Workers go up in aerial lifts, or on ladders, with ropes, all over the U.S. to trim trees or remove them according to laws and specifications we all subscribe to. Even in your backyard.
The scope of this article cannot encompass each of these laws, and our readers will no doubt be familiar with some of them. In short, it is only legal to trim, prune, climb or be in a tree within 10’ of energized power lines if you are a qualified Line Clearance Tree Trimmer. Even though some Utilities require certified arborists on each crew, we must remember in our dealings with these workers — they are Tree Trimmers — not arborists. Their life depends on identifying line voltage and pole hardware, not tree flowers. Their pay depends on elimiating hazards, not creating beauty.
A qualified Line Clearance Tree Trimmer, or LCTT, is legally allowed to work within 10’ of lines carrying current. Lots of arborists do this, illegally, and with some success. We have never seen an accurate statistic on how many have died, or been disabled by this. I don’t think we ever will. this is because an owner operator is not necessarily going to admit wrongdoing at an emergency room.
There are two reasons to send crews out to “clear” lines, meaning to cut a swath in vegetation 10 feet away and at least four feet above the primary power lines. In fact, what is done is called “vegetation management”. The first and foremost reason is money. The Utility loses money whenever there is a short circuit. Power is expensive to generate and control. It must be sent through a meter to be worth anything. So if it is leaking away through limbs or trunks of trees, going to ground, it isn’t making anyone any money.
The second reason is safety of the public and for those who work on utility lines and poles. If a tree were to become a good path to ground, it would be carrying unknown amounts of volts and those deadly amps. If someone were to now touch any part of that tree with any part of their body, or with a conductive tool, like a rake, shovel or set of loppers, that person would be shocked, and maybe electrocuted. Not just a horrible idea, it’s a law of physics.
The reason safety is second priority is not that the utility company is cruel in intent. It is that electricity is capricious, evil and confusing. It does not always do what it should. to try and figure out which tree will conduct electricity, when, and who it might hurt, from a kid in a treehouse to the weekend warrior out trimming with an aluminum ladder and polesaw, is nearly impossible. Local utilities have public awareness campaigns for that, and are increasingly proactive in home and garden shows and other outreach efforts to get the public looking up and thinking about it. Right Tree Right Place and Never Touch a Downed Wire are two examples of popular, well thought-out campaigns that have worked to save lives.
I’ve been electrically shocked as an arborist, many years ago, and as a LCTT, twice. I can detect no difference in the two feelings. It’s a full-body sting, like that of a huge mutant hornet, gone as quickly as you noticed it. Your body limp as a snapped rag but with deep aching.
Why would anyone expose him or herself to such risk? Why would a certified arborist, an award-winning, published, well-liked one at that? Like the utility (a) I did it for the money; (b) I had worked, like so many climbers, close enough to wonder, am I too close?; (c) I’m a teacher. It seems bizarre to me to ignore a facet of tree work that we all deal with. So, I went. I learned. I was shocked; in more ways than one.
They have heard that they shouldn’t prune near primaries, but most arborists do. Most of them know that “service drops” or secondaries, or phone lines, or Cable TV can be lethal due to unseen links, short circuits or just the capriciousness of high voltage electricity. But most of us them do it anyway. Arborists are notoriously immortal-feeling individuals. Like bronc riders and race car drivers, they tend to ignore the risks. If they are male and 18-25, like most that I have met,they also pay high insurance rates on their cars, due to actuarial tables proving (at least to the companies who insure them) that they are in a high-risk group.
I wanted to learn, to help teach, and just maybe, through pruning or coming out with information, I even felt I could make a difference in the utility field. I haven’t done any of that, but I did learn how many conflicting protocols these crews face. I faced them. And I gained compassion for the legions of Pariahs.
Here are a few of the things that I had said to me by my crew and General Foreman, who is the uber-foreman that goes from crew to crew each day:
“Hurry up, man, we gotta get back to the shop.”
“Clear the lines then trim what’s left.”
One comment, below, takes some explaining. Dr. Alex Shigo published studies and wrote books on arboriculture that changed our industry’s practices by showing us how trees work, and what methods for pruning do to tree’s biology. He also wrote a booklet that is in most trucks that do line clearance.
“Shigo!? He might be a smart man, but he damn sure never trimmed around no powerlines!”
“Just cut the whole thing down and hide the stump. It’s a weed tree.”
And a week before I quit, after a year of work… “John, you haven’t quite caught on to what we do out here. You’re a good trimmer, you work hard, but you have to always be looking at how to get faster, to use the speed tools, not the damn poleclip.”
I worked at two of the largest, most successful line clearance contractors, in two states, and over and over was told to “not worry” and to “bring my speed up.”
Yet my cuts were inspected. They had to be “collar cuts” as the General Foreman would say. He wanted “good ‘lateral’ pruning.” I divined from this, that I was to cut as well as an arborist, and as fast as a machine. There was a cycle of pruning that had to be done, and the older larger trees close to wires had been cut many times, so that I could see the work done by my predecessors.
I got to drive those beautiful new aerial lift boom trucks, with a “reach” of 55’. Unfortunately, the engineer designing them had, like Shigo, damn sure never trimmed. The older aerial lift arm fit more handily between the wires. These were made to go over, so the operator constantly reached downward. Or parked several times to fit under. Either way, lost time. And reaching down, pulling limbs up and over the lines was hard on the lower back.
One thing I did gain from all this was a new perspective toward line clearance. Plenty of times I went up in the lift, two to three years after the last trimming, and found positively skillful cuts from the last time. I would have seen poor cuts, too, but there weren’t many. The choices that someone before me had made were often good choices. You had to be in a lift, 32’ high, to see this. From the ground it looks like, and it is, a swath. From up there, it’s the best possible swath, given the protocols and the circumstances.
Now, I’d be a fool to say that I haven’t seen bad line clearance, bad foremen, bad crews, bad work. I have. Who has not? It’s just that now I’ve seen the other side. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, the Pruning Pariahs go on.
SIDEBAR to PRUNING PARIAHS IN PERSPECTIVE
A Day in the Life of a LCTT Foreman. Try to actually imagine yourself faced with these every day.
• You need to block traffic to put the outer pivot end, or knuckle, of your boom over the road. You hurry to get in between, cut quickly, safely remove the branch, and toss it down. Someone is honking, and your flagger is hollering something to you. You can’t hear them over the motor. There is a complaint waiting for you that was lodged by the disgruntled driver.
• System foresters come up with new ways to make you work “more efficiently and faster.” This is often based less on actual trees, and more on models. Some of them have never done a day’s work on a line clearance crew. Few of them ever attained foreman status even if they did. They are administrators, hired to get results. But their rules become your rules.
• The system map, and the time you take to finish it, are the bottom line by which you are judged. Complaints by customers are handled by the Utility Forester. You generate a complaint by your work, but are advised to “pull off and call in” rather than mediate yourself.
• Any crewmember can file a grievance against you personally, for such a thing as a missed break, or failure to alert him to the dangers of brake fluid. Really.
• You must please the customer, or homeowner. You might be covered in hydraulic fluid. Shivering. Filthy. If they want something, it is your priority.
• If you’re a foreman, you must keep up with paperwork including Federal, Employment, State Department of Transportation, the Utilities, and the company’s documentation of where, when and why. Also why you took so long at the paperwork.
• You must comply with State, Federal & local traffic usage rules, including placement of signs, cones and wheel-chocks, and pull off the road to set them up. Daily stress. Like trying to pull a motor home off on a country road, unpacking several 20 or 30 lb. packages, and walking with them along the shoulder while traffic zips by inches away.
• You must have a signed document allowing the removal of any tree. Some counties and municipalities require a permit, too. Even for invasive exotic trees that residential tree professionals may take out with impunity. You are visible, they aren’t. You are the lightning rod for any tree complaint.
• Since crews change frequently, due to the company and Union policy, you are responsible for the “safety” of untested employees daily. You may forget their names and yell to them, “hey, uh… get the …” from 50’ up. Their second day on your crew.
• You are often the “lead” trimmer, or the only trimmer. You are responsible for the map. The Union isn’t, and neither is trimmer they send out.
• You go out on a job that a commercial arborist won’t touch until you’ve finished. It scares you. You wonder if your statistics will catch up, wonder if one of these days you’ll fry.
• You are 30’ up, cutting and holding a limb, and the truck lurches with you in it. You wonder if you did an adequate maintenance check, or the outrigger slipped (they’ll do that) or if, this time, something really broke.
• You go out on a job where someone else, an arborist, a Tree Trimmer, or another foreman in your company got electrocuted. You finish it. Even if it’s raining, you finish it and get away from that place.
• You arrive at a job, and people are waving signs, chanting something about tree rights. It’s not your company, or your policy, but they are looking at you. Personally. They seem angry. You can’t fight unfair rules or raging traffic or your “superiors” or the company you work for. They can. Instead they are yelling at you for doing your job.
I guess it’s apparent that I’ve gained more than a perspective. I feel as though I’d always been biased, before, when I hadn’t understood that some arborists risk more than others, each day, for a living.
I’m proud to be a residential specialist one again, but I’m finding that my critical eye is somewhat more relaxed, now that I’ve done a few miles of line clearance.
John O’Shea is an ISA Certified Arborist with 32 years experience and was a foreman
on line clearance crews in Hawaii and Oregon. He has served as an expert witness and is considered an authority on trees in the landscape, right of ways, and public property.. John has taught, trained and competed with top arborists in the US and Hong Kong.
♦ John O’Shea, ISA Certified Arborist ♦