Tuesday’s crane felling

Felled a big Ash tree on Tuesday here in Basel with a Liebherr 110 ton MK.

Liebherr MK 110

I have known the tree for the past twenty years and was very sad to see it go, it was 170 years old and a very striking tree. However, it had Inonotus hispidus fungus on old pruning cuts, which is obviously not so great in Ash, so we used to manage the canopy to prevent it from getting too end-heavy. In recent years the property has changed hands and the focus moved aways from maintaining the trees in the park. Probably partly due to that, last weekend the tree dropped a 100cm diameter stem in the garden. The combination of a long lever arm with a lot of weight on the end combined with the stress from the lack of rain these past few months was the final straw that led to this failure.

The decision to go with a crane was pretty quickly taken due to the sheer volume of wood to be removed. I love working with the MKs, they are really fast to set up, as the ballast is incorporated into the chassis of the unit, therefore they are ready to go in about 15 minutes, also they are very maneuverable and you can actually get them in surprisingly tight spaces. This one has a 50m boom on it and can lift 1.8 tons at the outermost point. Where the tree was standing we had about a 6 ton lifting capacity. All pieces weighed in at between 1 and 4 tons, total weight removed was 30 tons with 22 lifts.

At three o’clock we had a big truck-based chipper come in to chip all the wood and were done by five.

Final pick, four tonnes!

On a job like this, everything comes together:

Communication, clear und concise descriptions of which team member does what, correct rigging and placement of chains in order to avoid shock-loading the crane, correct estimation and documentation of loads, creating a clear, uncluttered work site that facilitates correct procedures – and lots more. Quite a challenge one way and another. This is one of many moments that makes me realize and appreciate what a great group of people I have the privilege of working with.

So, all back home safe and sound.

Having said that, that evening, as I was sitting at home, buzzing and rather weary, I found myself reflecting upon how one bad call in a situation like that, one decision to cut a corner you maybe should not have, one time giving in to time pressure has the potential for you to get hurt very, very badly. Quite humbling, really – and a big reality check.

To me, this is a real life lesson: Ultimately, you make decisions and you will be held to those decisions. Bad decisions can lead to serious consequences. A day like last Tuesday illustrates this point in a very graphic fashion.

A panoply of skills

I was speaking to a person whom I am very close to the other day who is working through some issues, one of the things she is doing for this is working on her skills, which are essentially micromanagement strategies to manage stressful and/ or difficult situations. This got me thinking about skills in general – and about how important they are on the one hand, and how often we take them for granted on the other.

Some skills we are born with, others we acquire through practice, diligence and training.

I am fascinated when I discover a skill in someone I’ve known for years – or thought I knew – that I had not seen in them before: a gifted singer, a prolific writer, a skillful DJ, a passionate mountaineer or a witty comic book author. It’s a firm belief I hold that if each of us brings our individual skills to the mosaic of arboriculture, that this in turn becomes all the richer and more diverse for it – of course this is a bit of an arb-centric view, the same naturally holds true for any group or community.

Just think about it: Stanley Longstaff’s music,  Florim’s videos, Julia Chilcott’s monster stump prints, the theaters that Florim and Gregor performed at the tree care days in Augsburg, Knut Foppe juggling burning skittles (in a fireproof suit, mind you ;-)), Salim Annebi’s spectacular theater company, Brian Kotwyca’s artwork, Jeff Jepson’s writing skills, the Beligian (of course) ThreeMagicBeers playing their punk covers — at volume! — , going to an Arbor Camp and seeing lots of people doing all sorts of different stuff, and so much more. Obviously this list is non-exhaustive and I am not mentioning loads of people whom I ought to, for which I apologize –  but yet the point remains: I find the diversity and range of skills simply amazing!

Of course, these skills may not be incorporated one on one into our daily work, but I think it creates an atmosphere of creativity, where thinking out of the box is possible and encouraged and in front of this backdrop people develop innovative, creative solutions.

Let's get thinking outside of the box!
Let’s get thinking outside of the box!

One of the recent additions to this dizzying array of skills that are united within arboriculture is Tony Tresselt’s book, Free Falling, an arboreal novel, that appeared last year. The novel is set in the Pacific Northwest around an ITCC and involves a cast of characters that may seem very familiar if you have ever been involve in such an event. I loved it, ripped right through it and am grateful to Tony for having made this contribution towards our climbers’ culture.

So if you have hidden skills and passions, I would encourage you to find a suitable venue or event to present them at and to get stuck right in with everybody else. Scared of making a fool of yourself? I suppose that is always a risk you take when you lean out a window, but then wouldn’t life be dull if we always chose the route without any unknowns in it?


Another thing I find annoying about buying new gear (see last post) is how branding seems to get bigger and bigger from year to year.

I mean, if I wanted to look like a billboard or something, I would have chosen a career as a sandwich board-man, not arboriculture. Logic would dictate that if you allow a manufacturer, or rather a brand, to splash their logos all over kit you wear, they would be paying you to do so.

The deal might be: “Buy this jacket without branding and it’ll cost you €350, if you allow us to advertise on it with our branding, we’ll chuck in a €50 discount, so you will only be paying €300.”

But no! On the contrary: the reality is that the item’s value increases by a zillion percent, just because of some badge or stitching that is added onto it with a brand name on it.

Very puzzling. Some things I will never understand.

Practice Effect

Don’t worry, this is not going to be another post about boots and arborist or anything down those lines.

Rather, I was thinking about gear wearing out and about how annoying I find it sometimes, when you have to replace things, just when they were well worn in and working really well.

Worn out

This reminded me of David Brin’s 1984 novel, The Practice Effect.

This novel plays in a world, where as you use objects, instead of wearing out, they improve. This effect is known as the Practice Effect. So with use, swords get sharper, baskets improve the more things they carry, decorations and jewelry get more attractive the more they are looked at. However, if they are not put to use, an object’s condition deteriorates over time. For this reason, the wealthy employ servants to practice their possessions to perfection.

I would love to have a Practice Effect for my gear, I always feel a bit guilty binning a tool or a piece of kit that has rendered good services without fail – seems rather ungrateful.

Actually, the world we live in is the polar opposite of the world that Brin portrays: with an economy that builds on constant growth, consumption and expansion. Apparently in the consumer electronics world there is a phrase that talks about new every two, that is the calculation when it comes to life cycles of our electronic gizmos, that we replace them every two years. Or planned obsolescence, which is just such a euphemism: to prevent high-quality products from being in circulation too long, failure points are integrated into them to ensure that they will fail after a defined period of time. This in turn ensures sales and revenue for the corporations and companies.

I believe a bit more Practice Effect and a bit less rampant consumerism in this world of finite resources is what we urgently need if, as a species, we plan to survive this anthropocene age.

Bruce Smith

Sad new indeed.

Bruce Smith passed away yesterday, after a long and brave fight against a perfidious sickness. He was surrounded by family and friends until the end.

Bruce reached out, touched and was meaningful to many people and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and condolences go out to Lita and the family during this difficult time.

Just because

Spent the whole day thinking about how to create a link from anything remotely arb-related to this… and came to the conclusion there is none.

So. I decided to post Death Star Canteen anyway, because I think it’s one of the most inspired pieces of modern comedy I know. Eddy Izzard is something else.

Watching this brings back memories of word perfect renditions of Death Star Canteen by Rip Tomkins. Or sitting in a car somewhere outside Sydney with Rob Fisher watching the video on his mobile and he is laughing so hard the car is rocking…

So, for your entertainment, here you go: Death Star Canteen, with the official treemagineers seal of approval!

Near wotsit: Moving on

I would like to clarify a couple of points about yesterday’s Near Wotsit post:

  1. The incident last week was very clearly an accident, plain and straightforward, no one even considered calling it a near accident/ miss. It was serious and we were very lucky that as little happened as did.
  2. I have never swung a one ton lump of wood 10cm past a carport with a 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster parked in it. Never a Lambo. Other brands, maybe, but never that. 😉

On a more serious note, I was thinking about what I wrote yesterday, about how I felt the term near accident was preferable to near miss, but actually realized that I am not even sure about that.

The Oxford Dictionary of English’s definition of an accident is:

1. An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury

Apart from the element of surprise and lack of intent, first and foremost, an accident represents a system failure. You are no longer in control and the the safety mechanisms of the system(s) you put in place (be this a climbing or rigging system, your traffic management system, a crane or a MEWP…) has failed and no longer performs its intended function. Considering an accident this way raises the question whether an near accident is actually possible.

This reminded me of what Clifford W. Ashley wrote in his book, The Ashley Book of Knots on the correct tying of knots:

A knot is never “nearly right”; it is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong, one or the other; there is nothing in between. This is not the impossibly high standard of the idealist, it is a mere fact for the realist to face.

Get that knot right. It's either exactly right – or hopelessly wrong.
Get that knot right! It’s either exactly right – or hopelessly wrong.

So, if Ashley’s standard is applied to work at height, or any activity entailing risk come to that, then either you perform the task correctly – or hopelessly wrong. And if there is nothing in between, that also makes the terms near miss or near accident, whichever one you choose to use, obsolete. Either everything goes to plan, which is obviously the desirable outcome. Or things do no go to plan, then the situation evolves into an incident and if that incident incurs a system failure we are dealing with an accident, which may lead to injury or damage to a person or an object, but does not have to in order to qualify as an accident.

The point I am trying to get to is that maybe the psychological loopholes and backdoors I mentioned in yesterday’s post in how we refer to these incidents go deeper. By referring to something as a near miss or accident we are de facto belittling it and again changing our mental level of acceptance for it and influencing our ability to recognize it as what may be the start of a chain of events that could ultimately lead to a system failure.

So maybe this traffic light only has a green and a red light? Right or wrong, black or white, yin or yang, cake or death!… Whoops, sorry, spun out of control there for a moment.

Looking at things from this angle creates a strong incentive to get things right. Not more or less right, but spot on. Or, if you are lacking a skill, competences or tools to perform the job correctly, to remedy the situation before continuing – rather than to fudge it. Because, again following Ashley’s lead, this would mean that you are not doing the job half-right, but rather hopelessly wrong. And that can then paves the road towards incidents, accidents and/ or system failures.

Yes, it was a big tree today and I had lots of time and head space to think…

Near wotsit?!

I was thinking about this during work today and thinking back to the incident I described in the a wake up call post last week.

Sometimes things go wrong, take an unexpected turn or do not go as you expected: A cyclist swerving round the cones you put up, a limb failing without warning, the angry pedestrian who insists on walking under the tree you are working on, the stub ricocheting off the stem, the telephone cable you oversaw – the list goes on and on.

Usually nothing happens. Sometimes we have close calls.

Then we say things like…

“Wow, that was close, that was a near miss!”

Which got me wondering… and my conclusion was that either I am missing the point – or the term near miss is a gross misnomer.

Let’s think about this: A near miss implies that you almost missed, but did not. Surely then, that would imply that you have hit the target, wouldn’t it? And surely, that is not what we mean when we say things like above – slightly shakily, mind, because we have just swung a one ton lump of wood 10cm past the carport with the tree owner’s 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster parked in it because we misjudged the size of the log and the wraps on the lowering bollard? Eek!

It’s a near miss: I almost missed, but I did not, so that makes it… a bullseye?

So no, in a nutshell, near miss for me does not really work.

I believe it would be more appropriate to refer to such incidents as an almost accident. After all, that is what it is in German, ein Beinahe-Unfall, or in French, where they talk about un presque-accident. 

It is important that we understand that these incidents we refer to as near misses are in reality accidents that did not incur damage to a person or an object. Looking at it that way, it also changes ones perception. I am sure we are all in agreement that it is a good idea to prevent accidents from happening. However, if we create psychological loopholes or back doors for ourselves when discussing these incidents, by even avoiding the use of the icky a-word and rather calling it a near miss – because I believe this is what we are doing – , then the behavior leading to these kinds of situations becomes more acceptable, or at least the indication of danger is less strong – and also the incentive to modify it.

Like Al Shigo used to say, let’s call things by their correct names. Let’s call near misses what they are in actual fact, which is accidents in which no one got hurt or anything damaged – and let’s do something about it to prevent this from happening in the future.

Footlocking killed my knees

Or did it?

Statements like this always makes me wonder, especially when talking about ascent techniques. How long do you spend per day ascending into trees? If I had to guess, maybe about a minute per ascent, let’s say two to be on the safe side and then call it four ascents, which seems reasonable – if you’re not cone picking or the like. So that makes a total of about eight minutes ascending. In terms of exposure time this does not seem terribly long.

So that makes me wonder whether it really is quite that easy or whether it is the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing this from a pro-footlock position. I am all for improving the ergonomics of how we work, but feel it is important that we don’t stigmatize one technique and turn a blind eye on other practices that are equally bad or even worse with considerably longer exposure times.

Like what?

Well, take harnesses for example. If you look at pics of climbers twenty years ago, one typical thing you will notice is the x-legged stance they are suspended in. This was due to the pressure the harnesses exerted on the hips. I can remember this from my first harness, which was a Willans, this was in 1990, – which did exactly that. I was determined to like the harness, as I thought it was really cool, but in reality hanging in free space was actually quite uncomfortable, with lots of pressure on the hips that really squeezed your legs together. One of the things people did to reduce this pressure was to use rigid spreader bars between the attachment points.

So I think ill-adjusted harnesses and non-ergonomic harness design are one of the factors that take its toll over the years.

X-legged stance in old-style climbing harness. Image courtesy of Honey Brothers.

Another one is working on spikes. My experience working on spikes is that, especially in hard woods, you have quite high impacts when inserting the spikes into the wood and also when using long spikes you are creating a long lever arm, pivoting over the spike to the shaft and acting upon the knee. Conceivably over the years this may well be a factor in wear and tear to the knees and hips. It’ll be interesting to see in what direction the design of climbing spikes will develop in the future and whether they will take the body shape into account to a higher degree… we shall see.

Blunt cutting tools, e.g. handsaws is another one. Or one-handed use of top-handle chainsaws. Apart for obvious reasons why this is not a very good idea (despite what other people may tell you, putting you had in a running chain is messy. Been doing it for years and nothing has ever happened? Only has to happen once… Keep both hands on the saw and you have greatly reduced this risk), there is also the issue of long-term damage, such as wear and tear to the carpal tunnel and/ or tendonitis.

One interesting realization for me was understanding the difference between Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD). Thanks, Yvonne, for pointing this one out to me.

Here is a definition of the two conditions:

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, an disorders of the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures of the upper and lower limbs, neck, and lower back that are caused, precipitated or exacerbated by sudden exertion or prolonged exposure to physical factors such as repetition, force, vibration, or awkward posture.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a condition where pain and other symptoms occur in an area of the body which has done repetitive tasks (often the arms or hands). Repetitive strain means strain related to actions which are frequently repeated.

Without claiming to understand this all in great detail, I did however find it interesting to understand that we are dealing, speaking in general terms, with MSDs rather than RSIs, which are quite specific to very repetitive motions, such a clicking a mouse when working with a computer or similar activities. The type of long-term damage that may occur linked to tree work is probably in the more general MSD group.

For more information on this topic, a good starting point is the dedicated website of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

One of the difficulties in these discussions is that we have no control groups.

When considering long-term wear and tear it is essential to take a holistic view, which includes what this person did – and does – before and besides tree work. Maybe someone now working as an arborist started up as a landscape gardner and damaged his back carrying around heavy paving stones – and maybe another person was a very keen cyclist or weight lifter in younger years and used to train very hard for their sport, incurring wear and tear along the way. These persons may now be convinced that they are suffering from conditions caused by their professional life, when in actual fact the truth is more complex – and the seeds of the damage were planted long before they even considered a career in arboriculture.

Personally, and I have written this before, I find it all comes down to balance. This involves many aspects of my life, such as diet, lifestyle, emotional form, physical as well as intellectual stimulus etc. Time and again I come back to climbing and just love it, I find there is nothing better to get me feeling balanced and physically at ease. I am not saying that it’s money easily earned, tree work is physically demanding, but by getting exercise besides work you can compensate for some of the strains.

I find regular stretching morning and evening helpful, also I have found exercise on a rowing machine, such as the Concept 2 machines, builds core stability and musculature useful to counteract niggles in the lower back. Exercising on a rowing machine works well for me, it’s low impact and gets all major muscle groups working – and you go as hard as you want. In the same line, I find body-weight training, with devices like TRX,  a good tool to work on specific ailments, like when I damaged the right rotator cuff in my shoulder. Or to sort out the residual stiffness in my foot/ ankle area years after having fractured it in a fall. Or just for an all round work-out to straighten out my body after a day of funky work positioning.

But again, these are merely solutions that I have found work well for me – I am not generalizing by any means. After all, I am stuck with the body I have, with its specific strengths and weaknesses: All my childhood and youth I used to train for competitive swimming, which I believe developed certain muscle groups that later in life served me well for climbing, but on the other hand, I also know that my lower back is prone to stiffness  and is not super-flexible and my knees are also something that over the years have been an issue. I bear these points in mind in the ways in which I work. So based on my history, I have found the strategies I discussed above to be viable solutions, but they may well not be applicable to somebody else with a different biography (and body) – the good news is it is not rocket science to give these matters some thought – and to find out what works for you.

Yes, my injuries I described above were caused by tree work. But I feel it is important that we understand that we are responsible for our bodies and can do something about it to ensure that we don’t wear it out unnecessarily and prematurely, after all, it has to last you a lifetime! I believe if you are able to listen to the needs of your body, to compensate for strains that your professional life brings with it and don’t regularly overdo things, that working as a arborist need not be more harmful that working in an office. In fact… au contraire! A low-activity, sedentary lifestyle with little exercise and highly repetitive work processes is proven to be highly harmful.

I am looking forwards to the findings of a number of studies that various people are conducting in different countries around the world which are looking at different aspects of this topic.