Observations regarding last post

In the last post I discussed an accident we had on a job site a couple of weeks ago. Similar to back in 2018 when Florim had his accident, I believe that when things go wrong, in view of the fact that word is going to get around anyway, it is important to provide people with full, complete and correct information – how and whether they read it and what they make of it is then up to them.

After posting on social media there was a wide range of reactions and comments. Many were supportive and positive, others made me pause and think. This is to be expected and is part and parcel when laying oneself open by communicating about situations gone wrong. Yet indulge me, allowing me a couple of observations here…

I was somewhat taken aback by how many people seemed to think this could never happen to them. In our team we cultivate an active safety culture, including safety briefings and training, risk assessments and ensuring an over-all high level of competence. Complacency and cutting corners were not part of this incident. As I already described, it was really due to a compilation of small factors, culminating in a system failure. This could happen to anyone. The other day Chris reminded me that when we used to work together, we would use the image of a traffic light to assess where our form was during the course of a day. While one moment you might be solidly green, the next instance there might be an external factor having a negative impact, resulting in your form reverting to orange or red.

Some external factors are foreseeable: feeling a bit spinny and light-headed late morning after having skipped breakfast? That one is easy to mitigate and should not really come as a surprise: hydrate and keep an eye on an appropriate diet for the work you are performing. Cold or heat are a bit different and more perfidious, they can catch you out, as it is less easy to monitor yourself and recognise the point where your judgement becomes impaired. Monitoring each other, partner checks, seems to me to be one way to nip potential problems in the bud: knowing your work mates, knowing where their strengths and weaknesses lie, anticipating external factors which could be having a negative effect on their form, not working in isolation, in a bubble, checking in with the other members on the team regularly. Communication is part of this, the other part is observational skills, as well as looking ahead, anticipating scenarios. Varying team constellations can make this very challenging. I go into situations like that knowing that in all likelihood I am going to miss points, but trying my very best to make sure that I have the big ones covered off and am not missing the obvious. I do this by taking my time and by being thorough.

A further observation is that a number of peoples’ comments stated how no one touches their lines, that they are their sole responsibility. This had me puzzled. A core concept of how we work revolves around a lowerable access system, allowing for a rapid, efficient ascent, as well as access to the canopy in case of an emergency. So in this instance, these lines are not “private”, on the contrary, they are the responsibility of the whole team, the ground crew as well as climbers. But actually, I suspect the truth of the matter is that teams using SRT for work positioning often will not bother installing an extra access. In case of a canopy-tied anchor point, on top of that, there is no means to lower an injured climber, so I am intrigued as to what the rescue plan is in such a scenario.

In fact I would even go a step further: The mentality that I am the sole person in charge and responsible creates a narrow pyramid of responsibility which could lead to pilot error, a concept from the aviation industry, where checks and balances are put into place to mitigate the risk of a bad call by one person, i.e. the pilot, causing a system failure. This is achieved by spreading responsibility amongst a number of team members. In many ways, this is what I was describing above with the concept of an on-going partner check as an integral part of the work process.

Another couple of weeks down the line, I do not really have any ground-breaking new thoughts to share. One comment that did really resonate with me was by Richard Delaney, a dear friend in Australia who runs Rope Lab, an invaluable resource to all things related to rope and working on it. Richard wrote:

Thank you for sharing this. The more if this rope stuff I do and the more experienced friends share their stories, the more we realise how human we all are. Especially me. I don’t read these reports and think “how could THEY have let that happen, I do this so it would never happen to me”. I read them and realise just how human we all are and how humble and diligent we need to be. I think “wow… that could have been me”.

Diligence and humility are a valuable and rare commodity it pays to cultivate, as well as awareness and meticulous attention to detail. Hopefully this helps to keep us and our team mates safe, in recognition of the fact that sometimes a freak incident, unforeseen event or human error can and will slip through the net, as 100% safety is not possible. But let us spare no effort to mitigate the residual risks down to as low a possible. If this incident drives one lasting message home for me, it is how truly human and fragile we are.

System failure

Last week Ninja Treeworks had an accident on a work site.

We were hired by a friend to give him a hand pruning a couple of pollarded London plane trees. The trees are about 20m high, the lower part is covered in ivy. There were three climbers on site, A, B and C, as well as D, who took care of the ground work. A and B are both very experienced arborists, C has some experience in tree work, as well as being a very experienced rope access technician. 

The day started out wet and blustery, with quite heavy snowfall setting in soon after. We got the first tree done by mid-morning, by which time the weather had become decidedly unpleasant, so we decided to take a break in attempt to warm up a bit. While deinstalling our lines from the first tree, C got his cambium saver stuck, so after the break he headed back up again to retrieve it. Meanwhile A and B got a throwline into the second tree, ready for the access line to go in. Prior to ascending, C had had to lower the access line to get his ascent gear he had left there after the first ascent, then he pulled it up again and re-anchored it to the base of the tree, using a Petzl RIG, secured with two half hitches above it – to then commence his ascent.

In the meantime, D started up the chipper on the adjacent pavement to process the brush from the first tree. 

B then proceded to de-rig the access line, not realising C was still on rope in ascent, untied the two half hitches and pulled the lever, dropping C by approximately two meters before realising his mistake, realising there was way too much weight on the line – to then instantly release the lever. By the time his fall was arrested, C had impacted on a large limb hard with his butttock, had tried to grab on to it and in doing so hurt his shoulder.

Luckily C sustained no major injuries a couple of days rest could not sort. Yet the situation was very serious none the less, for conceivably,  if he had been higher up, maybe ascending limb to limb without any weight on the line, B would not have realised his mistake and would have deinstalled the RIG completely. In this scenario, when C reached the top of the ascent and had applied his weight to the line, this would have resulted in a 15m free fall to the ground. 

Obviously such a system failure leads to a great deal of upset, discussion and soul searching. What went wrong, where, why and how did we fail as a team, what factors were in play, how can we ensure this does not happen again.

First off, the use of access lines is a standard operating procedure in our company and is therefore used on a daily basis in a standardised format. All climbers are familiar with its installation, use and emergency procedures.

Without a doubt, at the core of this incident lies operator error on B’s part. Due to the ivy he had no clear line of sight to the access, due to the chipper running close by, he did not hear C ascending. These factors were further compiled by the fact that B was chilled, as well as low on blood sugar. The sum of the factors led to him developing a tunnel vision during the split second when he released the RIG. 

We were all deeply shocked and upset by a scenario none of us had ever envisaged, as visual control prior to any manipulation to the access line is what you might consider to be a no-brainer. 

But in this instance, a number of superficially small factors resulted in a system failure.

One of the things one discusses after such an event is whether a technical fix might have prevented it: had a I’D been used instead of the RIG, would it have mitigated the consequences of B’s tunnel vision? We did not reach a consensus in this matter. Yes, in this scenario, the anti-panic function on the I’D would have prevented C from being dropped as far as he was on the RIG. Having said that, in the alternate scenario, had he been ascending limb to limb, it would not have made a difference. On top of that, my personal opinion is that in certain rescue scenarios, the anti-panic function of the I’D could conceivably prove to be a hindrance over the RIG. So no, no obvious technical fixes.

What this accident does demonstrate clearly is that no one is safe from mistakes and accidents. Obviously, we like to think that competence, experience, as well as procedures and checks offer a degree of protection – while this is certainly true in many instances, external factors, such as cold, noise or heat can have a massive impact on our perception, sometimes without us even realising the degree by which our judgement is impaired.

I am certainly severely shaken by the whole incident, questioning my judgement and why I did not catch it in time, why I failed B and C. But I suppose the answer to that is that you simply cannot foresee every eventuality… and sometimes things simply go wrong. 

As a team our conclusions are, as I mentioned above, that small things can have a large impact, so be attentive to apparently small things: let your team mates know if you do not feel able to perform a task, recognise external factors that are having a negative impact on your form – and act accordingly, communicate with your team mates, put on an extra layer, eat something, hydrate, call it a day – whatever it takes.

This was certainly a humbling, revealing experience. I am deeply grateful the consequences were not more serious, am grateful to B, C and D for taking the time to debrief it thoroughly, as well as my people around me for letting me bend their ears, working through this one.

In that sense, please climb safe – and heed the small things.

Great addition to the range

DMM have launched a further addition to the XSRE connector range, the XSRE Lock…

As I have said many times before, XSREs are up there with Duck Tape and zip ties in my books when it comes to things that I would not want to be without.

Having a locking gate option offers obvious advantages, such as when disinstalling an access line, helping to avoid situations such as this:

Yes, this totally happened. Talk about Murphy’s Law…

DMM iD and Papertrail review

Late last year I wrote about cataloguing my equipment with DMM’s RFID tags and integrating them into the Papertrail app.

Half a year down the road, I finally got round to doing a review of my experience with DMM iD/ Papertrail so far. Spoiler alert: I am totally sold on it. But see for yourself, watch the three videos here…

Thanks to Vito Cordasco for his work on this project.

Considering configuration

Going back through the photos of the last few months, I came across this pic of the connection point between the lead and the fall of my access system…

I thought it might be worth a chat about how it is set up, or to put it differently, what the thought process is behind it.

First off, the set-up.
I am aware I have discussed this before on this blog, but bear with me: the fall of the line, i.e. the part between the anchor point and the base anchor is a 60m length of Teufelberger’s 10.5mm Platinum arborACCESS. I like how this handles, find it reliable and it wears well. Being an EN1891 line, it also allows me to install a Petzl RIG on the base anchor, making the system lowerable. The Platinum has an eye stitched into the upper end, which is attached to a small DMM Rigging Hub via a Nexus Compact Swivel with small shackles on both sides.
The part of the line immediately above the Rigging Hub gets subjected to the most wear and tear, as this is the part that will always run over the anchor point, consequently I protect it with a rope protector. As a by-effect, I have found that this also allows the line to move backwards and forwards a wee bit whilst under load, while the protector sleeve stays in position, reducing damage to the bark of tree species with bark susceptible to abrasion damage.

The lead of the line, i.e. the part the climber ascends on offers two choices: either a 30m length of 10.5mm Platinum arborACCESS, which is girthed onto the Hub or a 30m length of Teufelberger’s xSTATIC, this is attached with a looped back figure of eight. On this line I have a Petzl Zigzag and a Chicane permanently installed for access. The reason for the two lines is that the diameter of the 10.5mm Platinum is too low for the Zigzag, which will work on lines from 11.5mm up to 13mm diameter.
This set-up allows for various techniques to be used with a range of tools, Lov2, Zigzag/ Chicane, rope walker systems etc. Conversely, it can also be footlocked, which I enjoy doing to switch things around. I find that using a different techniques in ascent is stimulating, good for the body, as it activates different groups of muscles, as well as fun. The technique I choose will depend on my form on the day, the height of the access and the structure of the tree.

The reason for adding the Nexus swivel is that I found the lines in the lead below the anchor point were twisting for reasons that were not totally apparent to me. My guess though was that it was due to twist being introduced over the anchor point, adding a swivel there allows the Rigging Hub to freely rotate, thus mitigating the twist. Ideally this is an area in which I really try to minimise connectors, as it is remotely installed and therefore not possible to perform a visual inspection prior to starting the ascent. Having said that, both the Rigging Hub as well as the Nexus swivel are as close to closed rings as you can get – without it being a closed ring. The other feature I appreciate about the Nexus swivels is the way the shackle is attached to the unit: first it is attached via a Nylock nut – which is where many manufacturers would leave it. Not so DMM, they go the extra mile, using an extra counter-locking bolt at 90° to the bolt attaching the shackle to the swivel unit. This locates into a grove on the top of the bolt, thus retaining it, adding an extra layer of safety. All in all, this gives me a high degree of confidence in regards to the hardware used at this connection point, whilst offering a high degree of functionality at the same time.

The Rigging Hub offers a range of attachment options, it is the place where everybody can store their ascent kit once they arrive at the top of the access, as well as a point one can attach into by switching ones lanyard to the rope bridge on the harness and connecting into the Hub, during hot summer days this is also often where I will park my water bottle.
I actually think it is a matter of courtesy when there are a number of climbers in a tree to store away ones ascent gear in a tidy, compact fashion, as otherwise the last climber up has to fight his or her way through a thicket of gear, making for a more cluttered, less clear situation.

Do I work off the access line? In principle, I suppose I could, using the Zigzag and the Chicane. With the Rigging Hub pulled all the way up to the anchor point, this still leaves one line free in case of the need of an emergency access. Having said that though, in practice I very rarely find myself doing so. I prefer using this system for ascent only, selecting a sound anchor point for my work positioning system, gaining an overview of the tree, adapt my plan should it prove necessary due to unforeseen factors not visible from the ground – and then taking it from there.

Breaking the silence

You might have thought the period of lockdown during the COVID19 pandemic might have offered some down-time to sit down, reflect and get some writing done for the blog. The way things worked out, this was not the case.

I ended up having to address some health issues, spent some time up in the mountains and generally ended up being quite busy – and simply did not feel like writing. Having said that, quite frequently, during my daily life, I find myself stumbling over topics which I think would merit a blog post…

So there you are, let’s see where we go from here, a big thank you to all of you who have given feedback on the blog, I will try to make a point of posting something on a more or less regular basis.

Oh, one other thing I did in the past few months was to get a functional tattoo. 😬 … I am really rubbish at estimating lengths, so I decided to put an end to that.

I am now covered for anything up to 10 centimetres in length. I thought that was pretty neat.

Stay tuned for more trivial and not-so-trivial musings…

Tech Talk Webinar

The Tech Talk series connects end users with leading manufacturers and experts in the field for an open discussion on all things product- and tree-related.

This two-hour Tech Talk on manufacturer testing, certified components, and quality management systems, will provide best-in-class resources and information on certified systems , quality controls (utilizing the CEclimb as the basis for discussion), and the compatibility and configuration of neighbouring components.

Ed Carpenter, North American Training Solutions
Mark Bridge, treemagineers
Ludovic Rambert, Teufelberger Tree Care

Wednesday, June 10th from 3:00 till 5:00pm EST

Register on-line:

Climbers Forum program 2020 online

Obviously this date came and went – without the Tree Care Days and Climbers Forum having taken place. Sadly we were forced to cancel due to the COVID19 pandemic.

Assuming the world will have returned to at least a semblance of normality by then, the scheduled dates for next year are Tue, May 4 to Thu, May 6, 2021.

I assume we will be using parts of this years program, whilst integrating other, new talks and demonstrations addressing current topics.

For more info, please check the web-site: https://www.deutsche-baumpflegetage.de/en/

Every year I am surprised anew by the amount of work it takes to put together, discuss and finalise the program for the Climbers Forum at the German Tree Care Days in Augsburg. The dates are 21 to 23 April, 2020.

Program is online here.

Yet the work pales next to the satisfaction of being part of such a unique event which year for year brings together speakers from all over the world. I am looking forwards to hearing talks and demos discussing a wide range of topics, grouped under half day themes such as Climbing Techniques, Basics and News, Sustainability, Trauma or A Deeper Look at Climbing Techniques.

Speakers include Richard Delaney (AUS) from RopeLabs talking about the factors which have an influence on how mechanical devices interact with rope, Alex Laver (UK) from TreeLogic will be presenting new data on the research he has been involved with with the folk from Coventry university on biomechanics forces being exerted on climbers, Andreas Detter (GER) from Tree Consult Brudi und Partner will be considering how we approach dead trees and how to mitigate the risks such work entails, I will be presenting some testing we have done taking a closer look at abrasion damage on rope bridges and connectors as well as an interactive discussion considering the reasons behind why there is such a wide range of configurations and assemblies for ascent in tree care. And the list goes on and on.

If you have never been to Augsburg before, let me tell you it is certainly worth the trip. Besides the talks and demos there is also the trade show and the academic conference. And let’s not forget the Climbers Forum party on Wed evening – where rumour has it that Belgium’s finest, the treemagicbeers may be gracing us with a rendition of their brand of chaos 😊

See you there.

Get creative

I love gear that gives me options to adapt to situations…

Take yesterday: We were working on some huge London plane trees, anchored five meters below the tip, I was still six meters short to descend to the ground – and this was using a 60m climbing line! I love climbing these behemoths, it makes for long ascents, huge traverses (did I mention I love my Captain?), as well as interesting work positioning challenges.

One interesting situation occurred on one of the out-lying heads. I had my main attachment point on one of the central stems, had traversed over and was using the two ends of my hipSTAR flex lanyard to move around the head to thin it. To get myself into a good position to make the cuts I was tying onto the growth above the old pruning points. Having passed my lanyard round two stems, I found that the position of my body and the direction of pull to the main anchor point was pivoting me away from where I wanted to make the cut… so I used a small XSRE karabiner to connect from the OD loop on my lanyard to my second bridge. Bingo. No more sliding around, nicely held in position (Ok, granted, it is not an EN362 karabiner I was using to attach on to the bridge of my the treeMOTION evo, but then again, in this application I would argue that it is being used more as an assist rather than a connector).

My observation would be that the variability and sheer range of work positioning challenges in tree care is considerable. So let’s accept the challenge and get creative, challenge ourselves to find the most appropriate work position in any given situation.