Winter storms and slashed budgets combined with a lack of skills and awareness are leading to needless deaths in forestry and arboriculture.
Between December 2020 and February 2022, 11 deaths were recorded in the UK arboriculture and forestry sector, according to initial notifications from the Forest Industry Safety Accord (FISA, 2022). Falling trees or branches killed nine people; one death involved an overhead power line and another died using a log-splitting machine.
FISA is a coalition of representatives from leading industry organisations and is determined to raise the standard of health, safety and welfare in the forestry industry. FISA chief executive Gillian Clark says winter storms that topple trees onto power lines are a major challenge. The agricultural sector is also affected, she says. ‘Farmers may be trying to clear trees when they have their spring turnout for livestock, for example. The last thing we need is for them to have a go at felling windblown trees.’ Compounding these hazards, budgets have been slashed in many industries and local authorities. ‘A lot of day-to-day maintenance just isn’t happening,’ Gillian says.
Tina Morgan, chair of the IOSH Rural Industries Group, says part of the problem is that tree work is not exclusively carried by forestry operators and contractors. ‘Industries where these are not a business's main activities often have accidents as the work is not carried out frequently and is often thought to be “only a quick job”,’ she says. ‘Planning and proper preparation for this type of work is essential.’ She also highlights additional issues such as hand-arm vibration syndrome, asthma (from inhalation of wood dust), dermatitis (from chainsaw fuel and mechanical lubricants) and noise-induced hearing loss.
HM inspector of health and safety Christopher Maher GradIOSH leads on arboriculture at the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE). People often fail to appreciate that risk assessments must be site- and tree-specific, he says. ‘It can’t be generic. Each tree and site presents different risks and could react differently in certain circumstances.’
The key is to avoid putting people at risk and put in place the right controls, as well as to record your thought process. ‘There’s often the temptation to view an incident as an unfortunate accident,' says Christopher. ‘But when you take a step back, if a chainsaw operator had been driving an excavator with a grapple saw when the tree fell, they’d most likely be alive. That’s why the planning is so important.’
When the wind blows
Storms are one of many challenges faced in forestry and arboriculture. Max McLaughlan, head of land management (north district) at Forestry England, explains why. ‘Windblow is a normal part of any forest, but we saw things on a different scale towards the end of 2021. UK forests tend to be resilient to south-westerly winds. Storm Arwen caused 70mph northerly winds. The trees weren’t resilient to it.’
Although a relatively small proportion of forest was affected (around 2% to 4% in Scotland, Max says), the impact shouldn’t be underestimated. ‘Windblown timber is a different proposition to standing timber. When trees are on their side, you need bigger equipment to deal with that prospect safely. There is also usually quite a lot of chainsaw work, which affects safety,’ Max adds.
Gillian highlights the dangers. ‘Winter storms leave a lot of windblown, snapped and hung-up trees. Many will be under tension and spring violently when released by cutting. Chainsaw operators may also be at risk of being crushed by the root plate.’
Winter storms brought down more than eight million trees in the UK (Marshall, 2022) and storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin in February 2022 caused more damage. ‘Working in these conditions must only be undertaken by people with a number of years’ experience and exposure to these situations,’ says Gillian. ‘We routinely get calls from people saying they’ve got this kind of tree and where can they find a training course. Effectively, they’re wanting to tackle the worst possible trees with virtually no experience.’
Clare James, head of health, safety and technical training at Forestry England, agrees: ‘One of the big factors is not using the correct equipment. Improvising with available kit, rather than using the right tool for the job, can get people into trouble. Another critical factor in remote locations is that there’s typically a lack of phone signal and challenges in getting emergency services to the scene.’
Ash dieback hazards
Diseased or dead ash trees suffering from a fungal disease known as ash dieback are a hazard facing many councils. FISA’s Gillian Clark says: ‘These trees become brittle very quickly, making them extremely hazardous to climb and dismantle. Even when felling at ground level, the trunk or branches may snap unpredictably and “explode” with debris flying in all directions. We receive three to four calls about it a week, and typically the people we speak to have little knowledge about how to proceed.’
The HSE’s Christopher Maher adds: ‘If you have an ash with signs of decay, can you ever be sure that it’s safe to put a person under the tree? Anyone felling a tree should consider using an excavator with tree shears and/or grapple saws, or a harvester.’
Tree work is not something that Graham Barton takes lightly. In part, this is because he can still recall vividly what happened when he was just 19.
‘I was 20 feet [six metres] up in the air reducing the height of a conifer hedge,’ he says. He was attached to the tree by a strop attached to his harness and secured around the main stem of the tree. His feet were either side of the stem on two lateral branches.
‘I had felled the top of the tree and was tidying up the felling cut with a small chainsaw when the branch supporting my left foot snapped. It all happened quickly, but I must have moved my left hand from the chainsaw handle. The saw passed across the inside of my left wrist gouging out flesh and severing five tendons. A two-hour operation, 42 surface stitches and a bit of physio later, I was very lucky to have a fully functioning left hand,’ he says.
Graham is now health, safety and compliance manager for UK Power Networks (UKPN), which maintains the electrical network in East Anglia and south-east England. ‘We use 11 principal contractors and a small group of directly employed tree cutters. Around 300 people are involved in tree work. We carry out risk-based maintenance, network resilience work, and advise on and assist customer requests in relation to trees,’ says Graham.
UKPN arborists are trained in felling, processing, climbing and pruning. These are complemented by specialist qualifications developed by the electrical and arboricultural governing bodies. Compliance and knowledge of policies and procedures is reviewed in biannual safety audits, where auditors observe a team over the course of a day.
‘Apart from the usual slips, trips and falls, the biggest hazards are falls from height, contact with machinery (chainsaws), musculoskeletal injuries, personal complacency and the formation of bad habits. We look for those things, but also praise innovation and best practice,’ says Graham. ‘We record findings honestly, and don’t look to embarrass or discipline people, but rather to coach and challenge teams to maintain safety standards.’
A guide to working with contractors
When engaging a contractor, your responsibility is to ensure they are competent. Information must be exchanged before work commences and the method of working should be agreed. Also, when works are being carried out adjacent to a highway, it is essential to implement necessary permissions and controls.
- Can the contractor demonstrate their competency?
- Have they undertaken similar work previously?
- Can they provide references? Do they have the appropriate equipment?
- Can they provide evidence of regular refresher training, especially if using equipment such as mobile-elevating work platforms?
- Are they members of a trade or professional body such as the Arboricultural Association or Forestry Contracting Association, or accreditation schemes such as SMAS or CHAS?
- If using chainsaws, can they justify why? Have their chainsaw operators attended an EFAW +F or an FAW +F course?
- Do they have a first aid kit that covers catastrophic bleeding?
- Do they have sufficient public (and if necessary) employers’ liability and professional indemnity insurance?
- Have they been subject to HSE notices? What is their RIDDOR history like?
- Have they been informed of hazards that could create or increase risk, such as roads, watercourses, cycle trails or overhead cables?
The hierarchy of risk control
So what does suitably planned and risk-assessed tree work look like? Clare says: ‘When it comes to Forestry England’s operational response, it’s all about going through the hierarchy of risk control. The risk control process is our way of assessing how to manage forestry works at every step.
‘Risk control starts with questions such as, does the tree actually need to be removed? If the tree is close to or across a road or trail, we’ll establish whether the work can be done mechanically. If mechanised removal is feasible, we’ll look at accessibility and what type of machinery is needed to get the job done. If the job can’t be done mechanically, we will decide on the best way to put an operator in safely. When it comes to storms and windblow, a lot of the safety procedures come down to operator competence. Here, we establish whether our own operators are confident and competent to do the work, or whether we need to contract it out.
‘We look at every aspect of the process. What sort of tree are we dealing with? What is around it? What equipment will we need? Which way will we make the tree fall? Are there any trees it could fall into? Do we need to close roads or trails? Each tree is assessed like this, before it is felled, as well as the ground conditions and operating environment.
Tina emphasises that before any forestry work, or even small-scale tree works, the person considering undertaking the task should ask themselves: Do I have the necessary skills to undertake the work safely? Do I have the correct equipment? Can I undertake the task safely? ‘If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the work should not even be considered. A robust risk assessment should always be carried out by someone who understands the hazards and risks,’ Tina adds.
FISA is keen for mechanised felling (using tree shears/grapple saws) to become the norm in forest sites and with diseased ash trees because an operator in a protective cab is far safer than a person with a chainsaw in hand. As Gillian notes, with the progression of mechanisation using suitable carrier vehicles and hydraulic cranes fitted with tree shears or grapple saws, the need for working at height is reduced. ‘We’re pleased that a growing number of contractors have this kind of equipment and we hope that continues. The more we can encourage the industry to mechanise the better,’ she says.
Clare says Forestry England is also looking into mechanisation. ‘Tree shears tend to be used in roadside work. As with all mechanised work, there is still a risk: for example, chain shot, whereby if a chain is broken, bits of it could injure the operator or others in the vicinity. If these systems are to be used, we need to ensure the correct control measures are in place.’
The IOSH Rural Industries Group would always advocate eliminating the risk where possible, says Tina. ‘Anything that reduces risk will always be welcome in any workplace; however, it is only part of the story. There will inevitably be occasions where mechanised systems cannot be used. In most cases they rely on an operator and that operator still needs to be trained.’
OSH professionals in other industries will need to appreciate that forestry doesn't always enjoy the safety levels you would expect to see on a good construction site: ‘It is arguably still a bit behind,’ admits Gillian. ‘We have some excellent contractors and management companies, but across the board, we’re perhaps seeing that forestry isn’t quite at the same level as construction and it needs to get there.’
Graham adds: ‘Seek some professional help – the Arboricultural Association is a good starting point. And if you are using contractors, try to foster a positive health and safety culture with good reporting of near misses and hazards. Create an honest dialogue, praise innovation and be prepared to work together.’
- Noise in the workplace: iosh.com/noise
- Musculoskeletal disorders: iosh.com/musculoskeletal-disorders
- IOSH training courses: iosh.com/awareness-courses
- FISA forestry safety guide: bit.ly/FISA-forestry-safety-guide
- FISA 608: bit.ly/FISA-608
Garland J, Cedergren J, Eliasson L et al. (2020) Occupational safety and health in forest harvesting and silviculture: a compendium for practitioners and instructors. Forestry Working Paper No. 14. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome. (accessed 21 February 2022).
Forest Industry Safety Accord. (2022) Safety bulletins. (accessed 21 February 2022).
Marshall C. (2022) More than eight million trees lost this winter in the UK. BBC News. (accessed 21 February 2022).