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Pruning and Ladder Safety

In 2016, many trees, especially oaks, were partially, if not fully, defoliated from feeding by gypsy moth caterpillars in many areas of Massachusetts. Usually, with sufficient rainfall, these trees would produce a second flush of growth and resume growing. However, the growing season of 2016 turned out to be one of the warmest and driest on record with rainfall way below average and watering bans imposed in many towns and cities in the commonwealth. Many of the defoliated trees put out minimal second growth and many of the remaining trees were drought stressed and weakened, making them more susceptible to secondary attacks from borers and disease.

Fall is the time of year to evaluate trees that may be dead or so weakened that they may not survive, and to determine if they need to be removed or pruned to remove deadwood or weakened limbs. Doing this before hurricane season and winter storms may help to avoid potential damage to your property from falling trees and branches.

Evaluating possible hazard trees and taking steps to eliminate or modify the hazard is one of the landscape tasks done in the fall. Many people think nothing of getting on a ladder, or roof, to prune a tree without taking the necessary safety precautions, not realizing or even thinking about the possibility of what might happen. Everyone thinks, “that won’t happen to me” but as we have often been told, “that is why they call them accidents”; they are not planned.

We have shared in past issues of the Hort Notes newsletter, cautionary stories about several gardeners who suffered horrific accidents while pruning. One slid off a roof while pruning overhanging tree branches, and the other fell off a ladder while pruning a tree. Both suffered broken bones, had lengthy recuperations, and were lucky to be alive. Both had undertaken their pruning alone and had difficulty reaching a phone to call 911. The gardener who fell off the roof faced the possibility of a life-threatening infection due to the amount of dirt and plant debris that had entered her broken leg wound while crawling around the yard to enter the house to call for help. Unfortunately, months later, that gardener subsequently had to have her leg amputated below the knee due to the wound infection following the accident. She reported that the accident happened quickly, she did not have her phone with to her call 911, and no one knew she was on the roof pruning.

While these reports may be the exception, it drives home the point that accidents do happen and that many of these accidents can hopefully be avoided if certain precautions are met.

Evaluating trees that are hazardous, may have deadwood, or have branches that are overhanging roofs, gutters, and utility lines is a proactive measure, especially when we look back to the amounts of snow, ice and wind that have occurred over past winters and the high winds and rain that often occur in the fall. The damage to trees from those storms and the subsequent damage to property, and possible loss of power, justifies and reinforces the need to be proactive in removing hazard trees, branches, etc. and to develop a plan to do so.

Dr. Dennis Ryan, University of Massachusetts, advises when it comes to pruning trees, “Safety first. Everyone thinks that they will not be the victim of a pruning accident. Unfortunately, many people have been proven wrong.” In a 2010 article in Hort Notes, Dr. Ryan reported that “the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recorded more than 164,000 emergency room-treated injuries in the United States relating to ladders”. Since the possibility of crippling accidents or deaths resulting from the “unwise” decision to prune a tree from a roof or ladder exists, he offers the following advice: “If when pruning a tree, you feel the need to lift the second foot off the ground, it is then time to call in a Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA), who has compensation and liability insurance. Many people do not realize that they may be held liable if someone is injured on their property while performing work, like pruning trees”. That is why it is important, when removing trees or large branches, that the work is done by someone who is trained, experienced, follows safety procedures, uses safety equipment, and carries the proper insurance.

  • If you use a ladder, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers the following safety precautions to help prevent ladder injuries.
  • Make sure the weight your ladder is supporting does not exceed its maximum load rating (user plus materials). There should only be one person on the ladder at a time.
  • Use a ladder that is the proper length for the job. Proper length is a minimum of 3 feet extending over the roof line or working surface. The three top rungs of a straight, single or extension ladder should not be stood on.
  • Straight, single or extension ladders should be set up at about a 75-degree angle.
  • All metal ladders should have slip-resistant feet.
  • Metal ladders will conduct electricity. Use a wooden or fiberglass ladder in the vicinity of power lines or electrical equipment. Do not let a ladder made from any material contact live electric wires.
  • Be sure all locks on extension ladders are properly engaged.
  • The ground under the ladder should be level and firm. Large flat wooden boards braced under the ladder can level a ladder on uneven ground or soft ground.
  • A good practice is to have a helper hold the bottom of the ladder.
  • Do not place a ladder in front of a door that is not locked, blocked or guarded.
  • Keep your body centered between the rails of the ladder at all times. Do not lean too far to the side while working.
  • Do not use a ladder for any purpose other than that for which it was intended.
  • Do not step on the top step, bucket shelf, or attempt to climb or stand on the rear section of a stepladder.
  • Never leave a raised ladder unattended.
  • Follow use instruction labels on ladders.

Besides practicing ladder safety, other good practices when using a ladder (pruning, cleaning gutters, putting up holiday lights, painting trim, etc.) are to carry a phone, especially if working alone and, better yet, to have someone with you to steady the ladder or call for help. Not all aspects of using a ladder pose threats to life and limb, but it is best to be prepared.

If you are in doubt about the possible hazards for the job, contact a licensed and insured professional and have him or her do the job.

Deborah C. Swanson
Last Updated: 
September 2016