OSHA recently issued a memorandum updating its enforcement guidance for compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) when inspecting tree care and removal operations. The memorandum highlights some of the hazards faced by workers engaged in tree care and tree removal operations and the OSHA standards that apply to those hazards. It also includes situations where citations under OSHA’s general duty clause may be appropriate. Some issues addressed in the memorandum include:
- Falls and falling objects;
- Use of personal protective equipment;
- Electrical safety;
- Occupational noise exposure;
- Hand and portable powered tools;
- Machine guarding; and
- First-aid kits.
OSHA is currently considering the issuance of a proposed tree care standard. If adopted, the standard would protect employees who prune, repair, maintain or remove trees and address the safe use of tools and equipment to complete those job tasks.
Employers should review this information to gain a better understanding of what CSHOs will inspect when onsite. Employers should understand all OSHA standards that apply to the work their employees are completing and make sure to follow the requirements necessary to provide a safe workplace for their employees.
OSHA Standards That Apply When Performing Elevated Tree Work
Workers engaged in cutting tree limbs and other tree care operations sometimes have to climb, change location and perform elevated work in trees. The CSHO inspection guidance points out several OSHA standards that apply during these situations, and that employers should be aware of.
Protection from Falls and Falling Objects
Before beginning any tree care operation, employers need to check the health of the tree and assess the work site for fall and “struck-by” hazards. To protect employees from any falls or falling objects, employers must follow the requirements under the personal protective equipment (PPE) standard and the walking-working surface standard. Fall and “struck-by” hazards are leading causes of death and serious injury for tree care employees. When inspecting worksites, CSHOs must assess whether the employer is complying with the following standards: the walking-working standard, PPE standard, and the vehicle-mounted elevating and rotating work platform standard.
Personal Protective Equipment
When working at elevated heights, employees should be adequately protected from falls. Employers must follow the PPE standard. Employers must assess the workplace to determine whether hazards are present or are likely to be present that require PPE. If so, employers must provide that PPE to affected employees to protect them from the identified hazard. Employers must also train affected employees in the performance, care and use criteria of PPE.
A common type of PPE used in tree care or removal is personal fall protection systems. Employers must follow the personal fall protection system standard to protect their employees from fall hazards while climbing, changing locations and performing elevated work in trees. A specific requirement of this standard that CSHOs will be looking at is the anchorage requirement. The standard requires anchorages to be used that can support at least 5,000 pounds for each employee attached when climbing, changing locations or performing elevated tree work. Employers should also refer to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Arboricultural Operations – Safety Requirements Z133-2017 section 8.1.11 for requirements for anchor points. Qualified employees installing a climbing line from the ground must visually inspect the condition of the anchor point from the ground and subject it to a load twice the climbers’ weight before the climbing begins.
CSHOs will determine whether the person who inspected the anchor point is considered a qualified person for the activity and followed the ANSI requirements. If both are found, CSHOs will not issue citations.
For PPE use with other hazards, CSHOs must also assess whether employers provide and ensure employees use required PPE in connection with hazards other than those associated with falls and falling objects. As stated, the general requirements of the PPE standard require employers to assess the workplace to determine whether hazards are present or likely to be present, which necessitates the use of PPE. If such hazards are present or likely to be present, affected employees must wear the appropriate PPE for the risks identified in the hazard assessment. The standard explicitly addresses eye and face protection, respiratory protection, head protection, foot protection, electrical protective equipment and hand protection, and personal fall protection systems. CSHOs must determine whether and what PPE requirements in other OSHA standards apply.
When employers use portable ladders for tree care or removal operations, OSHA’s walking-working surface standard applies. It is essential that employers comply with this standard to prevent falls. CSHOs will assess whether employers have met these requirements when employees are exposed to such falls.
Employers engaged in tree care operations sometimes work from aerial devices (or aerial lifts) to perform specific tasks. An aerial device is defined as any vehicle-mounted device—telescoping, articulating, or both—used to position personnel. The requirements employers must follow for aerial devices are found in the vehicle-mounted elevating and rotating work platforms standard. Employers must follow the standard to protect employees from falls when employees are in aerial devices. CSHOs must assess whether employers meet the requirements of the standard when they are using aerial devices.
Employees engaged in tree care or removal operations can be electrocuted if the employee, tools, or equipment come into contact with an overhead electrical power line or underground utility line. Electrocution can also occur when a tree limb or branch contacts an energized power line.
Different OSHA standards apply to protect employees against electrical hazards depending on the type of work being completed. Employers should refer to the following standards for further information on tree care and removal operations on, near, or directly associated with power lines:
- Electric power generation, transmission and distribution; and
- Electrical: Subpart S.
In addition, CSHOs must assess whether employers maintain safe distances of personnel and equipment (for example, booms and aerial lifts) from overhead lines and for the use and safe handling of appropriate tools and equipment (for example, ladders) in conjunction with line-clearance tree trimming work.
Flammable liquids must be stored, handled, transported, and used with the requirements of the flammable liquids standard. This standard contains specific requirements for the storage of flammable liquids in portable containers. CSHOs must assess whether suitable fire control devices, such as small hoses or portable fire extinguishers, are available at locations where flammable liquids are stored. CSHOs will cite employers if they violate any part of the standard.
Occupational Noise Exposure
Chainsaws, chippers, and other power tools used in tree care and removal operations create high noise levels when in use. The occupational noise exposure requires the use of feasible administrative or engineering controls to address noise hazards, and the use of PPE if administrative and engineering controls fail to reduce sound levels within the level in the standard. The standard also requires the employer to administer a continuing, effective hearing conservation program whenever the employee noise exposures equal or exceed an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) of 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA) or, equivalently, a dose of 50%.
OSHA’s current enforcement policy allows employers to rely on the use of PPE and a compliant hearing conservation program, rather than engineering or administrative controls, when hearing protectors will effectively attenuate the noise to which employees are exposed. However, employers need to implement technologically and economically feasible engineering or administrative controls when:
- Employee exposure levels are so elevated that hearing protectors alone cannot reliably reduce noise levels received to levels specified in the standard; or
- The costs of engineering or administrative controls are less than the cost of an effective hearing conservation program.
CSHOs will determine compliance with the hearing conservation program by consulting the Field Operating Manual (FOM) Chapter 4.XI.B, which contains significantly more details on implementing OSHA’s enforcement policy. CSHOs should also refer to CPL 02-02-035, Guidelines for Noise Enforcement; Appendix A.
Material Handling and Storage
CSHOs must assess employers’ compliance with subpart N of the materials handling and storage standard, including whether the employer has ensured that truck-mounted cranes are operated and maintained in compliance with the crawler and locomotive and truck cranes section of the materials handling and storage standard. Among other requirements, the materials handling and storage standard prohibits hoisting an individual on the crane load or hook (riding the hook). This requirement applies even though the standard for arboriculture operations-safety requirements, ANSI Z133-2017, §5.7.11, allows the hoisting of personnel into positions with a crane. Employers may, however, assert that compliance with the OSHA standard is either impossible/infeasible or presents a greater hazard to employees. Employers bear the burden of providing these affirmative defenses.
Under FOM Chapter 5 VI. B.2, impossibility or infeasibility of compliance is established by employers when the employers prove:
- Compliance with the requirements of preventing anyone on the load or hook while it is hoisted, lowered, swung, or traveling is impossible or would prevent performance of the required work; and
- They took reasonable alternative steps to protect employees, or no alternative means of employee protection were available.
Under FOM Chapter 5 VI. B.3, a greater hazard defense is established by employers when the employer proves:
- Compliance with the requirements of the standard by preventing anyone on the load or hook while hoisting, lowering, swinging or traveling would have resulted in a greater hazard to employees than would noncompliance;
- They took reasonable alternative protective measures, or there are no alternative means of employee protection; and
- An application for a variance would be inappropriate.
If there is reason to believe that either the impossibility, infeasibility, or greater hazard defense may be asserted by employers using a crane to position employees, CSHOs must consider whether the employer could have used the following (non-exclusive) alternative methods:
- Can an aerial lift position an employee correctly? Aerial lifts (for example, bucket trucks or cherry pickers) are available in many configurations. Cranes may be used in addition to aerial lifts if heavy limbs must be handled. Aerial devices used in compliance with vehicle-mounted elevating and rotating work platforms are considered a safe method of positioning employees.
- Is the tree safe to climb? Climbing decayed or damaged trees could be hazardous. For instance, damage to tree bark from insect infestation, or missing tree bark, may make climbing infeasible or more hazardous than using a crane. If the tree is not damaged or decayed to the extent that climbing would be unsafe, climbing is considered safe when using the appropriate climbing equipment and practices.
- If it is impossible to use an aerial device and if climbing is unsafe, can a personnel platform be suspended from a crane? Personnel platforms meeting the hoisting personnel standard are available in several designs and will be treated as de minimis violations when used appropriately. Among other criteria, personnel platform suspension systems must be designed to minimize tipping of the platform due to the movement of employees occupying the platform.
Hand and Portable Power Tools and Other Hand-held Equipment
CSHOs must assess the condition and proper maintenance of portable powered tools and other hand-held equipment used in tree care and removal (for example, chainsaws) under OSHA’s hand and portable powered tools and other hand-held equipment standards. These standards require employers to be responsible for the safe condition of tools and equipment furnished for use by employees. The standards require all hand-held gasoline-powered chainsaws to be equipped with a constant pressure throttle control that will shut off the power to the saw chain when the pressure is released. Cracked saws must be removed from service and all portable electric power tools must meet the electrical requirements. CSHOs must assess whether employers have met these requirements when conducting inspections.
The line-clearance tree trimming provisions in the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution standard also contains potentially applicable requirements for gasoline-engine chainsaws, including a requirement that gasoline-engine chainsaws be started on the ground or where they are otherwise firmly supported. Gasoline-engine chainsaw operations meet the requirements for hand and portable powered tools. Employees cannot drop start chainsaws, and they should use the required means to prevent or minimize chainsaw kickback.
To the extent that no other standard explicitly addresses the hazard at issue, the use of hand and portable powered tools and other hand-held equipment, including chainsaws, may be subject to citation under the general duty clause. CSHOs that consider issuing citations under the general duty clause and general abatement of any violations should examine ANSI B175.1-2012, Power Tools – Gasoline Powered Chainsaws safety requirements in addition to ANSI Z133-2017, safety requirements for arboricultural operations.
When employees use brush chippers, stump cutters, chainsaws, or other machinery, CSHOs should assess whether the employer is complying with the applicable general industry standards on machinery and machine guarding. CSHOs must cite employers under the relevant provisions of the standard if employees are not provided with the appropriate machine guarding measures required by the standard.
The line-clearance tree trimming requirements in the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution standard also contain potentially applicable provisions on brush chippers, stump cutters, chainsaws and other machinery used in tree care and tree removal operations. For example, the standard requires that brush chippers without mechanical infeed systems must be equipped with an infeed hopper with a length sufficient to prevent employees from contacting the blades or knives of the machine during operation. Stump cutters must be equipped with enclosures or guards to protect employees.
CSHOs must assess whether employers comply with OSHA’s medical service and first aid standard for tree care and removal operations. The general industry first aid standard requires that a person or persons adequately trained to render first aid must be present on the job site in the absence of a medical facility in proximity to the workplace, which is used to treat all injured employees. The primary purpose of this provision is to ensure that adequate first aid is available in the critical minutes between the occurrence of injury and the availability of a physician or hospital care for the injured employee.
Employers who contemplate relying on assistance from outside emergency responders, instead of having adequately trained first aid personnel on site must take many factors into account, which include, but are not limited to:
- The nature of the hazards likely to be present at the workplace; and
- The distance to the nearest hospital.
CSHOs should assess whether employers have taken appropriate proactive steps to ensure that emergency assistance will be readily available if an injury occurs. In addition, while the standard does not prescribe a particular number of minutes, OSHA has long interpreted the term “near proximity” to mean that emergency care must be available within no more than three to four minutes from the workplace.
Medical literature has determined this time frame, which has established that for the serious injuries that could occur during tree care operations, first aid treatment must be provided within the first few minutes to avoid permanent medical impairment or death.
CSHOs must also assess whether the employer is complying with the first aid supply requirements under the standard. First aid supplies must be readily available at the job site. Appendix A to the standard provides an example of the minimal contents of what a first aid kit under OSHA should include. It also provides that employers with unique or changing first aid needs in their workplace may need to enhance their first aid kits.
Employers should review other standards that apply in certain specific hazards or industries that make employee first aid training mandatory and reliance on outside emergency responders an unacceptable alternative.
CSHOs should investigate whether employers store portable fire extinguishers on their vehicles, expect their workers to use them to fight incipient stage fires and meet the requirements under the portable fire extinguishers standard. The standard addresses the:
- Maintenance and testing of portable fire extinguishers;
- Hydrostatic testing of portable fire extinguishers; and
- Training and education of workers about the general principles of fire extinguishers used and hazards involved with incipient stage (fires that can be controlled or extinguished by portable fire extinguishers) firefighting.
The General Duty Clause
CSHOs must assess whether machines (for example, tractors, mechanical felling devices, and feller-bunchers) used in tree care and removal are equipped with falling object protective structures or rollover protective structures. To the extent that no other standard specifically addresses this hazard, CSHOs must consult with national consensus standards. CSHOs should consider whether the recommendations contained in the consensus standards are consistent with OSHA’s standards, interpretations and policies.
Employees can be struck by moving vehicles and mobile equipment from outside and inside the work zone. CSHOs should consider whether employees are protected from traffic outside and inside the work zone. Most OSHA general industry standards do not currently contain requirements for traffic control practices. To the extent no other standard explicitly addresses the hazard at issue, CSHOs should consider whether citations under the general duty clause are appropriate.
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