The Sexiest Job: Arborist!

There’s something about a man in a tree with a chainsaw…

It is said that this profession comprises only one half of 1 percent of the American workforce, yet represents 6 percent of work-related fatalities. This is one of the most dangerous jobs. An arborist is a tree care specialist. Some arborists do only tree trimming or cutting down, and may or may not also do stump removal. Other arborists, in addition to that, apply their knowledge of tree biology and tree disease, to help restore sick trees, or trees damaged by lightning.

In other words, don’t think of an arborist as just some guy with a chainsaw. Many arborists have residential accounts and regularly maintain the health and beauty of homeowners’ trees.

Have you ever seen a tree worker crew in action? It’s really exciting to watch! First of all, imagine what kind of physical condition an arborist must be in, to do all that tree climbing! And once in the tree, they must twist and contort their bodies, chainsaw or very long pruning shears in hand, and often reach way out to saw or clip off limbs. This isn’t the kind of tree climbing you may have done in your backyard when you were a kid.

Arborists get into huge, 100-foot-high cottonwood trees, in which the nearest branch to the ground may be 20 or 30 feet up. How do they get up there? If the tree is near a roadway or parking lot, the arborist — lean muscled body and all — will usually be lifted up there in the bucket of a boom truck. No sweat.

But what if the tree is in someone’s backyard or between two houses? He must use a rope, knot and harness system to get up there. If it’s just a trimming job, the arborist must climb in a way that does not damage the tree. Imagine reverse rappelling. He must hoist himself up in a chin-up or pull-up fashion, repeatedly pulling at the rope that he has tossed way up to a branch (a “crotch” in the tree) that will secure it. It’s Spiderman at work! You’ll rarely see a 250-pound arborist, but they do exist. In fact, roping systems are available that subtract some weight from the climber. I don’t know enough about the rigging system to explain just how the rope loops back down to the arborist after he tosses it into a solid-looking crotch, but somehow, he does it.

Once up in the tree near the branches that must be trimmed, he ties himself in. Arborists who tie themselves into three places on the tree, are far less likely to fall, than someone who makes only one tie-in point. The one tie-in point may be on a diseased or rotted area; the rot being on the inside of the branch and not visibly detectable. At some point, the rotted branch gives way to the weight of the worker and pull of his rope – and he falls.

Most arborist fatalities, believe it or not, occur to people working on the ground; they get hit by falling tree branches. Also keep in mind that the risk of fatality is directly correlated to attention to safety. Every time you get into your car, do you think of all the people who die every year in car wrecks? People get into their cars without a second thought to vehicular fatalities, even though almost as many women die every year from car accidents as from breast cancer.

Statistically, you are more likely to crash your car into a tree, than is an arborist to fall out of one. Like drivers, some arborists are extremely careful and are constantly thinking of safety; while others let their guard down and get careless.

If you ever see a tree cutting or trimming operation in progress, respect the boundaries set off by cones or tape: the drop zone. Walk around it. As easy as this sounds, an arborist once said that while he was in a tree on the premises of a hospital, a physician walked right into the drop zone. The arborist had to repeatedly warn him to get out of there, and the doctor finally left in a huff. “The only thing bigger than a doctor’s paycheck is his ego,” the arborist later remarked to fellow arborists.

This is a common problem reported by those in the tree care industry: pedestrians totally ignoring caution tape and cones, blindly walking right into the hazard zone. One arborist said he solves this problem by yelling, “Look out!” to anyone who crosses the threshold. They panic and scram out of there.

Arborists are fit (though some do smoke) and are usually nicely built; lean, climber’s bodies. I once saw one operating a truck that was hoisting up huge sections of a tree trunk and depositing them into the truck. This guy had the physique of a Greek marble statue. It’s hard to come upon female arborists, but they’re out there. Some are even crew supervisors. Where women lack in upper body strength, they make up in having a lighter body with which to maneuver upward in the tree.

Let’s not forget about the “groundies,” the crew working on the ground. Their job is just as important, and groundies must be very attentive to safety. Groundies are also very sexy, as they clear up fallen tree limbs and toss them into the wood chipper, or sometimes saw thick limbs up first before “chipping.” About three tree crew workers per year in the U.S. die from wood chipper accidents; being accidentally pulled into the machine by its powerful blades – the result of sticking a hand or foot into the feed chute to either untangle a jam of tree brush, or to shove the brush in there.

The chipper’s rotating blades catch hold of a branch or brush cluster and pull it in. If the worker’s glove or piece of clothing or foot (sticking feet in the chute to push in tree matter) are snagged onto that branch or brush pile, the branch will literally pull him in with it. When this happens, nearby crew have literally only a few seconds to react. Chippers have mechanisms that, when activated, immediately stop the blades. But nearby crew have only a one- or two-second window to react. Sometimes not even that’s enough; usually, once a worker’s extremity starts being pulled in, that’s the end – in about 10 seconds.

Next nice, sunny day, peel your ears for the sounds of chainsaws, and then follow your ears to watch some dynamic workers in action!

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