A wake up call

I wrote about the alley we were working on the other day. On the final day we had an incident involving one of the climbers on the team.

We were on the last two large trees, a Honey Locust, Gleditsia triacantos, and a Sopphora japonica, two climbers on each tree. We had one person on the ground coordinating the traffic with four council workers to give a hand and to clear the brush as it came down. Both trees had access systems installed. The team consisted of highly-trained and competent individuals who are used to working together.

Climber A was moving out on a limb over the road, about eight meters out from the stem, had announced the need to block the road so as to be able to drop the front part of the limb, and was about to assume a work position by adding in an extra tie-in point with his lanyard, when there was a loud bang and the whole limb failed at the branch collar. On hearing the noise I looked across and saw this huge limb falling ground-wards and climber A spinning in mid air and then hanging suspended and motionless. The ground coordinator responded at once, stopped all work and shouted to the other climber, climber B, in the tree to get to climber A. Meanwhile I descended out of the tree I was on and ran across. When I reached the base of the tree,  climber B had already reached climber A, who was responding but still not moving. We decided to bring him to the ground, cleared a landing zone that climber B could descend into with climber A.

Once on the ground we had one person monitoring climber A, sitting by his head and stabilizing his neck and spine, checked for injuries, lack of sensation or tingling in the extremities, dizziness, stiffness in the neck etc. — none of which was the case. So after ten minutes we sat climber A up against the tree trunk and gave him some water. We decided that as none of the symptoms above applied and he had not lost consciousness, we would not call an ambulance or take him in to A&E, but rather monitor him closely and reassess the situation end of the morning – or if something changed before then. It turned out the end that apart from bruising he was fine. However, after all this we did decide a coffee break might be in order. During this we discussed at length what the sequence of events had been, whether anything had gone wrong and/ or mistakes had been made and how to avoid this kind of thing in the future.

Aerial Rescue

I am pretty clear that this was residual risk: at the base of the long limb there was an old pruning cut, covered by wound wood, this was the point of failure. Also, Gleditsia is known to shed limbs, as its wood has quite short fibres. Having said that, climber A was well positioned, his line was under tension, ground personell was aware of what was going on – and when things did go wrong, response time was very short – from moment the limb failed to when the climber was on the ground less than three minutes had passed. Don’t me wrong: I am not saying it’s residual risk, so there is nothing we can do about it anyway, what I am saying is that I was relieved to see how when an incident caused by residual risk did occur, applied best practice, Aerial Rescue training and discussions tipped the scales in the direction of a more favorable outcome .

Another point this drove home to me is how no team, however experienced, competent and careful they may be, however good their track record, are safe from this kind of incident. I was very relieved that the outcome was as it was – it could easily have been much more serious. I was thankful for knowing that I was surrounded by a team of people whom I trust and know will respond correctly. Climber A said after the event that during the whole incident there had not been one moment when he had not felt safe or the situation under control. As a team, our track record is extremely good, with serious incidents extremely rare and when they do occur, they are thoroughly debriefed and understood, there is a deeply ingrained communication culture and a commitment to on-going training and education – and yet even all this is no guarantee that things will never go wrong. But it does create a framework within which it becomes easier to respond in a correct and safe fashion.

Let’s all make sure we do everything we can to ensure that our team- and workmates can go home safely at the end of each day.