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Worker killed by falling branch while felling trees

In July 2021, a worker was felling trees in a forest plantation when he was struck and fatally injured by a tree limb. It appears the tree the worker was felling struck a separate dead tree and a branch from that tree fell and struck him.

Safety issues

Tree felling can be dangerous, particularly when risks are not adequately controlled. When manually cutting trees, the feller normally stands at the base to operate the chainsaw and moves to a safe position once the tree begins to fall. Dead or dry standing decayed trees (stags) are particularly dangerous as they could fall, of their own accord, at any time. This danger is increased if the dead tree can be struck or brushed against during a felling operation by the tree being felled.

Common hazards and risks associated with the manual felling of trees during harvesting work can include, but are not limited to:

  • the size, location and condition of the tree to be harvested
  • the canopy cover
  • whether trees have creepers or vines attached that will adversely affect the way the tree falls
  • ground slope
  • wind speed and direction
  • ground cover and other hazards which may be encountered in the forest
  • performing work that is within the capacity limits of the chainsaw
  • using a chainsaw that is not cutting correctly or not running properly
  • falling or swinging objects including tree parts that have been cut or have the potential to break e.g. widow maker 1
  • manual tasks including pulling, pushing, lifting (e.g. lifting heavy tree trunk portions)  and plant vibration
  • risk of electric shock from powerlines and associated hardware in close proximity to harvesting operations
  • working with plant including mobile plant (e.g. log loading, tree felling and harvesting plant)

1Widow maker means a limb of a tree or similar object which falls out of a tree without warning.

Ways to manage health and safety

Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you'll need to show the regulator that you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.

Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents:

Before carrying out harvesting operations, the PCBU who is undertaking the forest harvesting has a responsibility to prepare a harvesting plan in conjunction with the owner of the forest. Harvesting work should not commence unless this document and its health and safety components have been agreed and signed.

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

  • Substitute manual tree felling with mechanical harvesting plant. Risks to the machine operator are minimised by the protection provided by the machine. Machinery used in felling operations must have an operator protective structure and falling object protective structure (FOPS) suitable for forestry operations. Machinery used for mechanical felling includes custom-built feller-benchers, single grip harvesters and processors and excavator-type machinery with after-market felling heads. The machinery also needs to be suitable for the size of tree being harvested.
  • Source: Safe Work Australia – Forestry Guide to Managing Risks of Timber Harvesting Operations

  • Ensure hand-held chainsaws used by workers are maintained in a safe condition and comply with AS 2727: Chainsaws - Guide to safe working practices. All chainsaws must be equipped with a reliable off switch, chain catcher, rear hand guard, anti-vibration handle mountings, throttle lockout, efficient muffler, chain brake and front hand-guard.
  • Develop a safe system of work for tree felling. This could include but is not limited to the following:
    • Ensure the area around the base of the tree is cleared to provide sufficient area to carry out the work and to allow safe escape routes from the area.
    • Ensure the felling zone, which is the area in all directions around the tree being felled, is equivalent to a radial distance of two times the height of the tallest tree is maintained between the feller(s) and other people.
    • Any tree which has been scarfed (an undercut on the side of the tree) is immediately brought down.
    • In situations where a tree is hung-up, the standing or supporting tree is not felled. If safe to do so, the hung-up tree should be brought down by machine.
    • Ensure any hung-up tree is brought down or otherwise made safe.
    • Access to areas containing hang-ups is restricted by displaying an appropriate sign.
    • The method used to designate individual hang-ups in the field must be nominated in the harvesting plan.
    • Safety signs are clearly legible and exhibited in positions which give adequate warning of the forest harvesting to anyone approaching the area.
    • No person is required to work alone during felling and extraction work except where a high standard of safety is in place, for example, where an operator is carrying out work entirely within a properly equipped and guarded machine.
    • Tree felling adjacent to energised powerlines and associated hardware is not to occur within a distance specified in the Electrical Safety Regulation 2013 (see section 6 for guidance). If a powerline is above any part of the felling zone during forest harvesting activities, additional measures must be employed to ensure the trees being felled does not encroach on the exclusion zone from the powerline. The additional controls should be developed in conjunction with the owner of the powerline.
  • Ensure workers are competent in all forest harvesting work activities they will be expected to undertake. PCBUs must use nationally recognised industry competency standards and assessment procedures (where available) to determine, certify and record worker competency.
    • Depending on the task, equipment and conditions in the forest, any remaining risk must be minimised with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE should only be relied upon when it is not practicable to use other methods to control risks. PPE can include hard hats; gloves; protective footwear; eye protection; hearing protection; high visibility clothing; cut resistant leg protection.

Note: Administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision, and used on their own, tend to be least effective in minimising risks.

The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.

More Information

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