Paul Elcoat continues his guide to the Arboricultural Association’s Approved Contractor Scheme with a look at the approach which should be undertaken – and documented – around jobs involving working at height.

IN this series of articles, I am working through the requirements of the Arboricultural Association’s Approved Contractor Scheme, or ArbAC as it is now commonly known, the idea being that if you work on the bite-sized chunks month on month, by the end of the series of articles, you should be in a position to go for the assessment.


 Part 1 – Introduction to the Arb Approved Contractor Scheme
 Part 2 – The Worksite Safety Inspection
 Part 3 – Completed Work and the Named Manager Knowledge Requirement
 Part 4 – Customer Care and Office Procedures
 Part 5 – Insurances, Licences and Policies
 Part 6 – Health and Safety Management and Workplace Inspection
 Part 7 – Control of Substances Hazardous
to Health (COSHH)
 Part 8 – Environmental Matters
 Part 9 – Fire Safety Arrangements
 Part 10 – Incident Management
 Part 11 – LOLER and PUWER
 Part 12 – Personnel and Training
 Part 13 – Risk Assessments and Method
 Part 14 – Office, Workshop and Yard
Part 15 – Personal Protective Equipment
 Part 16 – Reference Material
Part 17 – Vibration and Noise

To continue with the project, in this edition I would like to give some guidance around working at height.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of working at height it would probably be worth setting the scene as to why we have strict regulations and guidance:

 The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998
 The Work at Height Regulations 2005
 ICoP – Tree Work at Height – May 2020
 Arboricultural Association TechnicalGuide 1 (TG1) – Tree Climbing and Aerial Rescue – December 2020
 Arboricultural Association Technical Guide 2 (TG2) – Use of Tools in the Tree – December 2020
 Arboricultural Association Technical Guide 3 (TG3) – Rigging and Dismantling – December 2021
 Arboricultural Association Technical Guide 4 (TG4) – Use of Mobile Cranes in Tree Work – December 2020
 Arboricultural Association Technical Guide 5 (TG5) – Use of Mobile Elevating Work Platforms in Tree Work – December 2020

If a hazard is foreseeable, we must try our best to manage what we do to avoid that hazard. Because arborists regularly fall out of trees and really hurt themselves, tree climbing must not be the default solution to accessing the crown – it is as simple as that.

When you look at a job, rather than having climbing as the only tool in the box, you should be thinking about all the available solutions to the proposed task. The selection of solutions is normally set out as a hierarchy of techniques which start from the least hazardous to the most hazardous (in terms of work at height):

1. Avoid the risks of working at height by using a machine such as a grapple saw mounted on an excavator.

2. Avoid the risks of working at height by achieving the desired results from the ground by the use of tree-felling techniques.

3. Achieve the desired results from a position on the ground using pole- mounted equipment.

4. Minor pruning works and hedge trimming operations should be undertaken from a secured ladder, tripod steps, steps or a purpose-built platform. 

5. Access the crown of the tree using a MEWP (mobile elevating work platform).

6. Access the crown of the tree using tree climbing personal fall protection systems as set out in TG1.

Obviously, what we all want is for the job to go well, and for nobody to get hurt – and we can legitimately use any of the techniques listed above if the situation is suitable.

I have used the term ‘hurt’ above and what I mean by that is immediate harm as a result of an accident and also long-term harm as a result of wear and tear on an arborist’s body.

READ MORE: Paul Elcoat's guide to the Arboricultural Association’s Approved Contractor Scheme: PT 17. Vibration and noise

The key point is being able to justify your choice of method based upon the factors present in the particular situation and based upon the likelihood of harm or loss occurring.

If you can become sophisticated in your approach to the justification of your working method, you will stand a statistically massively lower chance of things going pear-shaped and you will have the ability to provide supporting paperwork to clients, safety officers on sites, the HSE if things do go wrong and, of course, the AA come assessment day.

The AA’s own risk-assessment system acknowledges this hierarchy and has a series of questions on the daily assessment to help justify the choice of access method.

This is an extract:

Forestry Journal:
As you can see on the left of the extract, the person making the assessment is required to tick the chosen method of access based upon the factors to consider on the right and below.

The AA’s justification doesn’t yet include the use of machines to achieve the required work. Our job sheet/site-specific risk assessment template lists the options and refers to an overarching hierarchy document.

Forestry Journal:

We also think it is best practice to aim to reduce exposure to working at height by using a blend of techniques. See the notes in respect of the work method copied below:

• Refer to the risk assessment for tree work at height to ensure that the selected method can be justified.

• Use a blend of techniques to reduce the operator exposure to work at height risk.

With some thought about concurrent activity, a MEWP could be used to attend to the front of the tree, a climber could reach the areas that are not accessible from the MEWP while a groundsman lifts the crown using a pole saw, for example.

I have included an extract from our hierarchy of choices document below to illustrate how we think about it. Notice how in both examples the techniques are coloured green.

The ‘traffic light’ colour goes to amber when we drop down to tree climbing using the personal fall protection systems described in TG1 and red when we talk about one rope system and one anchor point.

Forestry Journal:

There are many ways to do it. My colleague Tony Lane (A. M. Lane) in North Devon uses a flowchart approach, which many companies like because it is a systematic guide to the planning process.

On the day of your assessment, the assessor will expect to see you are using a fully justifiable method to access the crown of the tree and that you can show written evidence of your sequence of decision-making which led to the chosen method.

If you decide to use a MEWP for the part of the assessment where you demonstrate dismantling, the assessors will be looking for the following considerations:

 The selection of an appropriate MEWP for the job in hand.
 Operations conform to industry good practice as detailed in the ICoP for Tree Work at Height and TG2, TG3 and TG5.

If you decide to employ tree climbing with personal fall protection for the part of the assessment where you demonstrate dismantling, the assessors will be looking for the following considerations:

 Operations conform to industry good practice (work-at-height regulations, LOLER 
regulations, the ICoP for Tree Work at Height and TG1, TG2 and TG3).

When I was contracting, I used to think that the requirement to choose MEWPs in preference to tree climbing was a pain until I watched a team from Dodge Tree Services in Boston going about their day-to-day activities, demonstrating a totally different mindset to what we have here.

They thought we must be mad not to use MEWPs due to the efficiency gains that could be achieved on the job – never mind the benefits of not being physically broken at the end of the working day.

When I got back to the UK I got into the practice of hiring a MEWP if I could get the money on the job. Then we eventually bought our own.

Employees that had previously said “I am a professional tree climber” began to argue over who would get to use the MEWP that day. The many benefits quickly became clear:

 Up to a 50 per cent time saving on an appropriate job.
 The operator was not worn out at the end of the day.
 If it was raining, the operator could wear waterproofs very easily and in fact could 
come down to put them on.

 Coming down for breaks.

 Far fewer minor accidents and breakages.

 The company was much less dependent upon the limited number of good climbers.

 Great crown reductions.

The problem for a small contractor is getting the money on the job to pay hire fees or making the large investment in purchasing their own machine.

It probably isn’t as bad as you think though, and although I have used the following example in a previous article, I thought it would be worth using again to highlight some of the commercial benefits of using a MEWP where you can.

While on site with a client a while ago I had the chance to compare the day-to-day practices of this small contractor to another of my clients that has been refining its techniques and investing in ‘getting things right’ over the last few years. Let’s call them Contractor A and Contractor B.

The contractor and I were looking at a tree in the car park of a care home and he was putting a price together to remove the tree. For round figures let’s say he assessed the job at £600 (figures for illustrative purposes only).

This price was obviously based upon his knowledge of the capability of his team with the equipment it had been provided. I must admit I wasn’t surprised he didn’t get the job.

When he asked my opinion, I told him I would have priced it at £400. He was clearly interested in why I thought it worth £200 less than he did.

I explained I was pricing it from the point of view of another contractor (B) that I work with who had become ‘very sophisticated’ in their working practices. Contractor A had estimated six hours for a team of three with a 3.5-tonne tipper and six-inch capacity chipper. Contractor B would have priced it as three hours for a team with a similar set-up and a truck-mounted platform.

The first analysis to consider is that the integration of the MEWP into the operations of Contractor B enabled them to complete the task in half of the time estimated by Contractor A.

From much observation of operations in the UK and the USA, reducing the time on site by 50 per cent with the use of a MEWP is very common.

So why then was the price of Contractor B not £300? The answer is simple. They don’t pass on the full mechanical advantage to the customer and, indeed, they don’t need to.

All they need to do is beat the price of Contractor A to win the job.

The second consideration is that Contractor A has saved a few quid by running a workforce that isn’t fully qualified. They don’t yet bother with LOLER and PUWER records and the equipment is fixed when it breaks down. Contractor B, on the other hand, has made sure everyone is fully competent and all equipment is maintained on a ‘planned, preventative maintenance’ system and inspected as necessary.

You would think, then, that the profit margin of A would be better than B. Not so in reality, because of the accidents, breakages and stress caused by employing a team of desperados rather than professionals and the non-planned unavailability of equipment due to breakdown.

The reputation and performance of A in their current state does not enable them to enter the commercial markets as they cannot meet the expectations of the better-quality clients. Any numpty can scratch a living from domestic. B though, after their initial investments and the ‘leap of faith’ they took in gearing up, are enjoying the long-term contracts won as a result of being able to demonstrate they are doing things right. 

In terms of profit:

Again, for round figures let’s say Contractor A is working on a 15 per cent profit margin and Contractor B, because they are more business-minded, is working on 25 per cent (I have contractor clients hitting 35–40 per cent profit margins).

Contractor A, on site for six hours: £600 minus the cost of the resource for the time on site = profit of 15 per cent = £90.

Contractor B, on site for three hours: £400 minus the cost of the resource for the time on site = profit of 25 per cent = £100.

And… the team did exactly the same thing in the afternoon, which means £200 pure profit from the day.

READ MORE: Paul Elcoat's guide to the AA’s Approved Contractor Scheme with a look at PPE

Okay, there was an initial investment in training and, of course, the finance payment for the MEWP, but it doesn’t take many days of £200 pure profit to balance that up. Add to the equation that the operators are well managed, safe, well trained, feel valued and don’t have anywhere near the amount of incidents as the industry average and it isn’t surprising the turnover of staff for Contractor B is well below the industry average.

The biggest favour you can do for yourself is to thoroughly read the technical guides.

These were written by practising experts and their advice will save you time, stress and accidents. Another way to think about the guides is that in the aftermath of an accident, these are the standards you will be measured against.

Paul Elcoat runs Elcoat Ltd which specialises in helping arb businesses get things right and achieve better contracts. Paul would be happy to take questions or comments from readers by email: or telephone: 07800 615900