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Nonoccupational Logging Fatalities --- Vermont, 1997--2007

Professional logging is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States (1), and the factors contributing to injuries and fatalities associated with this occupation are well documented (2,3). However, little has been reported about logging fatalities in the nonoccupational setting. To better characterize nonoccupational logging fatalities, the Vermont Department of Health analyzed medical examiner data from Vermont for the period 1997--2007. This report describes four cases and summarizes data on all nonoccupational logging fatalities. The findings indicated that tree felling accounted for 15 (83%) of the 18 nonoccupational logging fatalities during the 11-year period and that 14 (78%) of the fatalities were attributed to injuries resulting from being struck by a falling tree or limb. Contributing factors in these incidents included absence of personal protective equipment (PPE), misjudgment of the path of falling trees, and being alone. Measures to reduce nonoccupational logging fatalities should focus on promoting safe tree-felling practices and increasing helmet use among nonprofessional woodcutters. Ideally, however, nonprofessionals should not participate in tree felling.

Data were obtained through a review of all unintentional deaths reported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Vermont during 1997--2007. Death certificates, autopsy reports, and law enforcement investigation reports from this period were reviewed. A case was defined as any nonoccupational fatality in a Vermont resident resulting from logging (i.e., cutting or moving trees or portions of trees).

Case Reports

Case 1. In May 2006, a man aged 60 years was alone cutting sugar maple trees for firewood on his property. While he was cutting a partially downed tree with a chain saw, the tree gave way, rolling over the man's lower torso and killing him. Investigation revealed that the man was alive for some time, attempting to extract himself before his death. The cause of death was ruled as blunt impact of the torso and abdomen, resulting in exsanguination and respiratory arrest.

Case 2. In December 2005, a man aged 54 years was handling the rope in a tree-felling operation at his home with the help of a friend, who was cutting branches above him. The decedent was struck on the head and killed by a branch of approximately 2 inches in diameter, which broke free from a tree and fell 40--50 feet. The cause of death was ruled as massive cranial instability attributed to blunt impact to the head. Both men had been wearing helmets, but the decedent had removed his shortly before the fatal incident.

Case 3. In January 1998, a man aged 42 years was clearing debris and partially downed trees immediately after an ice storm. While he was cutting one of these trees with a chain saw, the tree fell, hit him on the head, and then landed across him, trapping him beneath the tree. Onlookers responded immediately; however, because of the weight of the tree, they were unable to extract the man. The cause of death was ruled as an injury to the head. The man was not wearing a helmet.

Case 4. In March 1998, a man aged 70 years was attempting to remove a stump from a tree he had cut down on his property. The man placed a chain, attached to his tractor, around the base of the stump. Upon engaging the tractor, a rear rollover occurred, pinning the man underneath. The cause of death was ruled as suffocation attributed to chest compression from the tractor.

Summary of Cases

A total of 18 nonoccupational logging fatalities occurred in Vermont during 1997--2007, compared with 16 occupational logging fatalities during the same period (Table). Among the nonoccupational fatalities, all occurred in white males with a mean and median age of 58 years (range: 19--83 years). Ten (56%) of the decedents were alone at the time of the incident. Fourteen (78%) fatalities resulted from being struck by a tree, two (11%) resulted from tractor rollovers, one (6%) resulted from a fall from a ladder, and one (6%) resulted from a motor-vehicle rollover. Nine (50%) of the fatalities occurred during November--February, and 11 (61%) occurred during Friday--Sunday. The time of the injury was known for 12 incidents, all of which occurred during daylight hours. Blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) and toxicologic screening results were available for 12 decedents. Of those 12, one had a BAC of 0.02 mg/dL, and one had evidence of marijuana use (blood carboxy tetrahydracannabinol 20.8 ng/mL).

Reported by: S Shapiro, MD, C Lohff, MD, Vermont Dept of Health. A Laney, PhD, EIS Officer, CDC.

Editorial Note:

Although nonoccupational logging activities (e.g., cutting firewood, property cleanup, trimming limbs, and pruning and cutting trees) are not easily quantifiable, they are common, especially in rural settings. Most of these activities are not regulated and do not require special training or a permit. As such, the level of experience, awareness of safety measures, and prevalence of PPE use among persons involved in nonoccupational logging is likely more varied than among those involved in occupational logging (4), for which occupational standards (e.g., training and use of PPE) are a requirement. Therefore, the risk for injury and death likely is greater among those involved in nonoccupational logging.

Factors that likely contributed to these fatalities include improper tree-felling techniques, misjudgment of the path of falling trees, being alone, lack of helmet use, and improper use of equipment (2,4,5). Impairment from drugs or alcohol, darkness, and chainsaw injuries were not major contributors.

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations. First, not all data (e.g., data on helmet use or toxicologic screening results) were available for all cases. Second, some nonoccupational logging fatalities might have occurred during the study period but were not identified as such. For example, a death in a person who sustained an injury while logging (e.g., a traumatic brain injury) and died days or weeks after the incident might have not been detected.

The majority of logging fatalities result from being struck by falling trees or branches (1,2). Multiple factors determine when, where, and how a tree will fall. As a tree falls, it can strike another tree, knocking down branches. In addition, connecting vines can pull other trees or dead branches in the canopy down upon the tree feller. Prediction of fall trajectory for partially downed trees is difficult. In addition, nonoccupational tree harvesting usually is conducted in areas not specifically managed for timber harvesting, further compounding the risk.

The risks associated with nonoccupational logging can be minimized, and many nonoccupational logging fatalities are preventable. Ideally, only professionals should participate in tree felling. The following measures are recommended by the Vermont Department of Health to reduce the risk for injury and death associated with nonoccupational logging: 1) professional loggers should be hired for tree felling; 2) persons engaged in logging activities should receive appropriate training in safe tree-felling practices (which is often offered through county extension offices); 3) helmets and other appropriate PPE should be worn during all logging activities; 4) tree felling should not be undertaken by one person alone; and 5) farm tractors should not be used for logging activities (6).

Acknowledgments

This report is based, in part, on contributions by B Philbin, Vermont Dept of Health, and J Myers and L Jackson, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

References

  1. US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. National census of fatal occupational injuries in 2006. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2007. Available at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf.
  2. Scott DF. A study of logger fatalities from 1992--2000. Inj Prev 2004;10:239--43.
  3. CDC. NIOSH alert: request for assistance in preventing injuries and deaths of loggers. MMWR 1995;44:264--5.
  4. Johnson CM, Lagares-Garcia JA, Miller SL. When the bough breaks: a 10-year review of logging injuries treated at a rural trauma center in Pennsylvania. Am Surg 2002;68:573--81.
  5. Helmkamp JC, Kennedy RD, Fosbroke DE, Myers ML. Occupational fatalities in the fishing, logging and air transport industries in Alaska, 1991. Scand J Work Environ Health 1992;18(Suppl 2):55--7.
  6. CDC. Fatalities associated with improper hitching to farm tractors---New York, 1991--1995. MMWR 1996;45:307--11.


Table

TABLE. Number and percentage of occupational and nonoccupational logging fatalities, by selected characteristics —
Vermont, 1997–2007
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Date last reviewed: 3/13/2008

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