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Fall Cleanup Hazards

In the autumn, many gardeners and homeowners are gearing up for winter: pruning trees and shrubs, cleaning gutters of plant debris, etc. and many of these activities require the use of a ladder. 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.

I was taken aback, recently, after hearing two cautionary tales about gardeners, who had suffered horrific accidents while pruning. One had slid off a roof, after pruning overhanging branches, and the other had fallen off a ladder while pruning. Both suffered broken bones and lengthy recuperations and were lucky to be alive. Both had undertaken their pruning alone and had difficulty reaching a phone to call 911. One of the gardeners faced the possibility of a life-threatening infection due to the amount of dirt and plant debris that had entered the wound from the fall off the roof and subsequent crawling around the yard to enter the house to call for help.

Evaluating trees that are hazardous, or may have deadwood, or branches that are overhanging roofs, gutters and utility lines is a "good thing", especially when we look back to the amounts of snow, ice and wind that have occurred over the past few winters and the high winds and rain from recent summer storms. The damage to trees from those storms, and the subsequent damage to property and 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.

When it comes to pruning trees, Dr. Dennis Ryan, UMass, says, "Safety first. Everyone thinks that they will not be the victim of a pruning accident. Unfortunately many people have been proven wrong." In an article Dr. Ryan wrote for the September 2010 issue of Hort Notes, he reported that "The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission records more than 164,000 emergency room treated injuries in the United States, relating to ladders". Dr. Ryan feels so strongly about the possibility of crippling accidents or deaths resulting from the "unwise" decision to prune a tree from a roof or ladder, that 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."

According to Dr. Ryan, "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 large branches, or dead trees, that the work is done by someone who is experienced, follows safety procedures, uses safety equipment and carries the proper insurance.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers the following safety precautions to help prevent these 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 ladder safety, another good practice when doing fall cleanups, especially if doing them alone, is to carry a phone. Not all aspects of fall cleanups pose threats to life and limb, but it is best to be prepared. Fall is a great time of year to be out in the landscape, so enjoy it and make wise decisions to avoid accidents.

Written by: Deborah Swanson
Revised: 09/2011