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June 14, 2022 6 min read
There are dangerous jobs—and then there’s logging, a profession with a death rate that outpaces all others by a wide margin. Deemed “one of the most hazardous industries” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), logging is plagued by “crush injuries,” falls, and other hazards.
Learn about the practices that make working with trees so dangerous—and how hard hats can prevent many accidents from becoming serious injuries.
In 1989, Woody Crop’s skidder rolled 300 feet down a hill. The vehicle flipped over and over again, repeatedly tossing Crop’s head against the vehicle’s interior. Beyond his survival, one of the most remarkable parts of this story may be that he remembers the incident in detail—many concussion victims regain consciousness with no memory of the event whatsoever.
Nevertheless, the accident left Crop unable to hold a logging job and in a lifetime of “all-over pain.” And in the years that followed, he struggled with homelessness and impaired short-term memory.
Vehicles like this skidder transport cut trees from forests. Source:Rvannatta via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Crop’s experience is just one illustration of the longstanding perils of logging and other tree work. For example, 6,400 workers died from on-the-job traumas in the 1980s; nearly 1 in 4 of them worked in the logging industry.
More recently, Penn State researchers analyzed fatality records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Between 2010 and 2020, those engaged in cutting down trees—both landscapers and loggers—faced significant risks. Deaths were mainly concentrated in the eastern United States, with forestry-heavy states like North Carolina topping the list. More than 300 workers died over that decade, with struck-by injuries (like a blow to the head) and falls bearing most of the blame.
These sorts of injuries impact arborists and loggers alike. When NIOSH investigated non-logging fatalities related to tree work in 2009, they found that an average of 80 workers died each year. The vast majority were landscapers, most engaged in trimming, pruning, or felling when killed. More recent data from the Tree Care Industry Association, an entity representing more than 2,000 tree care businesses, paints a similar picture: The majority of the 103 deaths in 2017 occurred when workers were caught between or struck by objects.
Like many other dangerous lines of work, logging transformed in the wake of two World Wars. Helmets first developed to save lives in trench warfare gradually became popular pieces of protective equipment for everyday workers. Logger hard hats, often made of aluminum, provided a much-needed defense against falling branches and flying tools.
No personal protective equipment can make a logger immune to a falling tree. But in some crucial ways, safety measures in tree-related work aren’t all that different from those seen in other blue-collar workplaces. Protection for the head, ears, eyes, face, and legs is often required—and can significantly improve workers' safety and quality of life.
According to OSHA, workers who cut down trees with the help of a chainsaw (a form of “manual felling”) face the greatest risk.
Today, logger helmets provide an effective defense against a blow to the head, a flying piece of wood lodged in the skull, or the impact of a fall. They’re one of few brain-injury prevention tools available—and wearing them can make a big difference.
Using data from West Virginia’s Workers’ Compensation program from 1996 to 2001, researchers determined that the average medical cost for brain injuries in logging was far higher than those in other industries. A logging-related traumatic brain injury (TBI) cost nearly $200,000, while other industry TBIs cost roughly $15,000 on average.
Researchers in Washington state came to similar conclusions about logging-related TBIs in their own Workers’ Comp program. They add that the most common case types involved being struck by a wood item or other object—and that most of these TBIs resulted in death or permanent impairment.
Fortunately, appropriately safety-tested and rated headgear can prevent or minimize the severity of many TBIs.
Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a set of rules dedicated to logging operations. CFR1910.266 covers activities associated with the felling and delivery of trees, from limbing to loading.
While these rules may be good practices for anyone working with trees, including landscapers, they don’t apply when trees aren’t cut down. Further, not every tree removal falls under the scope of the standard—mainly, the exceptions are when an employer's operations primarily involve tree care or trimming or if removal happens incidentally or infrequently. For example, removing a few trees from a residential yard isn’t logging. But clearing many from a large plot of land would be, as might small-scale removal in unusually hazardous conditions, such as after a major storm.
CFR 1910.266 also specifies that employees must be provided with a variety of personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost. These items include logging hard hats in areas where head injuries are possible due to falling or flying objects. The requirements—when headgear is worn, what it consists of, and so on—are specified in CFR 1910.135, the same rule that establishes helmet requirements for arborists and the majority of American workers.
In the end, trees' massive size makes preventive measures key. No matter how well-designed, logger helmets can't protect against the full weight of a falling tree. As such, OSHA's tree harvesting rules specify that employees must, for the most part, remain at least two tree lengths away from trees being felled. Further, "danger trees”—those with damage or deterioration that may present a hazard—must be properly cut down, removed, or avoided.
OSHA’s rules for arborist and logger hard hats are identical. The requirements specify that employers must provide protection to anyone working “in areas where there is a potential for injury to the head from falling objects.” In addition, those helmets must do two things:
ANSI Z89.1, the American National Standard for Industrial Head Protection, provides performance and testing requirements for hard hats. These guidelines offer some assurance that loggers’ helmets are up to the task of preventing neurological damage. While the physics are complex—and no hard hat invented to date can entirely avert brain damage—they’re effective at mitigating injuries caused by sudden and/or concentrated impacts.
An ANSI-compliant hard hat, among other things, blunts impacts, resists penetrations, and helps to prevent spinal injuries. ANSI’s Type I hard hats offer impact and penetration protection for the top (crown) of the head. Type II hard hats, meanwhile, provide additional protection for the front, back, and sides of the head.
Some loggers have historically chosen aluminum helmets that are designed to remain breathable in hot environments. However, arborists working in urban environments may find these models unsuitable, particularly when working near power lines. ANSI’s Class C (Conductive) helmets aren’t designed for these scenarios. Instead, laborers working near any electrical hazards should choose a hard hat that’s either Class G (General) or Class E (Electrical), which are tested to protect against 2,200 volts or 20,000 volts, respectively.
Tree care near power lines may require specialized head protection. Source:Ildar Sagdejev via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Consider two statistics: First, logging’s fatal injury rate in 2018 was 111 per 100,000 workers, making it 33 times more deadly than the average job. Second, logging fatality rates were 50% higher in the 1980s, when the occupation was only 23 times as deadly as the average.
So, in absolute terms, logging is far less dangerous than it once was. However, other lines of work have grown far safer over the same period. A variety of measures—smarter rules, more mechanization, and proper PPE—will be needed to close the gap. And given how harmful, expensive, and regular brain injuries are, arborist and logger hard hats will remain crucial equipment.
Looking for more safety info? Explore the Hard Head Veterans blog, where we review ANSI standards for hard hats and construction helmets, simplify the science of helmets and brain injury, and help first responders stay safe even when budgets are tight.