Production tree work is often fast-paced, a continuous flow of personnel, equipment and debris. New and more efficient equipment is developed rapidly, increasing the volume of work it is possible to complete in one day. This increased mechanization, coupled with more advanced techniques, adds a new and ever-increasing level of complexity to tree work. Job sites are often loud, and verbal communication between workers on the ground and climbers is impossible without stopping equipment and hence workflow.
Accurate, concise communication is necessary for safe, efficient job flow. No matter the system of communication a crew chooses, it should incorporate a command and response system. This is to say that if a worker gives a command, such as “stand clear,” another worker responds with another command, “all clear,” when he establishes the situation is safe. The first worker will take no action until the response is given and understood.
Plan your work, work your plan
A tree job begins with a plan. A well laid out plan can help eliminate confusion before it even starts. Having enough room for all the equipment, the proper tools and qualified personnel are all vital. Start each and every job with a pre-job briefing and site inspection. An acronym you may find useful is H.O.P.E.
The letter “H” stands for hazards. These are defined by anything that may pose a threat to the safety of the crew. A common job site hazard is electrical lines. Defining the location of hazards and establishing a protocol for how to safely remove and/or work around them beforehand will save the struggle of having to communicate safety standards or work processes during the job.
The “O” is for obstacles. These are things that can be broken, get in the way and need to be mitigated during a job. Examples of obstacles range from pedestrian traffic to swimming pools. In many cases, obstacles can be moved. Other times, obstacles demand that the crew alter the work plan. An example of this is the decision to lower limbs as opposed to just letting them free fall because an obstacle such as a patio is in the drop zone.
This brings us to the letter “P” for plan. The crew must develop an appropriate plan, keeping all hazards and obstacles in mind. The plan should maximize job flow, but at all times adhere to safety standards and protocol. Deciding beforehand who does what, and when, will go a long way to increasing productivity as well as safety. A team member that has a clearly defined series of tasks and understands how to complete them will require less verbal instruction during the course of a job.
The final letter “E” stands for equipment. A properly equipped and skilled crew is a pleasure to watch. A well-laid plan complements the equipment and space available. Pre-placed equipment adds to the seamless work flow. Equipment should be properly maintained and fully functional with all safeguards in place. Job sites are noisy enough without poorly maintained equipment adding to the decibels. Also, breakdowns can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. Get your equipment in top shape before the job starts and you won’t have to worry about inefficient pauses and the added confusion they bring.
Even the best-laid plans care can go awry. A system for communicating changes or new hazards as they develop is useful. Many crews have a set of preestablished hand signals to use. A hand signal can be as simple as a wave to let the climber know you have secured the lowering line. Long, drawn out hand signals should be avoided. The chances of misinterpreting a signal rise with the complexity of the signal.
The crane industry has an excellent set of simple, clear hand signals to use when operating a crane. These signals can easily be adopted to fit many tree work scenarios, whether using a crane or not.
Whichever hand signals are used, remember to keep them simple, concise and clear. Be consistent in their use, both in form and function. Use the signals whenever necessary and use the same signals.
Noisemakers such as whistles can be used to facilitate crew communications. A preset number of whistle blasts can mean any number of things. For instance, two toots for stand clear and one for all clear. What a crew should keep in mind is that while a tree crew may understand these audible signals, to a pedestrian they are cryptic. Audible signals may work well for your crew, but they are best saved for alerting crew members and pedestrians to upcoming or unexpected hazards.
Whistles are also useful when the crew is spread out over a large area and a climber needs to attract another member of the crew’s attention. Not only will a whistle blast be louder and carry farther, it sounds a lot more professional than a shout.
Many companies offer helmet-mounted headset systems that are appropriate for tree work. The ability to talk clearly with specific equipment operators and crew members without shutting down machinery or otherwise interrupting job flow is priceless. The added safety benefit of being able to alert other crew members of new or ongoing hazards or obstacles is equally priceless. If day-to-day operations find you and your crew in loud environments with multiple pieces of equipment running to complete the job, then I recommend a quality set of radio headsets.
When checking into purchasing headsets, a few things to remember are range, privacy and ease of use. If headsets are only going to be used on small, close-knit job sites, then range is not a factor. However, if your crew will be spread out, or if using the headsets for traffic control, too short a range can hamper clear communication.
Many headsets work on the same frequency as cordless phones and baby monitors. Buy a set with as many different channel selections as you can. Nothing is more confusing than hearing an unrelated phone call between two strangers in the middle of a delicate crane pick.
Finally, look for ease of use in headsets. Make sure that the channel can be changed easily to avoid problems. The headsets should fit firmly to the hard hat or underneath existing hearing protection. Many models are push-to-talk, meaning the operator must push a button to speak with co-workers. This is fine, but voice-activated units, especially for workers whose hands are already full, add a lot of convenience and value.
In the fast-paced, noisy world of production tree work, communication is vital. Laying out thorough, well-suited work plans, addressing hazards and obstacles before they become an issue and developing a system for clear communications are important for safety as well as efficient work flow. We all work hard enough during the average day. There is no need to struggle with the simple task of addressing another crew member. Work together as a team to solve communication issues just as you work together to complete a job. We will all be safer and more productive for it.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2008 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.