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OSHA looks to prune tree care standards to improve safety

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has started laying the groundwork for a potential regulatory standard aimed at reducing fatalities and injuries in the tree care industry.

The industry experiences an average of 70 deaths each year — an “unacceptable” fatality rate — usually because workers are not provided with the proper protective equipment or trained on how to do the job safely, David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said at an informal stakeholder meeting to discuss the hazard and a potential rulemaking in Washington on Wednesday.

It will be important for OSHA to make clear in a potential rule that providing, training on and maintaining personal protective equipment is the responsibility of the employer, as that is something often in dispute, said Julie Tremblay, global marketing manager for engineering firm 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Stakeholders urged OSHA to build a potential standard on existing voluntary national consensus standards for arboricultural and tree care operations from the Washington-based American National Standard Institute, as well as regulations governing tree care operations already adopted in five states: California, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia.

One of the most important elements of the existing standards in preventing fatalities and injuries is the provision that specifies that tree care activities be overseen by a qualified arborist or similarly trained individual, said Joshua Kemp, occupational safety and health specialist with the Civil Service Employees Association in Syracuse, New York.

OSHA is willing to liberally lift elements of existing standards in a Hallmark Card-like maneuver — “when you care to steal the very best of other standards,” said Sarah Shortall, counsel for the Office of the Solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor.

But the challenge for OSHA is that the agency legally cannot delegate its rulemaking authority to an organization such as ANSI, meaning that OSHA's regulatory process — which generally takes several years to promulgate a final rule — cannot keep up with the timelier updates that the institute can and does make to its tree care and other voluntary standards, she said.

Several stakeholders cautioned OSHA against mandating specific technologies in any prospective standard due to technological evolutions and cost factors. For example, Bluetooth-based helmet technologies can help mitigate communication issues, but they are prohibitively expensive for smaller tree care companies, said Matthew Rehlander, safety director and certified arborist with Carolina Tree Care in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“If you mandate helmet communications, things like that, those companies are not going to comply just because of the costs of those technologies,” he said. “When you look at it from a cost standpoint, you're going to put them out of business.”

Diane Matthew Brown, health and safety specialist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington, was both surprised and pleased that stakeholders on all sides were in general agreement that OSHA should pursue a mandatory tree care standard, which she said was not usually the case when it comes to potential rulemaking.

“The (tree care) work practices are all over the place,” she said. “In some cases, you have employers that are probably pretty close to following ANSI standards, but I would say the norm is no.”

John Sullivan, director of safety and training for Lewis Tree Service Inc. in West Henrietta, New York, said preplanning is the cornerstone to performing a tree care job safely, and the company conducts daily briefings and surveys in English and Spanish with its workers focusing on identifying and mitigating hazards and, in some cases, declining to perform unsafe tree care activities.

“It takes courage to say, 'I'm not climbing that tree,'” he said.