Loggers: Beware the chicot danger zone

Monday, November 04, 2019

Two Ontario logging fatalities in two years – both in the second week of December

Chicot information package includes hazard alert and safety checklist for chicot removal 

Hazard Alert: Beware the chicot danger zone – printable pdf version – please print, post, and encourage discussion in your workplace

Hazard Alert: Experienced cutter killed by freestanding tree – printable pdf version – please print, post, and encourage discussion in your workplace

Chicots – or dead trees – continue to be a serious hazard to loggers. The following incidents are two recent real-life examples of the dangers that chicots present. 

Dead tree in the forest

Experienced tree cutter killed by chicot

On December 13, 2011, around 4:00 p.m., an experienced 68-year-old worker in northwest Ontario – in a conventional logging operation involving one-man cut and skid crews – was preparing the trail for a new work area using his cable skidder. As the worker exited the skidder, a birch chicot in close proximity to the machine fell and fatally struck him. Early reports suggest that the chicot may have been disturbed by the skidder as a trail was being prepared.

Load of logs hits chicot, causing it to fall on young victim

Exactly one year and one week later, on December 20, 2012, just after 10:30 a.m., a southwest Ontario man was hit by a falling tree and died. At the time, a load of logs was being pulled from the bush and hit a standing tree – most likely rotted and unstable – and the victim was unable to avoid the falling tree. 

What is a chicot?

A chicot is a tree that has either become dry or rotten. There are various reasons for this: either from normal aging or special conditions such as species extinction, climate, insect infestation, disease or human activity. Also commonly known as “widow-makers,” chicots present a tremendous hazard in the woods and need to be treated with respect.

Why are chicots dangerous?

One study showed that, when workers were struck by a falling tree, chicots were a contributing factor in more than 20 percent of those cases. These trees are dangerous because they are brittle and unpredictable. A gust of wind, vibration from equipment, a heavy snowfall, or removing nearby trees is often all that is needed for branches to fall suddenly from these trees, causing great harm.

Helpful Videos

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Dealing with Chicots is a brief 2-minute video highlighting the steps involved in clearing the work area of this hazard.

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Felling Problem Trees is a 4-minute excerpt from Workplace Safety North’s Introduction to Professional Chainsaw Operation training program. Designed for a professional audience, but of interest to anyone with a saw, the video looks at eight specific types of problem trees and demonstrates the proper felling techniques for each. 

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The Silent Threat is a powerful 17-minute video featuring real-life stories of loggers who survived being struck by a chicot – viewers can learn much from their experiences. 

What the law says about chicots

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) has specific legislation around logging and silviculture operations. Below is an excerpt from section 109 of Ontario Regulation 851 – Industrial Establishments dealing specifically with chicots – please see sections 103-119 for more information.

Definition
The French word for stump or stub, chicot (pronounced “shee-ko”) is defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) as: (a) a dead tree, or; (b) a dead limb of a tree that may endanger a worker.

Section 109 of the Occupational Health & Safety Act states:

A tree shall, (a) be felled only:  
(i) After all workers, other than the logger felling the tree, are cleared from the danger area;
(ii) After all snags have been cut and cleared away;
(iii) After chicots and spring poles in the vicinity of the tree being felled have been lowered safely to
the ground; and
(iv) In such a manner that the logger felling the tree is able to stand clear of the tree during its fall.
Under the Act, chicots must be lowered to the ground before felling takes place in their vicinity. In addition, the Act requires that employers and licensees must take every precaution reasonable for the protection of workers who work in the vicinity of dangerous trees such as chicots and certain wildlife trees during non-felling operations, such as work area layout, planting, maintenance, and monitoring.

MNR and MOL guidance concerning felling activities
man using chainsaw in forestLearn what to look for, and how to conduct your logging operation safely. During the harvesting phase, chicots must be safely lowered to the ground prior to felling in the vicinity. If a chicot is selected to remain standing for the purpose of a wildlife tree, then no trees can be harvested within its vicinity, i.e. a radius equal to at least the height of the surrounding stand.

Assessing whether a tree is dangerous
According to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), some things to consider in determining the stability of trees during non-harvesting operations include observation of the following:

  • Root/stem decay (e.g. fruiting bodies, conks, loose bark)
  • Weakening of the tree or its branches (e.g. animals or boring insects)
  • Damage resulting from mechanical equipment (e.g. resulting from logging or site preparation equipment)
  • Movement or sway of adjacent trees
  • Presence of foliage (in windy conditions, trees with leaves may sometimes pose greater risk to workers than trees having no leaves)
  • Weather (e.g. wind speeds, snow loading, ice build-up, lightning)
  • Shifting soil (e.g. erosion, spring thaw, upheaval from nearby windblown trees)
  • Chlorotic leaves and needles, although this can sometimes be a stress-related condition and rectified once the stress has subsided (e.g. drought)
  • Species root systems (e.g. shallow versus deep-rooted species)

Wind a significant danger
Wind is likely the most significant factor on the list because it may increase the dangers that other indicators may pose. For example, while decay, mechanical, or insect damage, etc., may weaken the tree, the tree may not become dangerous to workers conducting non-felling operations until certain wind speeds are encountered. Employers must be prepared to adjust work assignments as weather conditions change.

Where a decision has been made to remove workers from an unsafe work area, employers must ensure that the site is safe – for example, wind has subsided or unsafe tress have been lowered to the ground – before asking workers to return to that area. 

How do you handle chicots?

  1. Find them.
  2. Mark them.
  3. Eliminate them.

1. Finding chicots
Experienced loggers need to evaluate the presence and condition of chicots in the cutting, skidding and landing area of their worksite. You must also have a strong awareness of how the weight and vibration of heavy mobile equipment will affect surrounding trees and soil stability. Loggers should continuously be on the lookout for:

  • An absence of leaves (consider the season)
  • Missing twigs and small branches
  • Trunks or main branches that have:
  • Presence of shelf-life fungus growth
  • Detached bark
  • Easily visible cracks along the trunk
  • Canker growth on the trunk
  • Insect infestation
  • Signs roots may have rotted out, such as:
  • Mushrooms growing at the base of the tree
  • Black filaments under the bark
  • Spongy material at the base of the tree 
  • Changing weather conditions, such as: 
  • Excessive wind
  • Snow or ice-loading on trees
  • Soil rapidly freezing and thawing (spring and fall)

2. Marking chicots
Once chicots are found and determined to be within the danger zone of the felling area, they must be removed. If a skidder will be used to fell the chicot they can be marked for easy identification by the supervisor by painting a brightly-coloured “X” on the trunk, or if identified by a cutter, and the chicot is solid, by scaring the trunk with a chainsaw. These markings will assist the skidder operator in identifying and removing the chicot as soon as possible.

3. Eliminating chicots
Ideally chicots are removed with a skidder. If this is not possible, they can be felled by a chainsaw. 

Using a skidder
Each chicot will be different, and may require consultation with supervisors and co-workers to determine a best approach. In general, the safest way to fell a chicot is to use the skidder to push the chicot over. The operator should slowly back up to the tree and use the skidder’s fairlead (the highest point on the skidder) to push the chicot over in the direction of the chicot’s lean.

In some cases when the chicot is large and dry, the tree may become uprooted when the skidder starts to push. It may be necessary to notch and partially backcut the chicot to ensure the tree breaks.

Using a chainsaw
When felling a chicot without the help of a skidder to apply the final push, cut it at waist level, not at knee level. At knee level, you cannot see falling hazards because of your crouched position – keep looking up! Notch the chicot to 50 per cent of the diameter of the tree. Have a second person positioned nearby (but outside the danger zone) to also warn the chainsaw operator if any part of the chicot is starting to fall. Do not try to change the direction of the fall with a wedge or felling bar. Be sure to watch out for rotten or hollow centres. You cannot count on holding wood in a chicot, so be prepared to start your retreat at any moment.

Measures and controls for working around dangerous trees

Responsibilities of workers
According to the MNR, workers must be able to identify the potential risk and hazards at a particular site. They must work safely, follow company policy and procedures, and report the health and safety hazards they see, and address any immediate dangers. Workers have the right to refuse work where they believe they are likely to endanger themselves or another worker.

Responsibilities of Employers and Licensees
Employers and licensees can control the risks associated with working around dangerous trees by ensuring:

  • Ongoing, site-specific knowledge about the area in which workers are conducting non-felling operations, including monitoring weather conditions.
  • Proper training, instruction, and supervision of staff working around dangerous trees.
  • Development and implementation of local policies and procedures for working around these tress and require supervisors to ensure that workers comply with those policies and procedures.
  • Provision of appropriate personal protective equipment.

Free Resources
Excerpt from WSN reference manual Safe Skidding, for information on dealing with problem trees. 
Excerpt from WSN reference manual The Cutting Edge, for information on chicots.
Safety bulletin from the Ministry of Natural Resources, for information on working around chicots and wildlife trees.

How WSN helps
As your health and safety specialist for Ontario’s forestry sector, Workplace Safety North offers training, resources, risk assessment, and safety auditing. For more information, please call toll-free in Ontario 1-888-730-7821 or visit workplacesafetynorth.ca.

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