Correct nomenclature

Alex Shigo used to make a point of emphasizing the importance of giving things their correct names. To me this makes a lot of sense, after all, if we are all attempting to say the same thing, yet are giving it a different name, communication becomes a very fickle matter.

There is a sub-theme to this topic, which is brand names that have become generic names for every day objects. We use these names frequently, oftentimes not even realizing that it is a brand name we are employing.


Hoover, Sellotape… or Duck tape if you are in the US, Stanley knives, Bubble Wrap, Velcro, Post-it, Breathalyzer, Kleenex, Pingpong (yes! Ping Pong was trademarked in 1901 as a brand of table tennis products named for the sound the ball makes when it hits the table), Q-tips, Rollerblades, Sharpie, Tupperware, Onesies, Dumpster, Plexiglas, Windbreaker… and so the list goes on.

In our small arborist world we have similar pitfalls when we are attempting to describe a generic item, yet using a brand name to describe it. An example? Kevlar is the registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber, regiestered by DuPont in 1965. Oftentimes the fibre we are actually describing is an Aramid (the group of fires that Kevlar belongs to), yet in actual fact is not Kevlar but a fibre made by some other manufacturer, Technora for instance. So whilst that heat resistant fibre in your friction hitch cord is certainly an Aramid, it may – or may not – be Kevlar.

Dyneema is a further example for this generic mis-naming. It is a trademark registered to DSM, a Netherlands-based chemical company. Often times when we refer to something as being Dyneema we  are actually talking about HMPE, high-modulus polyethylene, which again may or may not be DSM’s Dyneema. As nowadays a lot of non-branded HMPE comes out of China, maybe we should be referring to it as Chineema? No. Joke.

So, in the future – even more so after having written this – I am going to make an effort to differentiate , to be more specific about what exactly I am referring to.

So here goes nothing… in order not to forget this, I think I had better write myself a reminder on a Post-it. Gah! No, I mean on a coloured rectangle of paper with a weak adhesive strip on the upper edge which allows it to be removed. I will write it with a Sharpie. Duh, with a pen-style permanent marker. Geddit?

This might turn out to be harder than I thought…

Make it intuitive

One of the interesting things at Airbus was the way they merge the hull sections, wings, tailfins and stringers, the internal bracing struts. For this purpose Airbus’ engineers have specified a range of adhesives, bolts and rivets, depending on the stresses acting on the airframe during flight.

I was specially interested by the high-strength HI-LOK rivets. These have a flat head on one side, obviously, to ensure the aerodynamic properties on the outside of the hull, then they are held in place with a recess in the bolt, the threaded bolt head is screwed on, cutting into the thread – until the head shears off at a defined shear-off load. This ensures correct tension on the one hand and on the other mitigates the risk of rivets coming loose.

All this reminded me of DMM’s Fred Hall commenting on Chinooks: fifty thousand rivets flying in loose formation. Indeed. It is a good idea to keep those rivets tight…

It also made me think of the story about the wrenches at Rolls Royce.

Apparently in the fifties Sir Henry Royce, himself a skilled mechanic, was concerned about bolts being correctly tightened. In order to encourage this he set about designing a set of special wrenches. Sir Henry was of the opinion that a skilled mechanic could correctly tighten all the nuts using the correct length spanners or tommy bars that he stipulated. It was significant that when put to the test, nuts tightened in this way were in fact found to be tightened to the torque tightness which was decreed correct in 1955.

These are both examples of how making tools intuitive can contribute towards ensuring correct handling and behavior. If a tool is clunky and counter-intuitive, the likelihood of it being used incorrectly or causing issues is higher than if considerations of how a tool shall be used correctly are a deeply ingrained part of the product’s design.

I am not suggesting this is always necessarily an easy thing to achieve, but I believe it is something we ought to strive for and therefore focus more attention on. These considerations can be reflected by the physical properties of a tool, the way an system is configured or what information is provided for the end user to base his or her decisions on.

A classic arborist example for such an assembly to my mind is the ring saver: an elegant, intuitive solution for a complex problem. The two different size rings with a webbing or rope link between them are practically impossible to misconfigure (if you do, at the worst you have to go up and fetch it, and it will probably have taught you not to thread the rope through the rings the wrong way round), rope friendly and reliable to deinstall in a cluttered environment that a pulley-based saver might struggle in.

Chose your tools wisely, put them to a good use and, where possible, ensure they have intuitive properties that encourage correct handling.

Noise and Silence, Focus and Space

I was in Hamburg the past few days for a meeting to discuss the program for Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg next year.

I like Hamburg: I love the harbour, a buzzing hive of activity, I love the vibrant alternative culture that you can still find in many parts of town, despite massive gentrification efforts, I enjoy discovering obscure nooks and crannies and much more. I will be back…

This time one of the things I did was to visit the Airbus plant in Finkenwerder – and what a stunning place that is! 13’000 Airbus employees on site, much of it reclaimed land where the southern arm of the Elbe used to flow and filled in docks. I went to see the A319/ 320 assembly line… which was rather spectacular. Seeing the plane I flew to Hamburg in being riveted together out of panels of aluminium which are 1.5mm thick at the thinnest and 5mm at the thickest point was quite special, to say the least. As you move down the assembly lines you see pieces of the hull being joined up, wings being added on and tail fins joined to the aircraft. Very, very complex stuff…

But what was very striking is how the whole process was very calm, focused and quiet. The scene was not dominated by shouting and loud machinery you might expect of heavy industry. OK, when they are riveting things can get a little noisy, but otherwise people seem to be going about their business at a measured, calm pace.

This painted quite a stark contrast to the place I was staying in, which had a large construction site across the road, with a block of flats being erected. I was watching the builders working in a very tight space, with everybody jockeying for space in an effort to get their bit done. Very hectic, very noisy, lots of shouting. The overall effect gave the impression of a stressful work environment. I also found out on Saturday morning at six thirty, to my great pleasure (not), that they also work on Saturday. Strange, how in such a situation it always seems to be the digger you have to fire up first of all, regardless of whether you have any digging to do or not… I suppose it is a form of sharing the pain of working on Saturdays.

Then, one evening we went out to an Indian restaurant.

The place is in deepest St. Pauli and always seems to be heaving. An obvious reasons for this is that the food is very, very good. But that is not the point I was going to make here. You get there and encounter a small space jam-packed with people. Somehow out of the chaos an employee of the restaurant emerges, finds a space for you, jams you in and within a couple of minutes they have sorted out what you want and get it to you. Actually, despite the superficial appearance of chaos, the whole procedure is remarkably streamlined and efficient. The kitchen is open and very cramped, lots of staff assembling the various dishes in a space of a mere couple of square meters. A recipe for bad temper, you might think? But this was not so. They were all just going about their business, sharing a joke here and there, no shouting, no grumpiness, just people doing their job in a very rolling, just-in-time-delivery-fashion.

I was struck by these three very different environments: the red thread running through them though is that a work site may be chaotic and loud, so long as you manage to create a framework that people can work in an efficient, relaxed and manageable fashion, they can and will do so happily. Take the same situation and put people under pressure, working long hours with little appreciation at the end of it, the picture changes: people get irritable and stressed.

Also, noise equals stress.

As soon as people start shouting, even if not in anger, a site feels more stressful and less under control. Airbus struck me as being an environment with a deeply ingrained safety culture, right down to how people moved and acted. No shouting, no running, take you time and get it right. On the flight home last night I was quite glad of that insight. And definitely feel there is something to take away from that culture

The link to tree work?

As we are working at height, per definition we are placing operators – and/ or ourselves – in high(er) risk environments, therefore it is important to consider how to make these more pleasant, less stressful and at the same time more productive and safer. Good communication is one of the keys, without a doubt. Use radios as soon as there is any doubt whether communication between the persons aloft and the ground personnel is guaranteed. The effect is profound: no more shouting, less stress, more clarity and focus and an over-all sense of professionalism.

Fare ye well, Carrotzilla!

Remember Carrotzilla?

It transpires that crazy mutant carrot monster years are not the same as human years, the ratio seems to be much higher for crazy mutant carrot monsters. This explains why Carrotzilla has aged so very rapidly… long gone are those joyous days of yesteryear when he as a young and crunchy thing he used to terrorise whole populations of innocents and laid metropoli to waste – and that was before breakfast!

Yesterday the moment came I had been dreading for years, months… well, certainly weeks: Carrotzilla decided to leave us. Where he decided to go I do not know, hopefully he will find peace there for his troubled carrot soul…

24 hours

That is how long it took for me to hear about the next anchor point failure.

End of this afternoon, I got a phone call from a health and safety person about a different matter, when he told me about an anchor point failure that had just arrived at his desk. Details are thin on the ground – and are ultimately not so relevant, the fact remains, the root of this accident was, again, a poor call by the climber whilst selecting an anchor point.

It’s time pressure, you say.

Ok, I accept, that may be one factor in play: that moment when you decide not to pull the throw line, despite the fact that it is not quite in the spot you wanted it to be because you have just spent an unsuccessful half hour attempting to score that point – and a visibly ever more impatient client/ foreman/ boss is breathing down your neck. So, against better judgement, you decide to go with second best.

Yet I believe this is by far not the only reason for this cluster we are seeing.

One factor in play is certainly a confirmation bias. What I mean by this is the sentiment that can creep in that suggests that it was ok yesterday, was ok today, and therefore will also be ok tomorrow. When the truth actually is that it was not okay on any of those days, it was always sketchy. Yet in a sense the outcome was positive: nothing happened. Or to look at it the other way round, there was no negative outcome to disprove that all was good. So there is your confirmation bias, a positive outcome is perceived as being a confirmation for the fact that all is well – when actually it is not.

We are not alone to fall foul of confirmation biases. NASA, a multi-billion dollar enterprise was blindsided in a most dramatic fashion by such a bias when Challenger burned upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The reason for this was missing ceramic insulation tiles on the belly of the space craft,  the engineers were aware of the issue, yet as this had happened before with no further consequences, the assumption was that it was would also be ok this time. Tragically for the astronauts on board the Challenger, it was not.

A further mechanism in play is risky shift. This is a form of group think that gradually and imperceptibly shifts perception of risk, resulting in individuals being prepared to take higher risks in the context of the group than they would ever have contemplated left to their own devices. Many sectors battle this phenomenon, from the banking industry to extreme sports, from military organizations to alpinists.

Everybody else is doing it, so it must be ok. Until that day when it is not.

What I find so troubling is how little margin people seem prepared to leave themselves… all it takes is, for instance, a small defect on the upper side of the limb that is impossible to see from the ground to load those dice against you, culminating in a catastrophic failure of an anchor point.

Every anchor point matters. Every single one. This is not a game of three strikes, you are out. Once can be enough.

So again (at the risk of repeating myself): we have to start talking about these very real issues, in our teams, with out team mates, at safety briefings, in the company, at industry meetings, conferences and conventions. Because as much as it is true that our bad calls are the root of the problem, without a doubt at the same time we also hold the key to being part of the solution!

Anchor points on my mind

With a further anchor-point related incident doing the rounds, I come to the end of this weekend with anchor points very much on my mind.

The last case described a fall after a climber set a line on a fairly brittle species on a four inch (10cm) limb, four feet (1.2m) out from the main stem. The climber weighs 250 pounds (115kg). The access was installed with a base anchor. This resulted in a failure of the limb and a fall. Luckily the climber was not hurt too badly, yet will still be off work for a good couple of months.

Again, I have no intent or interest whatsoever in pointing fingers here, but the fact remains, we have an uncomfortable cluster of incidents revolving around anchor point failures – and that is not even considering sketchy points that just did not fail. We urgently need to get a handle on this, we must start talking anchor point selection and configuration!

All this reminded me of an article Chris and I wrote a good couple of years back, yet it still holds true today. Maybe even more so than when we wrote it… what with single line ascent becoming increasingly ubiquitous and stationary line work positioning carving out a niche for itself in the industry.

Strong anchors and fair lines… all for one and none for a fall… whatever floats your boat, but let’s take this thought with us into next week – in the hope that we can get through it without having to read or hear about further incidents.

OK, I am convinced now

A couple of years ago I visited Portland, OR when ITCC took place there.

I loved the vibe of the place… it must be said that there is a lot going for a town that has a naked bike race, offers a well-developed public transport service with a streetcar tram that is free of charge in the centre of town and is culturally diverse and vibrant – I would go back like a shot, all I need is an excuse!

In case I should have had any lingering doubt as to whether PDX really is cool, I spotted the image below the other day… No further questions, you honor.

Every town should have more of this kind of stuff!

Updated information on the karabiner safety notice

DMM today issued further information on the mechanism of failure found in a small percentage of karabiners in the affected batches. Should you find karabiners of the type listed below, with a corresponding serial number amongst your kit that display this kind of damage, be aware they have been recalled, consequently they shall be withdrawn from service and returned to DMM.

Product recall here, for further news and up-dates check here.

On stadium rock, seatbelts and M&M’s

Here are some thoughts for a Sunday morning… they involve the following two stories:

First off, during the last trip to the US, I was talking to someone who was telling me about a safety policy of one of the large US tree care companies. This policy states that if an employee is in a vehicle that is moving and do not have their seatbelt on, they are given notice on the spot, without prior warning.

The second story regards rock band Van Halen’s tour rider, which apparently used to specify that a large bowl of M&M’s should be provided backstage – with absolutely no brown ones included. Not a single one. Should there be any brown ones included despite this specification, Van Halen threatened to cancel the concert – which was apparently the case one time for a planned gig in Chicago.

The sanctions in both instances seem quite harsh, you say? The infringement in both stories indeed seems very minor in relation to the sanction dished out for it.

Yet the same logic applies in both instances, which is that if you are not able to pay attention to small details and get them right, what hope do you have when it comes to larger, more complex issues? If a concert organizer is unable to sort out the brown M&M’s, the likelihood is high that there will be further issues along the road. Or if an employee cannot wrap their head round a belt up policy he or she is likely also to ignore other safety regulations, with potentially more serious outcome.

Applying this to our world of arboriculture these examples illustrate the importance of getting small things right. After all, these are the foundation that we build all else on and if that foundation is not sound, neither is the whole superstructure we erect above and on it.

Well, that is a Alpine Butterfly the way we tie it… 

Statements like this drive me nuts!

Either it is an Alpine Butterfly (or some other knot) – or it is not. Knots are a clearly defined beast and therefore clearly replicable. Yes, seen alone this may not seem like a massive issue, because after all, the knot held, but may well be symptomatic of a careless and haphazard approach of the details that all else builds on.

Whether discussing seatbelts, bowls of M&M’s or tying knots, let us invest that extra little bit of effort to get it right.

P.S. The first year we got our own office at the tree care days in Augsburg, I was so excited… I requested a bowl of M&M’s to be left there for us – which Bettina and Irina, bless their cotton socks indeed organised (they are good a humoring me) – but NO brown ones to be included!

Guess what?

I arrived there to find the bowl there – but full of brown M&M’s. Sighhhh, oh well. Did I pack up and leave on the spot?

Nope. We ate the M&M’s and got on with it…

I guess I am not Eddie Van Halen. Just as well.

Manufacturing is not easy

At treemagineers we consider ourselves very lucky to be able to work with the folk at DMM and Teufelberger to contribute towards the development of climbing and rigging equipment. Without a doubt, manufacturing is a complex matter: There are many layers to it: from legal and standards requirements to specifying and sourcing constituent parts, from the design process to field validation. We are confident that we have teamed up with two companies working to very high standards.

Yet when you are in the business of manufacturing, things can go wrong. DMM is no exception to this.

Today this safety warning was issued:

The notice is basically asking people to quarantine karabiners of the affected batches whilst DMM decide how they are going to  proceed. This strikes me as being a very open and transparent way to handle this kind of issue and I appreciate the team at DMM  taking a proactive, precautionary position in this matter.

Safety warnings – and recalls, though to a lesser degree – are not infrequent. I am less concerned about the warnings and recalls we hear about, these are issued by manufacturers and brands behaving in a responsible fashion, rather I am concerned by the companies that never seem to have any issues… is this due to the fact that they simply always get everything right?


As I mentioned above, there is a degree of inevitability that when you involve yourself in the intricacies of manufacturing, that niggles and issues will occur.

The trick is to nip them at the bud before aforementioned niggles and issues can evolve into full-blown incidents or even failures! This is the spirit in which I understand DMM’s safety warning to have been written.

Safety warning here, for further news and up-dates check here.