Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Preventing Death and Serious Injury from Falling Trees and Branches

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Preventing Death and Serious Injury from Falling Trees and Branches

Article excerpt

Abstract

Of 128 outdoor education related deaths examined since 1960, 14 have been due to falling trees or branches. This article examines the grounds on which death or serious injury due to falling trees or branches can be regarded as an inherent risk in outdoor education, and the extent to which such incidents can be regarded as preventible. It compares alternative approaches to prevention, and draws conclusions about how best to reduce the risk in the future.

Introduction

Of the 128 outdoor education related deaths since 1960 that I have studied (Brookes, 2003a, 2007), 14 have been due to falling trees or branches - about 11%. Of the 17 deaths that have occurred at the time of writing since January 2000, 5 (29%) have been due to falling trees or branches. While this much higher proportion of the recent deaths is almost certainly random, the recent cluster of incidents has served to highlight the potential danger of activities in treed areas. In this article I examine the grounds on which death or serious injury due to falling trees or branches can be regarded as an unavoidable inherent risk1 in outdoor education, and the extent to which such incidents can be regarded as preventible. I consider alternative approaches to prevention, and conclude how best to reduce the risk in the future.

This study draws on my previous study of fatal incidences (Brookes, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2007), and examines additional incidents not associated with schools found by a literature search. Table 1 lists school and youth group related deaths due to falling trees and branches since 1960. The list is almost certainly incomplete, especially for incidents prior to about 19902. Table 2 lists incidents in Tasmanian forestry operations between 1987 and 1995. Table 3 lists some reported deaths and serious injuries from trees in NSW and Victoria since 1998, excluding the outdoor education related incidents, derived from news reports, and two incidents from WA. This table is also probably not complete, and so provides information on certain incidents, but not on accident rates.

Incident patterns

Preventing fatal incidents around trees depends on the ability to determine what circumstances have been linked to fatal incidents in the past. Examining a set of incidents for patterns can throw some light on these patterns of circumstance. If there is no pattern, the events can be considered random without further investigation, and therefore part and parcel of being around trees.

Only a small number of incidents seem to be attributable without further discussion to an inherent risk around trees. Two of the 45 incidents considered involved a tree or branch falling on a windless day and striking a person or vehicle that just happened to be passing at that moment. In areas where there are too many trees for a landowner or manager to be reasonably expected to assess and remove all hazardous trees, such incidents could be prevented only by avoiding all trees of any size, including those that line roadsides. The incidents at Steavenson Falls in 1968 (Table 1) and near Port Macquarie in December 2004 (Table 2) fit this category. It is no great insight that there is some inherent risk around trees, which after all balance or suspend tonnes of material overhead, much of which eventually falls. What might be surprising is how few incidents can be readily attributed solely to this inherent risk, without the inclusion of some more specific, and therefore possibly more avoidable, circumstance.

Deaths related to forestry or similar activities such as land clearing were overwhelming related to the activity, rather than just the environment. It is evident that any inherent risk due to being around trees is small, if not tiny, compared to the risks of forestry and related activities. While it is obvious that pushing over or cutting down trees is more dangerous than leaving them alone, it is interesting that the activity is so prominent. …

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