In May 2011, a Lexington, Ky., woman was struck by a falling tree limb and died. According to a local news report, the woman was holding a ladder for her husband as he tried to trim a tree branch caught in a power line.
The large limb fell, spinning her around and knocking her face-first into the ground. The county coroner ruled the death accidental, listing the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head.
"This tragic story is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident," said Tchukki Andersen, Board Certified Master Arborist, Certified Tree Safety Professional and staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association.
"There are many stories in the news media each year depicting the sad details of homeowners getting severely injured or killed by attempting to manage large tree limbs on their own," said Andersen. "Tree work, while appearing fairly straightforward and simple, is actually extremely complicated and technical. There is so much to understand about removing live or hanging tree branches, and it is not at all like cutting up firewood on the ground."
Qualified tree professionals are trained to look for and take special precautions against:
- Trees or branches with decay, cracks or unbalanced weight.
- Working near overhead electrical wires and other conductors.
- Preventing falls from trees they are working in.
- Removing portions of or entire trees without causing bodily harm, to themselves or others, or property damage
Do-it-yourself homeowners have been hurt trying to cut their own trees in the following ways:
- Extension ladders: If your ladder is too short to reach the branch, do not make the mistake of setting it on something such as on overturned trash barrel to get the reach you need. Find a sturdy ladder that will reach at least 5 feet beyond the branch you lean it on. When a large branch is cut from a tree, the loss of the weight will cause the rest of the limb to suddenly lurch up. Many unaware homeowners have been severely injured, some fatally, when the ladder they are standing on falls out from under the branch they are cutting. The biggest danger is taking too big or too unwieldy of a piece at one time. Cut the limb in small pieces.
- Improper tools: Are you going to borrow your brother-in-law's chain saw? Do you know the last time that tool was properly sharpened or maintained? A dull chain forces you to use too much pressure, causing you to lose control. This can lead to numerous problems, many of them potentially resulting in a hospital visit for emergency treatment of deep lacerations to your body. Andersen notes, "Use properly maintained equipment and the right size saw for the job."
- Lack of knowledge of tree mechanics: It can't be done with just one cut. This is where those lacking experience in cutting live limbs from trees get hurt almost every time. Trees are mechanically complex organisms that need to be cut in a certain way to remove pieces safely. Cutting off a large section of limb to save time will usually cause the branch to fall before the cut is finished. The cut end will often tear into the branch all the way back to the trunk. This action can cause damage to the tree (and to you) as it swings out of control, usually onto the ladder you are standing on - or the person holding the ladder. Therefore, it is always recommended to remove a large limb in sections.
Another concern is cleaning up storm damaged trees.
High winds, ice and snow put tremendous pressure on trees growing near houses or power lines. With winter storms passing through the area, you may see damage to your landscape, including broken tree trunks and branches all over your (or your neighbor's) property.
"Storm cleanup is often when many property owners crank up their first chain saw," Andersen said. "And, not surprisingly, they hurt themselves. Untrained property owners often attempt to remove large broken tree limbs from their property. Many of these accounts end unfavorably, often with serious injuries or even death."
For homeowners thinking of handling post-storm work themselves, here's a primer on safe tree and brush removal:
First, if a utility line is down:
- Do not approach. Assume any downed line is energized. Call the utility company immediately.
- Avoid touching anything near the downed line and make sure nobody goes near the line. Contact with energized lines can result in electrocution.
- Be aware that downed power lines can be hidden in brush and foliage.
Second, when deciding whether to try removing a tree or large branch yourself:
- Consider the size and location of the tree. If the work requires you to leave the ground or if the tree is more than 20 feet tall, call a tree care professional. Do not attempt any tree work from a ladder.
- Examine the shape and lean of the tree. Inspect the trunk for decay, weak spots, hanging limbs, and for any metal or concrete in or around the tree. If any of these features are present, the tree is unstable and extra precautions need to be taken before removing the tree.
- Carefully inspect the tree and the surrounding area for anything - utility lines, structures, vehicles, shrubs - that might interfere with the removal of tree pieces.
- Note other people in the area, particularly children. You don't want anyone to wander near the drop zone.
- Even small trees bent under tension can be extremely hazardous. Do not cut wood that is under tension (one or both ends are trapped under something). Ask yourself, "What will happen when I cut this branch/tree?"
- Consider all the possibilities. Plan an escape route from the falling tree or tree part before cutting.
- Do not use a chain saw for tree removal unless you have years of experience. Even tree care pros face risk of injury using chain saws. Tree and branch removals are very unpredictable. Don't take unnecessary chances.
- If you have any doubts, bring in your local tree care professional to handle the post-storm cleanup.