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Barber Chairing

Posted by Bret Kent, Safety Specialist on Feb 6, 2019 11:41:30 AM

Early last spring, before I joined Lewis Tree Service, I had a close call that I believe carries some valuable lessons for our team. The private company that I was working for had a contract to remove several hundred dead ash trees from a local park. I put a notch in a 12-inch DBH, 50–60 ft tall dead ash that had just enough lean to it that I was confident it would go where I wanted it to. I started my back cut, and just as I was expecting the tree to begin to tip over, it barber chaired.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a barber chair is when a tree violently splits vertically and hinges somewhere over your head. This is most often a hazard when you fell trees with pronounced lean in the same direction that gravity is pulling on them. Barber chairs are extremely dangerous for the saw operator because, as the tree hinges upward from your cut, it is over your head and ready to come crashing down at any moment. A clear escape route is your only chance of avoiding the trunk as it comes down – otherwise you are relying on luck to keep you alive. That day I had a few things working against me, and I ended up extremely lucky.

(story continued below photo)

Utility tree trimming barber chair

I was standing at the bottom of an erosion gulley to make the cut, with a hill directly in front of me and another directly behind me. Our crew had been felling trees as we moved down a bike path, and this resulted in several trees that had been felled behind me, across the gulley I was standing in. I cleared my escape route as best I could by cutting the logs so they would at least lay flat in the gulley. I did not take the time to clear all the large wood out of my path, both because there was so much wood it would have taken hours to clear it away and because the tree was so straightforward that I saw no possibility of anything going wrong with it.

Overconfidence can be deadly in this line of work, and the combination of terrain and large logs behind me left me no real escape route as the trunk of the tree hinged up 15 feet over my head. I remember trying to back away quickly from the tree but being blocked by the wood in my “escape route,” and then watching the canopy of the tree crash down. The split end of the trunk bounced once on the stump, and then finally rested atop it. I looked up at the split end of the tree extending over my head and realized how lucky I was that it did not fall back to the ground and crush me.

Another member of the crew saw the entire thing happen because he was getting ready to fell another tree nearby and stopped to move out of my drop zone as I cut. We called an all stop, discussed the incident that had just occurred, and decided we should be on the lookout for future barber chairs. This vague idea of plan was about as good as the escape path I cleared for the tree that split on me, because the very next tree barber chaired on my coworker. His tree did not split apart in the fantastic fashion that mine did, his only hinged up about four feet or so. He had terrain and a clear escape route on his side, and he was out of harm’s way when the tree crashed to the ground next to where he had been standing.

The next morning, we had a safety stand down with the entire crew to come up with a plan to prevent barber chairs from occurring. We decided that any trees that had pronounced lean we would strap with a heavy ratchet strap just above the cut to hold the tree together if it began to split apart on us.

There was a very large ash tree with very heavy lean to one side that we had put off until the end of the project. One of our crew leaders who was our best tree feller was going to fell the tree. The ash was approximately 90-–100 feet tall and 40-inch DBH. He took one crew member and separated from the rest of us to drive to the location of the large ash. I emphatically told him that he needed to strap the trunk before felling it, because he had mentioned in the morning stand down that he knew that tree was going to barber chair the first time he looked at it.

Later in the day he rejoined us, and I asked him how felling the large tree had gone. He told me that he strapped it, notched it, and it violently cracked as he began his back cut. The ratchet strap held it together while he finished the back cut, and the tree was felled successfully without incident. He confided to me later that despite the morning stand down, he would not have strapped the trunk if I had not made such a big deal about it right before he left. He was happy that he did, and using the strap only cost him an extra minute or two.

We can learn several things from this incident. First, a clear escape route is essential when tree felling. Clear a path at a 45-degree angle opposite the direction you are felling the tree. As soon as the tree begins to tip, use the escape route and do not stay “in the cut” to watch the tree come over.

As crucial as a clear escape route is, there are other things we can do to protect ourselves from barber chair hazards. At Lewis Tree Service, the use of a rope in the tree is required when felling whole trees. Instead of choking the rope into the canopy with a running bowline, you can run one end of the rope through the canopy and down the back side of the tree to the base. Tie the rope off around the trunk above the cut, and not only will you have a pull rope installed, you will also have the rope tied around the trunk to prevent it from splitting, similar to the way we used the ratchet straps in the example above. This method of anchoring the pull rope has an added benefit that the saw operator can easily untie the rope once the tree has been felled, which means that nobody has to climb into the broken canopy of the tree to retrieve it.

Update: As recommended by Mark Rowe, General Foreman, D21, please ensure the termination knot is one that will stay secured, like a clove hitch or cow hitch with two half hitches. 

Additionally, I learned a lesson that has already been addressed by one of our learning teams at LTS, which is that dead ash trees are unpredictable in the sense that they do not react like other trees. They have become brittle and are significantly more prone to mechanical failures such as limb failure and barber chairs. This is due mostly to the fact that as the tree dies and dries up, wood strength is compromised in ways that most other tree species do not experience. When dealing with dead ash, always plan what you will do when something unexpected happens so you are never caught by surprise like I was.

Utility vegetation management barber chair notch

utility contractor tree barber chairing

Topics: barber chairing, dead ash trees, planned escape routes, unpredictability, culture of learning, surprises, rope felling, plan for the unexpected

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