The latest in equipment and best practices
By Gerald Conn
Experiencing a work-related injury is something every employer works tirelessly to prevent for its employees. In addition to the pain, suffering and frustration of being injured, there are other factors that 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 in hospital visits, treatments and missed work.
One of the basics of preventing or reducing the number of workplace injuries is providing the proper tools and equipment to employees so they can safely complete their jobs. 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, it’s important for employees to be trained not just on how to operate the equipment, but how the equipment can help them achieve a safe working environment.
In Case of an Emergency
A growing trend in the utility vegetation management (UVM) industry is the use of global positioning system (GPS) technology. While there are many benefits of using a GPS from an efficiency standpoint, a GPS is equally important for employee safety, especially for those who spend much their time on the road. GPS technology can provide quick access to accurate directions, local traffic congestion and the 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 may not have access to immediate assistance.
Foresters are often required to work in potentially treacherous locales, such as mountain ranges, which are large and usually remote. To heighten safety for these workers, portable and lightweight devices are available that offer GPS location-based messaging and emergency communication via satellite that works virtually anywhere, critical in areas where there is no cellular connectivity. These units can be preprogrammed to send emergency communications via 911, as well as signal for help for non life-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 appropriate safety tools in place is critical.
The best choice of personal climbing lines and hitch cordages has long been debated among climbers. There is, however, no debate 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 in this area.
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 under pressure or rotating when extended.
Tree care operations have used cranes for several decades; recently, however, they have found a broader range of uses to safely perform tree care. Cranes, for example, can safely remove a large piece of debris in an inaccessible location. The cranes are also useful for completely uprooting a tree that is too hazardous to climb and in locations 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 not uncommon in highly pet-friendly communities, whether the person is 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 the forester and the 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 extremely helpful is an aluminum device called a T-post Stepper, which attaches to fence posts. It enables foresters to safely climb fences supported by t-posts. This device helps reduce cuts caused by barbed wire and injuries from climbing over or crawling under fences.
With UVM professionals spending much of their time outdoors, the risk of exposure to poisonous plants and biting insects is a genuine threat. Fortunately, foresters can utilize various over-the-counter barrier creams such as Ivy Block that prevent skin contact and urushiol dissolving lotions such as Tech Nu that remove the urushiol oil contained in poison oak, ivy and sumac. Insect repellents containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) and permethrin help protect against ticks, chiggers and other biting insects. The items, of course, are precautionary measures that should be used along with proper clothing such as long pants, long sleeves and gloves.
It’s not enough to just have the right equipment to use on-site; it’s equally important that employees are properly using the equipment to ensure their own safety and that of the entire crew. All employees must be educated and trained in the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and how to check for signs of wear and tear that could cause gear to potentially fail. And, most importantly, 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. It’s essential that employees remain aware and alert throughout the workday of changing work conditions that could pose new hazards while operating equipment or performing other job tasks. Lastly, 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 not only avoid at-risk behaviors that lead to accidents, but 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 individuals who follow and promote safe practices.
With the right combination of equipment, policies and training, a safe working environment is very achievable. Not only will it keep employees safe, but ultimately improve company operational efficiency and employee morale—creating a stronger, safer and more profitable business.
About the author: Gerald Conn is the safety and workers’ compensation manager at ACRT Inc., Independent Vegetation Management. He has over 17 years of experience directing environmental, health and safety systems, and workers’ compensation claims management. Conn is also an OSHA-authorized general industry outreach trainer.