Increase in tree stand accidents may lead to rules change

Posted on: January 22, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Tree stand accidents often lead to serious injuries.

Tree stand accidents are on the increase across Pennsylvania, according to the only study looking at the issue.
Photo: Howard Communications

The question is not whether there’s a growing problem with tree stand accidents across Pennsylvania.

The answer to that is a pretty obvious yes.

It’s what, if anything, to do about it.

One Pennsylvania Game Commissioner, at least, has an idea.

It might be time to require hunters using tree stands on state game lands to use a safety harness, said commissioner Michael Mitrick of York County. He’s thinking of introducing just such a regulation.

If adopted by the full commission board, the rule — which is still just an idea and not a formal proposal at the moment — wouldn’t necessarily go into effect right away. Perhaps hunters should be educated about the need for harnesses a bit first, with implementation of the rule to follow a year or so later, he said.

By then, maybe the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would follow suit on its state park and forest lands, he added.

“I can’t see how any reasonable hunter would be opposed to that,” Mitrick said.

The commission can’t mandate tree stand harness use on any properties other than game lands. Only state lawmakers could take things that far.

Such a rule would be uncommon even at that, though.

Only one other state, Alabama, has a mandatory tree stand harness rule, and it applies only to lands owned by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

But there’s talk in at least a few states about following suit, as tree stand accidents are a growing problem.

That’s certainly the case in Pennsylvania.

Joseph Smith is a doctor in the intensive care unit at Geisinger Medical Center. He’s also the chief author of the only study looking at tree stand accidents in Pennsylvania.

In a recent presentation to Game Commissioners, Smith said he looked at every known tree stand accident in Pennsylvania between 1987 and 2015. Information came from medical records collected by the Pennsylvania Trauma System Foundation.

The records – all anonymous – count only falls that occurred on a legal hunting day or on the day preceding a legal hunting day, such as the Sunday before opening day of deer season. They document 1,109 tree stand accidents, he said.

If the scope of that search was expanded to include all accidents between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28 of each year, there were another 162 victims, Smith added.

“So we would have basically over 1,200 people that have fallen out of tree stands,” he said.

And that might be a minimum.

“Those are the ones that sought treatment at an accredited medical center. We don’t have any estimate of those who fell and didn’t receive treatment,” Smith said.

That’s likely a lot, said Andy Hueser, hunter education specialist for the commission.

“At best, this is a very, very conservative estimate of the actual number of falls that are out there,” he said.

Ninety-three percent of those who fell were not wearing a safety harness, Smith said. That resulted in lots of serious injuries.

“In trauma care, injury care, there is this thing we call the ‘golden hour.’ That is, if you get somebody from a serious injury to medical care within that hour, their chances of having a better outcome is better,” Smith said.

That’s not how things work for most tree stand fall victims, though.

Only 7 percent of hunters got help that soon. But 24 percent had to wait six hours of longer to get treatment, he noted.

As a result, more than half of fall victims needed surgery. A quarter ended up in intensive care.

And for many, that was just a start.

“Twenty-four percent of these victims did end up with some long-term disability,” Smith said.

One percent of fall victims died in the hospital, “but we have no clue how many died at the scene,” Smith added.

“If they’re not seen in any emergency room or trauma center, we have no way of knowing what this number really is.”

The problem is getting worse, too.

The rate at which accidents are occurring – defined as falls per 100,000 hunters – has increased consistently since 1987, Smith said. By comparison, the trend in shooting-related accidents is going the other way. Those numbers are dropping.

The “take home message,” said Smith – who’s fallen from tree stands twice himself — is that the commission needs to do more.

“We really don’t know what the full extent of the problem is. And I think you need better information. You need some active surveillance,” Smith said.

Mandated reporting of tree stand falls – meaning, requiring hospitals to report tree stand accidents to the commission – is probably something that needs to happen, Hueser agreed. The majority of states already require that.

And “more states are coming on board all the time,” Hueser said. New York is joining the list this year, for example, he noted.

That’s not something the commission can require on its own, though.

“Mandatory reporting is probably going to require legislation,” said Tom Grohol, a deputy executive director with the commission.

The commission should ask lawmakers to tackle that, said board president Brian Hoover of Chester County.

“We certainly know that we have an issue with tree stands,” he added.

Tree stand accidents

So who is it that’s falling out of tree stands in Pennsylvania and why?

Here’s information collected by Dr. Joseph Smith.

  • Of the 1,109 victims between 1987 and 2015, 97 percent were male.
  • The average height from which they fell was 17 feet.
  • Forty-six were “legally inebriated.” Forty had marijuana in their systems.
  • Researchers believe 82 percent of falls involved archers.
  • Thirty-five percent of victims fell before 11 a.m., 21 percent between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and 44 percent after 3.
    Saturdays were the worst days. Twenty-eight percent of accidents occurred then. Mondays were next at 21 percent. Even Sundays accounted for 7 percent.
  • Fifty-two percent of victims said blamed structural failure of the stand for their fall. Twenty-four percent slipped getting in or out, while 10 percent fell asleep and then fell. Eight people fell after being shot in mistake for game or for being in the line of fire.
  • The “mean” hunter – meaning the most typical one – involved in a fall is 47 years old. That points to a problem in solving this issue, said Steve Smith, chief of the bureau of information and education for the Game Commission. The commission added a section on tree stand safety to its hunter education course in 1999. The hunters most commonly falling, though, have never heard that message, Smith said, pointing out that “for some of them, it’s been 40, 50 years since they took the hunter trapped education course.”

Tree stand safety

So what should hunters do to stay safe in their tree stand? There’s lots of information out there; find some of it by clicking here.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.