Unsafe tree work in our parks

Kirklevington Worker
LFUCG worker cutting black locust with no safety equipment. Cell phone photo.

While walking through Kirklevington Park, I saw two groups of Lexington city workers doing their jobs. On one side of the street, a group of solid waste workers were collecting trash. They were wearing high-visibility safety vests, helmets and work boots. On the other side of the street, several Parks & Recreation employees were cutting up a storm-damaged black locust. One worker was using a chain saw, while wearing shorts, casual shoes, and no safety equipment. The contrast was striking.

Tree work is inherently risky.  A chain spinning at high speeds can cut deeply into unprotected flesh and the resulting injuries can be horrific. In 2012, 243 workers died while engaged in tree trimming and clearing. In 1999, 28,500 people were injured while using chainsaws, and the number has been increasing ever since.

The average injury incurs more than $12,000 in medical bills. Medical costs for chainsaw injuries are at least $350 million per year. Workers’ compensation costs are at least $125 million.  In addition to obvious injuries, improper use of chainsaws can result in  hearing lost and nerve damage.

These injuries and costs are entirely unnecessary. Chainsaw manufacturers such as Stihl have greatly improved the safety of their products, including the use of anti-kickback chains, safety brakes and ergonomic positioning of handles.

Stihl Helmet
Helmet with face and ear protection for chainsaw operators can prevent eye, face and hearing damage.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) further decreases the risk of chainsaw use.  Safety helmets with eye shields and ear protection, chainsaw chaps and boots to protect legs, and gloves for hand protection can nearly eliminate the risk of chainsaw use if used properly.  In most European countries, where use of PPE is enforced and insurance coverage can be declined if PPE is not used properly, injury rates are a fraction of those in the US.

The use of safe chainsaws and proper PPE is useless without operator training and enforcement of safety rules by employers. I suspect that the employee in the photograph had access to PPE but chose not to use it.

Failure to use proper safety procedures and equipment is a risk to employees, but it is a greater risk to city government and ultimately to taxpayers.  Lost work time, medical expenses and the potential for legal action are avoidable.

The city should not merely require the wearing of PPE, but should implement a safety training program, along with rules and procedures that are enforced. There are consulting firms that specialize in safety training and equipment for tree workers. This approach is clearly working for the solid waste workers.

For more information, see The Risks and Rules of Chainsaw Operation in Incident Prevention Magazine.