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Dead trees and working solo remotely are a dangerous mix

In August 2020, a property owner sustained fatal injuries from a falling tree branch. Initial investigations indicate he was burning off on a remote part of the property alone. It appears he parked his quad bike under a dead tree when a branch broke and struck him across the legs. Alone, and with no communication equipment, the 61 year old attempted to treat himself but was later found dead at the scene.

Following the permit plan is vital

In Queensland it is illegal to light a fire without a “Permit to Light Fire” issued by a Fire Warden. The permit requires the responsible person to identify and manage risks and consult with neighbours prior to undertaking the prescribed burn. In some locations, property owners can seek assistance from the Rural Fire Service Queensland (RFSQ) when considering a prescribed burn for a property. RFSQ can provide good local knowledge and a range of skills that would be advantageous to safely carrying out a prescribed burn safely.

The simple rule is you cannot do a control burn by yourself, you must stipulate the number of people involved (more than one), their skill level, the firefighting equipment to be used and how you are going to communicate.

Preparation of a Property Fire Management Plan to address areas of high risks such as high fuel load and dead trees is an imperative. This is of particular importance to people who live in areas close to remnant or regrowth vegetation in Queensland, due to the increased risk of bushfires. Rural property owners need to ensure they consult with their neighbours on a strategy for controlled burns. Property owners should make themselves aware of, and take steps to minimise, the risks to life and property.

Source: (SEQ Fire and Biodiversity Consortium Property Fire Management Planning Kit)

The person conducting the business or undertaking (PCBU) must manage risks associated with vegetation burns. Risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. Managing work health and safety risks is an ongoing process and involves four steps, which are: identifying hazards, assessing risks, controlling risks and reviewing control measures to ensure they are effective.

Once the risks have been assessed the next step is to control risks. Control measures are ranked from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest and are known as the hierarchy of control. Duty holders must work through this hierarchy to choose the controls which most effectively eliminate or, where this is not reasonably practicable, minimise the risks.

Effective control measures are often made up of a combination of controls. Some common risk control measures may include, but are not limited to:

  • Isolation – establish a safe area or exclusion zone to ensure people and machines are not at risk of fire-related hazards or hazards from the surrounding environment such as high fuel loads and falling tree branches
  • Engineering – preparing and maintaining fire breaks by mechanical means.
  • Administrative controls – if risk remains, it must be further minimised by implementing administrative controls, for example:
    • providing an effective means of communication for remote or isolated workers, ensuring emergency services can be contacted (these include satellite phones, two-way radios, distress beacons which can help pinpoint a location and to indicate an emergency exists).
    • ensuring correct volumes of water and personnel as detailed on the permit-to-burn
    • a safe system of work is in place that address site specific hazards for example; the establishment and adherence to exclusion zones
    • escape routes that are clearly identified and prepared in advance
    • training, information and instruction using communications systems, administering first aid, obtaining emergency assistance or bush survival.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) – depending on the task, any remaining risk must be minimised with suitable personal protective equipment (long-sleeved shirts and pants and sturdy boots; hard hats; gloves; eye protection; high visibility clothing; cut resistant leg protection; fire-retardant clothing.

Adopting and implementing higher order controls before considering administrative or PPE controls will significantly reduce the likelihood of a similar incident occurring. The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.

It should also be noted that when working remotely or in isolation (as was the case in this incident), it is best not to do it alone. If you are flying solo, then communication equipment is a must.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland’s Ag Unit would also like to remind everyone that dead trees are dangerous – whether working under them, parking or resting under them, or trying to push them over or cutting them down!

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