How Legislation Can Save the Lives of Contractors in the Nation’s Capitol

The tree-care industry is filled with people who are truly passionate about what they do.  And why not?  The work is exciting, we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature, and at the end of the day, we can usually take pride in our contribution towards a safer and more sustainable community.  It feels good when you can remove that hazardous Tulip Tree leaning over the neighborhood playground.  And it also feels good when you can preserve that ancient elm behind Mrs. Jones’ house.  The statistics, however, show that some days end not in pride but in tragedy. In 2016 the TCIA (Tree Care Industry Association) found that there were 92 fatalities involving tree-workers in that year.  It’s a high number. Most reputable tree companies are taking it seriously and addressing it with improved training, equipment, and company culture. In most instances, we’re seeing success. But what if we’re also neglecting a critical piece of the solution?

Electrocution & Legislation

Electrocution Injuries

In at least one specific area that critical piece may be legislation.  The specific area is the risk of electrocution.  In the TCIA’s 2016 study they found that 23 tree workers were killed by electrocution.  This is exactly 25% of the fatalities reported in that study.   On paper, this seems too high.  Current OSHA guidelines specify that tree-workers shall maintain ten feet of clearance from all energized electrical lines.   If these guidelines were followed that number would be much closer to zero than to twenty-three.  But why aren’t the guidelines followed?  The answer may lie in the outdated laws that govern disconnecting electric service to a customer’s property.  To illustrate this point I’ll present two different examples from two prospective clients I visited this past month.  One client was based in Washington, D.C.  The other was based in Virginia.  They are governed by two sets of local laws.

Different States, Different Laws

Most of my customers are residential homeowners.  A typical day at work for me involves visiting homeowners, listening to their concerns, and providing the best recommendations for their trees along with an estimate to enact those recommendations.  The first of the two consultations I mentioned was in a neighborhood of Washington called “Woodley Park”.  The homeowner lives on a block of rowhomes dating from about 1910.  Behind each brick rowhome is a small fenced-in backyard.  There are electrical wires overhead that feed not only her home but also her neighbor’s.  The wires are traveling through the canopy of a hazardous Tulip Poplar that she wants to remove.  The work cannot be completed according to OSHA rules without disconnecting the power from these wires.  This immediately presents a challenge for me as a salesman.  The local power company charges roughly $700.00 to disconnect each service line.  I tell the customer that the power disconnection fee alone will be $1400.00.  The customer asks me why my competitors don’t charge this fee.  I tell them that we are one of the few companies that follow the OSHA rules to the letter and that our commitment is to the safety of their property as well as our team. The meeting typically ends with the customer telling me that they appreciate safety being our number one priority but that they also appreciate the recent hike in their oldest child’s college tuition.  The end result?  A different company will end up winning this bid by choosing not to comply with OSHA standards and putting the lives of their workers at risk.

For brevity’s sake, I won’t recount the whole story of my second consultation in Virginia.  The important thing to know is that Virginia law requires power companies to disconnect service lines if they are at risk of being damaged during any type of work (Overhead High Voltage Line Safety Act).  The power companies working in Virginia have a process for this coordination that allows us to adhere to OSHA regulations without charging more than a small fee to facilitate the power disconnection.  With these laws in place, we can provide a competitive bid without endangering the lives of our crews; and homeowners in Virginia can choose an OSHA compliant service provider without sacrificing their month’s 401k contribution. Even the power company benefits because they are able to make sure their infrastructure is protected when work is being performed around their power lines.

There will always be unsafe contractors willing to go against OSHA regulations to make a quick buck.  Despite this unfortunate fact of life, the law shouldn’t encourage unsafe behavior.

To end on a positive note, 2018 is just beginning and warm weather is just around the corner. And even though Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow, there are eight other groundhogs predicting an early Spring.  We’ve got a whole new year to improve the safety of the industry and to do a lot of great tree work.  So best of luck to everyone out there and stay safe.

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