Health, Safety and Tree Care

The recent tragic death of a child in a London park when a tree limb collapsed has once again brought into focus the requirement for landlords and employers to manage tree stocks with safety in mind.

Responsibility
Landlords have a duty of care to maintain their land in such condition that it does not harm any person or damage any property, in accordance with appropriate legislation such as Occupiers Liability Acts.

For employers, Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act applies, which places general duties on employers and the self-employed towards people other than their employees.

Guidance
There are a number of organisations which have produced guidance on tree management, such as the Forestry Commission and Highways England (formerly the Highways Agency). However, these must be considered best practice rather than a minimum standard.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) gives guidance for a proportionate approach – there is no expectation that every tree (or even most) needs to be individually inspected – and often the safety requirements can be met by standard tree management.

What is required?
Tree management should begin by ‘zoning’ trees: Zone 1 trees being those which may be closely approached by people daily, Zone 2 trees being those not subject to regular public or employee access.

Zone 1 trees need to be subject to periodic inspection using what HSE call ‘quick visual checks’ carried out by someone with sufficient knowledge to identify defects. Such persons do not need to be a forestry professional; sufficient knowledge can be provided by giving staff training on what to look for and the courts have accepted that such checks can be collective (i.e. checking groups of trees at one time) and conducted from ground level.

As you would expect, where a defect is found, specialist advice should be sought and appropriate action taken.

Inspections of individual trees are only likely to be necessary where the tree is in Zone 1 and has structural faults, but has been retained by the landowner or employer (perhaps for historical reasons). Where an inspection system is put in place, it must be monitored and include:

  • Monitoring procedures
  • Records
  • Procedure for obtaining competent assistance
  • Damage reporting system
  • Emergency procedures (high winds etc.)

Frequency of visual checks, either where areas or individual trees are checked, is not specified, which is consistent with the risk-based approach to health and safety in general. However, the Highways Agency’s previous policy of checking Zone 1 trees every 5 years has been accepted in some recent court cases.

Summer Branch Drop
This is where a healthy tree sheds a large limb without warning. It mainly affects oaks, poplars, willows, elms, sweet and horse chestnut, beech and ash and most often occurs in hot and calm summer weather or when heavy rain has removed soil dryness. Summer branch drop is, however, unpredictable and this risk must therefore be considered by landlords and employers.

For further information, contact your Ellis Whittam Health & Safety Consultant.

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