard tree operations. A strong hook securely affixed to the end resists straightening out under pressure or rotating when extended.
Tree care operations have used cranes for several decades; however, recently they have found a broader range of uses to carry out tree care safely. For example, cranes safely can remove a large piece of debris in an inaccessible location. They’re also useful for completely uprooting a tree that is too hazardous to climb and where aerial lifts can’t reach.
Risks in any Environment
Risk is not exclusive to rugged terrain, and effective technology does not always require a digital signal. Animal encounters can pose significant safety hazards common in pet-friendly communities, whether you’re clearing vegetation or working on a meter. In these areas, foresters often use walking sticks or dog-bite sticks. These rudimentary pieces of safety equipment are designed to provide space between a forester and aggressive dog while offering an item to bite vs. an arm or a leg. These items can buy a few critical moments, allowing foresters a chance to escape and call for assistance.
Another more conventional technology that can be handy is an aluminum device called a T-post Stepper that attaches to fence posts enabling foresters to safely climb fences supported by t-posts. This device helps reduce cuts caused by barbed wire and injuries from climbing over or under fences.
With utility vegetation management professionals spending much of their time outdoors, the risk of exposure to poisonous plants and biting insects is a genuine threat. Luckily, foresters can use over-the-counter barrier creams such as Ivy Block that prevent skin contact and urushiol-dissolving lotions such as Technu that removes the oil in poison oak, ivy and sumac. Insect repellents containing DEET and permethrin help protect against ticks, chiggers and other biting insects. These precautionary measures should be used along with proper clothing such as long pants, long sleeves and gloves.
It’s not enough to have the right equipment to use on-site; it’s equally important that employees properly use the equipment to ensure their own safety and that of entire crews. All employees must be educated and trained in the correct use of personal protective equipment and how to check for signs of wear and tear that could cause gear to fail. Most important, employees must wear all required protective gear appropriately to minimize the potential for injury.
Before the start of a workday, employees must examine all equipment to ensure it’s in proper working order and safe to operate. Employees must remain aware and alert throughout the workday of changing work conditions that could pose new hazards while they operate equipment or perform other job tasks. Last, if there is ever a question of personal safety, whether equipment or personnel-related, employees should be made aware of the employers’ process of reporting unsafe conditions or taking appropriate action.
ACRT’s dedication to reducing injuries and increasing safety awareness led the company to create ACRT SAFE, a health and safety program built on the core belief that conscientious employees trained in safe work practices avoid at-risk behaviors that lead to accidents and work to prevent accidents to others.
The program encompasses the following elements: training and communication; job safety analysis; current and practical safety policies; safety inspections and audits; injury investigation and recognition and reward for people who follow and promote safe practices.
With the right equipment, policies and training, a safe working environment is achievable. It will keep employees safe and improve company operational efficiency and employee morale, creating a stronger, safer and more profitable business.
Gerald Conn is the safety and workers’ compensation manager at ACRT Inc., Independent Vegetation Management. He has more than 17 years of experience directing environmental, health and safety systems and workers’ compensation claims management. He graduated from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation, as well as minors in geography, history and geology. Conn is an OSHA-authorized general industry outreach trainer.
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