Caltrans' tree program is comparatively small in relation to the vastness of the department's overall operations, but is no less critical when it comes to protecting citizens and the forests along the state's highways.

Tree Maintenance: Building a Foundation of Expertise

March 6, 2018
Ensuring proper and consistent training among the Caltrans Division of Maintenance’s tree workers was recently part of an important undertaking.

The great state of California is known for a lot of things, not least of which is its breathtaking and diverse landscape. As far as the eye can see, California’s scenic geography is filled with an array of beauty that ranges from long stretches of desert terrain and glorious mountain ranges, to tall air-filtering timbers in the north, palm trees of the south, and the wave-crashing Pacific Ocean on the west. There is as much variety as a traveler can find within the United States. Keeping those roadways safe in-between each destination offers the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans Division of Maintenance) statewide tree program plenty to account for as it adheres to its commitment to provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.

Caltrans’ tree program is comparatively small in relation to the vastness of the department’s overall operations, but is no less critical when it comes to protecting citizens and the forests along the state’s highways. Removing dead and other hazardous trees that could impact the safety of California’s roadways is a priority of utmost importance, as is the safety of Caltrans’ employees who perform the tasks associated with tree maintenance.

Tree work is a dangerous job, and it’s one that must be executed with a strong focus on safety and best practices to truly be effective. That’s why Caltrans recently made the investment in a new arborist training program to offer all tree workers throughout Caltrans a course on best safety practices for tree care operations, proper techniques and other tree work fundamentals. It was the first initiative of its kind at Caltrans and was based on a curriculum that was custom developed in conjunction with ACRT, a third-party utility vegetation management consulting and arborist training company that also assisted Caltrans with putting on each training session.

Needs and Benefits

The initial idea to implement an arborist training program originated from a risk-management perspective. For years, Caltrans has offered its tree program’s workers a number of classroom training modules, but decided that wasn’t enough in this day and age. Especially with California experiencing the severity of affects after being plagued by record-breaking drought, torrential rain, flooding and fires. Caltrans recognized the value in having an objective third party, such as ACRT, help in identifying how, and where, delivering such a program would benefit the department the most.

The department knew at the outset that, to be effective, an in-depth training program would need to be organized in just the right way for them to achieve a successful outcome. Prior to enacting any parts of the new arborist training program, department heads put their minds together and thought through what might be needed: In what areas are crews currently struggling? Where could they stand to enhance skill sets? What knowledge do employees already possess, what do they not know, and what should they know?

Caltrans held meetings with internal leadership, solicited feedback from its tree crew supervisors (approximately 20 throughout the state), and met with representatives from ACRT to further identify their needs. As a way to broaden customization of tree worker courses, training classes were first conducted at the supervisory level, which was a great way for the department to understand the day-to-day of each Caltrans district. It also allowed supervisors to have influence in the training’s competencies.

One significant aspect of Caltrans’ new arborist training program was accounting for the different geographical locations of the service areas covered by the tree crews. There was a need to formulate an all-encompassing training program to meet the crews’ individual territorial needs. Through discussions with each territory supervisor, Caltrans was able to identify specific training topics that met the needs for crews working in different geographical districts. Tree maintenance crews in the northern part of the state, which deal with tall Douglas Firs, perform different work and have different needs than those dealing with Eucalyptus trees along the central section of California’s heavily trafficked roadways. The riskiest areas for Caltrans’ crews are along the coastal highways, where winding roads, steep cliffs, changes in elevation and other landscape-related challenges are commonly faced by workers. It was those perilous areas that received special attention as Caltrans developed the arborist training program.

The department’s new training program also took into consideration things such as the nuances required in trimming ornamental vegetation in Southern California, as opposed to dealing with large timber and pruning in the Sierras and northern coastlines. Since the fundamentals of tree care and safe working practices don’t change as much as the need for how crews go about that kind of work, Caltrans included work set up and job briefing (based on different geographies), along with commute and traffic volume, into its program.

Training in Action

Once the curriculum was established, training across the state was rolled out in 2017. ACRT helped Caltrans identify the right training for employees based on each tree worker’s level of experience. Once those prerequisites were distinguished, the department was able to reintroduce some of the fundamentals of tree care and safety principles to all its crews. Training encompassing a higher degree of advanced rigging techniques and practical tree care applications was given to crew lead workers. Supervisor staff members went through a “train the trainer”-style aerial rescue. All crews received both classroom and hands-on field training.

Lessons Learned

With the initial training complete, many lessons were learned and some beneficial takeaways from the new program were able to immediately become standard practice throughout Caltrans’ work. For instance, aerial lift preflight inspections are now par for the course on all tree projects. On the flip side, throughout the undertaking of the new program, it became clear that Caltrans’ crews were in need of familiarizing employees with electrical hazards and line clearance certification. The electrical component of tree work might not be the first thing a person would think of when it comes to keeping roadways free from hazardous vegetation; however, it is a factor worthy of great concern, considering that all roads throughout the state are decorated with streetlights and are filled with electrical lines, which are issues tree crews are constantly having to work around. Identifying hazards throughout the program’s training sessions, Caltrans discovered topics and areas where additional investments would be most beneficial in the future. The department is currently in discussion on building a formal line clearance certification program for its employees and hopes to institute it in the near future.

Intangible benefits were produced by the training for Caltrans’ teams across the state. They received nothing but positive feedback from each worker who completed the training courses, and many felt that going through the process helped put them back in touch with the work they do each day.

“Teams feel more confident performing their work and having the knowledge they’re working with established, industry-standard best practices,” said Tony Tavares, division chief, Caltrans Division of Maintenance. “They were happy to receive this kind of organizational attention; it’s proof positive that Caltrans, as an entity, recognizes the importance of the work this specialized team does.”

A Solid Future

What Caltrans may have lacked in the past, and what this training program initiative delivered, was uniformity. Each tree worker had his or her own level of expertise, perhaps learned at different points of time or areas in their careers. However, by offering employees the newly instituted arborist training, it helped solidify a firm foundation built upon the fundamental elements of communication, safety, commitment and performance. It creates an organization of workers who have been allowed to speak the same language around safety, best practices and tree work techniques; and a department that now has a baseline from which to grow as it continues to invest in the safety and expertise of its workforce.

Caltrans has now laid the foundation for continuous improvement, and its unremitting investment will manifest in the work it does each day — helping to better protect California’s magnificent forests, roadways and citizens. ♦

Bill Nantt is the coordinator for Caltrans’ tree program and integrated vegetation management program. He is a licensed pest control advisor and certified arborist. He has been involved with vegetation management for more than 35 years.

Check out the March 2018 issue for more articles, news and commentary.

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