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Lesson from the Tree Guys: Don't Get Killed

A brisk horizontal wind swept through our community in September. Not quite a tornado, but the winds toppled large trees, pulled down power lines, and created a mess for an armada of workers with chainsaws.

Sadly, in our jungle-like backyard, the storm sent a tree with a diameter of a telephone pole through the roof of a storage shed on our property. The structure was not simply a backyard shed but more the look of a small English cottage with a picket fence and window box of colorful petunias.

Otherwise, we were unscathed, and the damage was an inconvenience, a nuisance requiring input from the tree people and the insurance company.

Three “tree guys” appeared in our driveway with two trucks, a skid loader, and other devices that looked like the cavalry had arrived to save the day. The tree guys were meticulously outfitted professionals in safety gear: eyewear, helmets, ear protectors, uniform jumpsuits made of fabric that would deflect any possible chainsaw injury as well as steel-tipped boots, protective coverings on knees and ankles, and industrial-strength gloves. Each wore rigging and harnesses, and they checked the fit and secure fastening on each other.

There was no room for error.

I asked one of the tree guys: “What is the most difficult part of this work?”

He didn’t hesitate when he said, “The most difficult part is the risk of getting killed, either electrocuted or being crushed by the machinery or by a tree.”

I then asked about whether our tree-removal project was difficult. And he said unequivocally, “Yes, this kind of project is the most difficult and the most dangerous to each of us. We deal with these every day.”

He then went on to explain that if a tree is standing by itself, it is reasonably easy to predict by experts where the tree will fall, how the tree would pivot or split, and the crew could protect themselves. But when debris is inter-tangled, like ours, and when trees are bound together because of the storm, and when the trees are old, it is very difficult to predict what will happen next.

Prior to starting the project, the entire crew and the foreman came to the property and carefully assessed the situation. The clear consensus was that this entanglement would not be safe to climb. So a bucket loader was elevated up to 60 feet in the air and used to disentangle the branches. Even so, there was still a concern of danger. Fortunately, all worked well, everyone went home safely to wake up on another day.

This is not rocket science, but the lessons are obvious.

  • Anticipate, plan, and visualize what may go wrong. How could I get killed on this project today?

  • As suited up as the tree guys were, they dressed for the event, for their own safety. To pivot to a COVID lesson (and you knew I would), how difficult is it for all of us to wear face masks and distance ourselves, limit our exposure, and stay home when we don’t need to go out?

  • Be mindful of the “sterile flight deck rule.” In aviation, this is a procedural requirement that during critical phases a flight (normally below 10,000 feet) only activities required for the safe operation of the aircraft may be carried out by the flight crew. And all nonessential activities and nonessential conversations in the cockpit are forbidden. No compromise on safety.

  • If protective equipment is necessary, be certain that everything is in working order, that everything is available, and know the plan if there is some misadventure.

  • Whether we are a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, every profession has some risk. Some are physical, some are mechanical, some are psychological.

So let’s all stay safe during our uncertain days ahead, as winter descends with pandemic risk. Wear safety equipment. How hard can wearing a mask be? It’s not like we’re climbing trees with chainsaws.

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