How HSE communicates with the tree industry and how we can help raise health and safety standards

Many of people are confused about 'Who does what' and the 'jargon' on health and safety, so Frances Hirst - who works in The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) 'Agriculture and Food Sector' and leads for HSE on arboriculture tries in this article to explain - in simple terms - who they are, what they (and others) do, why and how they need to communicate with the tree work industry and how you can help raise health and safety standards.

What is HSE?

HSE was set up in 1974 along with the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act (HSWA). HSC merged with HSE on 1 April 2008. HSE is the national regulatory body responsible for promoting better health and safety at work within Great Britain and preventing death, injury and ill-health to those at work and those affected by work activities, including the public.

Structure - What HSE (and others) do

In fact, HSE and over 400 individual local authorities (LAs) throughout GB share responsibility for enforcing legislation on health, safety and welfare at individual work premises, depending on the main activity carried out there.  This is determined by the Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority) Regulations 1998 (EA Regulations). In relation to tree work, HSE is responsible for factories, farms, utilities, most construction activities and highways maintenance, and work at domestic premises, whereas LAs typically enforce at premises where the main activity is offices, retail, warehousing, leisure and sports activities (unless directly under LA control/management).  Responsibility for enforcement at certain premises may be transferred between HSE and LAs by agreement.

Those involved in tree work are most likely to have contact with Inspectors or Health and Safety Awareness Officers from HSE's Field Operations Directorate, or Environmental Health Officers from LAs.  HSE staff are located in one of the 27 offices, covering England, Scotland and Wales.  Staff leading on liaison with national stakeholders and producing guidance for particular industries are located in 'Sectors' (eg tree work is covered by the Agriculture & Food Sector). 

You need to ensure that you know who your local enforcing authority is, and record this on your 'H&S Poster'.  In most cases, your office/base will probably be the LA but when you are working out on site, your activities will be enforced either by HSE or the relevant LA.  If you are unsure, check with your local HSE or LA Environmental Health Department office.

What we expect

You will all be familiar with stories about school children being prevented from playing conkers and 'banning of hanging baskets', but many of these arise out of fear of civil litigation, or over-zealous advice and interpretation of legal requirements by others. HSE wants health and safety to be seen as a cornerstone of a civilised society and so achieve a record of workplace health and safety that leads the world.  We already have one of the best safety records, but more needs to be done to reduce the unacceptable level of deaths, injuries and long-term health issues. To achieve this we provide advice, guidance and information - nationally and locally - and are working in partnerships with businesses, professional and trade organisations, with workers and their trades unions, and others.

During investigation of incidents, complaints or visits we will be checking on standards of compliance and most importantly, how these are managed.  However, we all prefer to be giving advice on how to prevent people being made ill or injured at work, rather than investigating who was responsible and taking enforcement action after a terrible injury.

We do not believe that all risks in the workplace can be eliminated. Instead, we will want to see that sensible actions are being taken to reduce your health and safety risks. Where necessary, for example where conditions are poor or there is blatant disregard for the law, inspectors can use their powers to require improvements, including prosecution where appropriate.

However, following widespread consultation, HSE's new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain recognises that everyone has a part to play in renewing momentum to improve health and safety performance.  For example, by developing leadership, competence and helping small businesses, through working more closely with stakeholders to promote a common-sense, practical approach to h&s, motivated by the real business benefits. More information on HSE's Strategy can be found at our Strategy website.

What legislation?

HSE is responsible for a significant amount of primary legislation (Acts of Parliament, such as the HSWA) and 'relevant statutory provisions', ie 'regulations' such as those on Provision and Use of Work Equipment (PUWER) and Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment (LOLER).

Guidance on how to comply with regulations is given in relevant Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP). These give practical advice on how to comply with the law. If you follow the advice you will be doing enough to comply with the law in respect of those specific matters on which the Code gives advice. You may use alternative methods to those set out in an ACOP in order to comply with the law. However, ACOPs have a special legal status. If you are prosecuted for breach of health and safety law and it is proved that you did not follow the relevant provisions of the Code, you will need to show that you have complied with the law in some other way or a court will find you at fault.

The Regulations and ACOPs are accompanied by guidance which does not form part of the ACOP. Again, following the guidance is not compulsory and you are free to take other action, but if you do follow relevant guidance you will normally be able to demonstrate that you are doing enough to comply with the law. Inspectors may also refer to industry guidance such as the AA's Code to Good Climbing practice and AFAG leaflets as these illustrate good practice.

Why does HSE need to be in contact with the treework industry?

During the past three years 9 people involved with tree work have been killed, over 100 have suffered a major injury and more than 200 have been off work for more than 3 days as a result of an injury they received while at work. They are the ones that have been reported to HSE (as required) under the Reporting of Injuries Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR).   This means that well over 300 people (plus their families) have had their lives affected and these are just the ones we know about. However, there are many more incidents that are never reported to us as they should be. Many businesses are put at risk too.

To put these figures into context, tree work has a fatal incidence rate (based on number working in the industry) higher than that of the construction industry. Looking at the incidents that have been reported there are a number of key causes which need to be addressed. These include:

  • operations involving chainsaws;
  • being hit by falling timber/trees;
  • falls; and
  • work processes being carried out.

How we communicate with the tree work industry

HSE's main route of liaison with the tree work industry is through the Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG), a key working group of the Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee (AIAC).

The Role of the Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG)

AFAG provides authoritative guidance widely accepted as describing good industry practice, in GB and internationally.  AFAG leaflets replaced the now defunct FASTCo (Forestry and Arboriculture Safety Training Council) guidance and are used as a standard for training and assessment of competence, assessing risks, establishing safe systems of work and management and monitoring of work activities on-site.  They are used throughout the tree work sector and other industries where relevant equipment is used. As such, it is also used frequently in both civil litigation and criminal prosecutions to demonstrate acceptable standards within the industry and to regulators.

Importantly, AFAG is the route through which those carrying out this type of work and involved in the industry can influence HSE's policies and published guidance.  Current members include representatives from professional and trade bodies such as the Arboricultural Association (AA), the Utility Arb Group (UAG), International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH - Rural Industries Group);  and major employers including the Forestry Commission (FC) and others involved in utility and general arb work; training and skills organisations (City and Guilds NPTC, Lantra Awards and Lantra Sector Skills Council (SSC)); Local Government Employers (LGE) and the National Association of Tree Officers (NATO); trades unions, machinery manufacturer's/importers and Northern Ireland's Forest Service.

AFAG meets twice a year and a number of project groups have been set up to tackle specific issues including:

  • Training and Certification (including discussions on a Register for Treework Operatives, and mapping training and competencies across Europe).
  • Reducing accidents involving chain saws.
  • Improving management of work at height, including implementation of the Work at Height Regulations.
  • Rigging and dismantling techniques in arboriculture.
  • Machine-assisted takedown of (hung-up edge) trees.
  • Chainsaw PPE - to improve and promote standards and related issues.
  • Market surveillance (product design).
  • Treework near Overhead Power Lines.
  • Promotion of occupational health provision and rehabilitation services.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders.
  • Reduce operator exposure to noise, hand-arm and whole body vibration.
  • Production, review and maintenance of AFAG, HSE and industry guidance.
  • Improving communications at forestry sites (incl lone working).

Progress on these working groups is reported back to each main AFAG meeting and the AIAC.

How the treework industry can help

As well as via the formal route of AFAG, HSE staff in the Agriculture and Food Sector are in regular contact with key industry stakeholders and individuals in the industry. This is essential to ensure that we know what the industry's concerns are regarding health and safety issues and for us to be able to pass essential information back to the industry. If you have any health and safety queries that you would like to raise with HSE's Agriculture and Food Sector please e-mail [email protected]

Further advice/information

HSE publishes a great deal of information relevant to the tree work industry. You will all be familiar with the key good practice guidance contained in the series of AFAG leaflets which are available from HSE's treework website.

General advice is also available in the series of Agriculture Information Sheets (AIS).  Relevant topics include wood chippers and the application of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) to forestry and arboriculture.

HSE also issues an occasional e-newsletter Treework News.  If you do not receive this and would like to sign up, contact Frances Hirst via e-mail [email protected]

Advice provided for HSE and LA inspectors eg Sector Information Minutes (SIMs) may also be relevant, such as SIM 01/07/05 Managing the risk from falling trees.

HSE has also funded several research projects relevant to the tree work industry, often in conjunction with the Forestry Commission. These include:

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