Arborists as Athletes: Take care of your body and be prepared for the next natural disaster

November 2014 - Special Climbing Issue

Tree work is without a doubt one of the most physically and mentally demanding occupations the body can endure. A production arborist is truly an industrial athlete, performing 8-10 hours a day on a sawdust-training field. In order to optimize production and profitability, an arborist needs to keep their body in ideal working condition. Natural disasters, like the 2013 North American Ice Storm that hit the central and eastern portions of Canada, can push workers into running a marathon he/she did not sign up for. The 16-18 hour workdays combined with the increased dangers of dealing with storm-damaged trees, require highly trained arborists to mitigate risks. Working long hours without adequately preparing the body can increase the risk of work related accidents. Natural disasters can be a means of profitability for those tree care companies that are adequately prepared with the necessary equipment and workforce, all of which need to be in optimal working order to withstand the long hours and environmental conditions.

This article will discuss ways arborists can keep themselves in good working condition during the long hours of storm damage recovery.

With current meteorology, forecasters provide at least a few days of warning of a severe storm. To prepare for a natural disaster, tree care companies make sure equipment is serviced and fueled up, chainsaws are sharpened and gassed up, etc… BUT what about preparing the work crew? Arborists can prepare themselves by getting adequate rest, proper nutritional intake and pre-hydrating prior to getting called to work. Being adequately prepared can allow the body to work more efficiently. Employers should have appropriate snacks and plenty of water on hand, and workers should get plenty of sleep and avoid pushing themselves physically prior to getting called into action.

Water is necessary for survival. It is a key nutrient essential for a variety of body functions. Proper hydration is essential to everyone, but physically active individuals have an even greater need. Water has a profound effect on brain function and energy levels; even a slight dehydration impairs coordination, concentration and thinking, and will decrease performance, thus increasing risk of an injury.

To determine an estimate of the amount of water the body needs, simply divide body weight (in pounds) by two; this is an approximation of the number of fluid ounces needed per day. For example, a 160-pound (72.5 kg) person will require 80 fluid ounces (2.4 L), which should be consumed through non-carbonated, non-caffeinated, and non-alcoholic beverages of which water is best. For every hour of physical activity causing elevation of core body temperature, 12 additional fluid ounces are needed. Therefore, if the 160-pound person is physically active for 4 hours of the workday, an additional 48 fluid ounces (1.4 L)of water is needed for a daily intake total of 128 fluid ounces (3.8 L).

Adequate hydration is necessary, but electrolyte replenishment should also be considered when sweating consistently. Sports drinks can be helpful in replacing electrolytes and providing carbohydrates, which will boost blood sugar for increased energy during the workday. However, it is important to avoid excess consumption of sports or energy drinks due to the high amounts of sugar they contain. Electrolytes can be replaced through a good whole foods diet or with a homemade electrolyte replacement drink using less sugar than commercial brand.

Pre-hydrating by beginning fluid consumption the day prior to activity is extremely important because the body can loose up to 3 liters of water per hour in the worst of conditions, but can only absorb 1 liter from fluid consumption. Even in cooler weather, the body will loose water, which needs to be replenished. Moisture wicking clothing in any temperature can contribute to excess water loss. It is important for arborists to work on proper hydration before stepping onto the Job site.

In order for a muscle to contract, it must have fuel or an energy supply. When carbohydrates are consumed, the body stores them as energy known as glycogen. During activity, this glycogen is broken down into glucose, which is then used as energy for muscle activity. Fats and carbohydrates can be utilized for prolonged, low intensity activity lasting up to 90 minutes, however, if an athlete does not have fat to burn as fuel, they will run out of energy or “hit the wall” when glycogen stores become depleted. This is a concern for production arborists, who typically work for greater than 90 minutes without a break, especially during storm recovery. A short break involving a snack containing carbohydrates combined with healthy fats will provide a boost of energy.

Athletes “carbohydrate load” the day prior to prolonged activity to replenish and maximize glycogen stores. Therefore, eating a dinner with adequate carbohydrates and proteins can allow the athlete to prepare for the next grueling day. Performance athletes and industrial athletes should avoid no or low carbohydrate diets because of the needed energy. Arborists need to ensure adequate carbohydrate intake for energy, and protein intake for tissue repair, especially when pushing the body hard during a storm recovery phase.

Many industrial athletes do not eat enough; they skip breakfast and/or lunch, and then gorge for dinner. If an arborist does not consume enough carbohydrates for energy, then the body will break down fat. However, if fat is not available, the body will use a back up system to break down consumed protein and muscle into glucose, causing muscle wasting and preventing the necessary repair of tissues, which increases the risk of a musculoskeletal injury. Many arborists do not have fat to burn for energy, therefore they must make sure they are eating enough to have energy to function without causing muscle breakdown. Burning protein as fuel is not efficient and causes water loss, which increases the risk of dehydration and will lead to poor performance.

Many injuries in the green industry occur just before lunch, which is likely associated with low blood sugar due to depleted energy stores and/or dehydration. It is important to take a mid-morning break for a snack and to rehydrate; this will boost blood sugar levels for improved energy, resulting in increased productivity.

It is important for industrial athletes in the arborist trade to consume enough calories to provide the necessary energy to safely perform their job day after day. Keep in mind; it is not just about calorie consumption, it is important to get necessary nutrients for body function, so eating a diet rich in a variety of whole foods is ideal.

Rest and Recovery
Arborists constantly replace their ropes and maintain equipment. These are mechanical devices and if they cycle enough times they are going to fail. We should think about the body the same way. If one consistently misuses the body, eventually it will fail and result in injury. The more physically active one is, the more susceptible they can be to an injury from overuse. If working long hours, five or six days a week repetitively stressing the body, a day of rest for tissues to have time to heal and rebuild is necessary. Arborists need at least one day of rest involving only light activity, while making sure to hydrate and eat well. Despite being adequately prepared, the body is going to get pushed to the extreme following a natural disaster in the immediate post-clean up phase.

Taking an Epsom salt bath in addition to getting adequate hydration and nutrition can help to keep the body in working order. Epsom salt is a combination of magnesium and sulphates. Magnesium plays a critical role in the body, by helping to improve muscle and nerve function, reduces inflammation and improves blood flow and oxygenation throughout the body. Sulphates are necessary building blocks for healthy joints, and nervous tissue. Epsom salts replenish the body's magnesium levels and sulphates. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath after a long workday can be very beneficial to the body.

Rest from intense physical activity is important for muscle recovery and injury prevention. Many industrial athletes not only work hard, but play hard. Even professional athletes have a day of rest during the season and a greater amount of rest during the off-season. Down time also allows for refuelling of energy stores and muscle recovery. Industrial athletes need to take at least one day of rest from being physically active to allow for needed muscle recovery and repair. This includes taking a day off during the busiest of times. By allowing the body to adequately rest and recover, arborists will be more productive and reduce their risk of a work related injury when they return to work.

Rest can be accomplished during the busy storm recovery phase by job task rotation. Arborists should consider managing exposure to repetitive tasks through job task rotation. This includes changing work positions to avoid repetitive strain.
If an arborist is primarily a climber, he/she should, mix it up and do a little bit of groundwork. If a ground worker is loading wood into the back of the truck, rotate that task to somebody else or perform another task for a short period of time. If a repetitive task is performed for longer than 45 minutes, there is an increased risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. This risk is amplified due to the repetition involved in storm recovery clean up.

Sleep is the time for the body to repair itself. Muscle tissue is rebuilt and restored during sleep. Sleep deprivation causes physical and mental decline, and coordination and agility will suffer. Adequate sleep allows athletes to perform better, which for an arborist means improved productivity and reduced injury risk.

The amount of sleep a person needs will vary from individual to individual, but healthy adults need between 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep per night. A sleep-deprived individual is more likely to make mental and physical errors because the brain, the body’s engine has not been refreshed. Effects of chronic sleep deprivation include: reduced problem solving skills, difficulty concentrating, impaired motor skills, and decreased judgment, coordination and reaction times, all of which increase the risk of an accident. It is not always possible to get adequate sleep and rest during the initial phase of storm recovery, so make sure to take the opportunity whenever it presents.

The effects of working 16-18 hour days in the post-storm recovery phase can take a toll on the arborist’s body, causing dehydration, blood sugar changes, and fatigue, thus increasing the risk of a traumatic accident or musculoskeletal injury, while sacrificing productivity. Arborists can feel better today and prepare for the next natural disaster by adequately hydrating, eating and snacking right, and allowing for sufficient rest and recovery. The arborist’s body is the tree care company’s most important and valuable machine. If you are an arborist take care of yourself to feel better today and to be here for those who need you tomorrow.

Our mission is to enhance and promote the care and benefit of trees for present and future generations in Ontario through education, research and awareness.