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Five-Minute Meeting: Preventing Falls on Steep Terrain

While we discuss fall prevention primarily in the context of climbing and aerial lift safety, falls can occur in other ways as well, and we should take care to assess the risk of falls on job sites with steep inclines.

A regular hazard discussed on most job sites is “slips, trips, and falls.” Some workers might discuss this topic to “check off the boxes” of a job briefing, but these hazards are very real and can lead to injury or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of injury for all age groups, with over half of all falls occurring during slope or stair walking. At similar angles, slope walking has a greater fall risk than stair walking due to greater ankle dorsiflexion (the backward bending and contracting of your foot and overall stability). Falls can be fatal at any height and on any terrain depending on the person’s size, weight, and the part of the body that hits the ground.

On job sites with steep terrain, you may find yourself on a steep walking surface with loose dirt. What happens when you slip on the loose dirt and fall? In the best-case scenario, you slide down the hill without injury; however, what if you aren’t that lucky and you twist an ankle, break an arm, or roll through a patch of poison oak or blackberries? Maybe you fall and hit your head on a rock, get impaled by debris, cause someone else to start sliding as well, or drop your equipment and it hits someone.

When we walk up stairs, we step onto multiple level surfaces and we typically have a handrail to support us; however, when we are on a job site, the walking surfaces are seldom level and there is no railing.

To prevent injury or fatality, workers should first estimate the steepness of the incline that they are working. On any slope less than 20 degrees, workers should ascend and descend using a hiking pole or a hand line (guide rope). On any slope between 20-45 degrees, workers should ascend and descend using a hand line (guide rope) or a harness. On slopes greater than 45 degrees, workers should ascend and descend using a harness.

A worker can use a knot called a “bowline on a bight” as a harness when ascending and descending steep slopes in place of an actual climbing harness if necessary.


ACRT Arborist Training Staff

ACRT Arborist Training provides entry-level through advanced arborist classes and certifications for line clearance companies, government agencies, tree care companies, municipalities, and individuals around the nation.


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