William Todd Berry

William Todd Berry is a Bakersfield attorney who specializes in representing injured workers.

Trimming trees seems to be a pretty straight-forward, time-honored service that most homeowners need from time to time. In reality, this high-risk service can endanger workers, employers and homeowners.

Bakersfield residents are no longer bone-dry from drought. Instead, they are water-logged from recent storms.

The ground has become saturated. Trees are dangerously leaning or falling. Heavy branches are breaking off.

No doubt many people are regretting having put off routine maintenance on their trees. They may be having difficulty hiring local companies to trim their trees before the next storm hits, or to clean up damage.

And along comes a knock on the door and a truckload of “handyman” trimmers in a pickup truck offering to do the work.

Stop before you say yes. These trolling unlicensed contractors may be “handy.” They may say they are cheaper than hiring a state-licensed contractor. But they could end up costing you more from poorly trimmed trees, unfinished work, fraudulent billing and liability for injured and uninsured workers.

In California, a state license is required to trim a tree taller than 15 feet, and the contractor is required to cover his crew with workers compensation insurance. If the tree trimmer is not a licensed contractor, the liability for workers’ injuries rests with the homeowner, who is considered to be the “employer.” In most cases, homeowners’ insurance policies do not cover injuries or deaths when unlicensed contractors have been hired. Injured workers and survivors can sue homeowners for damages.

Considering taking the risk anyway? What are the odds that an accident will happen?

You be the judge. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health in January launched an investigation and statewide safety campaign after four deadly tree-trimming accidents occurred in just six weeks. On Dec. 4, a worker was suffocated when he was trapped by dry palm fronds that collapsed while he trimmed a tree in Redlands. Three days earlier, a tree trimmer was fatally struck by a branch in Mariposa County; on Jan. 6, a worker in Los Angeles County fell about 60 feet to the ground; and on Jan. 9, a Siskiyou County worker was struck by a tree he was cutting to clear power lines.

Nearly 70 accidents involving tree work have been investigated by Cal/OSHA in the past two years, from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2016. Nearly three out of four of these accidents, or 74 percent, resulted in injuries requiring hospitalization and 12 workers died. The primary causes of injuries and deaths, according to investigators, included falls, electrical shock, chain saw cuts and ladder accidents.

Tree-trimming contractors are responsible for keeping their workers safe and must provide workers compensation insurance to protect their employees. To that end, Cal/OSHA launched a statewide Tree Work Safety Emphasis Program, which also includes enforcement action when unsafe practices are observed or reported to Cal/OSHA inspectors.

Employers, workers and homeowners must recognize the significant risks that exist in the tree-trimming industry.

Workers — Verify that your employer is properly licensed by the state and carries workers compensation insurance to cover your injuries in the event of an accident. Obtain proper training. Doing the job safely means knowing more than how to climb a tree and swing a chainsaw. Follow safety rules. And if you believe your workplace is unsafe, call the toll-free, state Department of Industrial Relations at 844-522-6734.

Employers — Maintain a current state tree-trimming contractor’s license. Obtain workers compensation insurance to cover your employees. Provide required safety equipment and training for your employees. On its website, www.dir.ca.gov, Cal/OSHA has posted a Tree Work Safety Guide to help employers.

Homeowners — Hire only licensed contractors to trim trees taller than 15 feet. Require the contractor to provide a copy of his or her current license and proof of workers compensation insurance. Keep a photocopy. Check with the state Contractors’ License Board (www.cslb.ca.gov) to verify the license and business record. Obtain a written bid and contract before work begins.

Cutting safety corners is risky business.

Wm. Todd Berry is a Bakersfield attorney who represents injured workers.

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