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Tree-Stand Safety Starts with Full-Body Harness

September 22, 2011
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

As the bulk of the 2011-2012 hunting season in Alabama approaches, hopefully all the dove hunters in the north zone had safe hunts. Obviously, a safe hunt is the main goal of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF), which has fostered great strides in reducing the number of hunting-related accidents afield.

Unfortunately, the 2010-2011 hunting season provided a tragic reminder of the importance of every aspect of safety when hunters pursue game in our great outdoors.

After only one tree-stand-related fatality in the previous season, there were five fatalities related to tree stands in the 2010-2011 season among 18 total tree-stand accidents.

Of those five fatalities, failure to adhere to hunting safety guidelines contributed to the accidents. In four of the fatalities, the hunter was not wearing a full-body harness, although one fatality occurred from a tripod stand. Marisa Lee, WFF Hunter Education Coordinator, said a harness may not have helped in that case. In the other fatality, the full-body harness was not attached to the tree.

Lee said last year’s increase in both fatalities and total number of tree-stand accidents was a disappointing increase. There were 14 tree-stand accidents with the one fatality during the 2009-2010 season.

“These were the most tree-stand fatalities we’ve had since we’ve been keeping records,” Lee said. “So, that’s something that needs to corrected, especially when it could be just as simple as wearing a full-body harness.

“Tree stands are our No. 1 cause of accidents. It’s not uncommon to have that many, but we saw an increase from last year, so we need to make hunters especially careful to practice all of the safety guidelines when they head for the woods this season.”

The state’s Wildlife Management Areas require that a full-body harness be used while hunting from an elevated stand on the WMA, but there is no regulation regarding hunting on private land.

“We encourage everybody to wear a full-body harness, whether they’re hunting on a WMA or not,” Lee said.

Lee said that equipment failure is also a concern and contributed to three accidents last season. The mechanism that attaches the stand to the tree is the most common point of failure. Lee said hunters should check and make sure all the welds and straps are secure on the stands. Ensure there are no missing bolts or screws, and if their full-body harness is more than five years old, a replacement is recommended.

“We had three incidents where a tree-stand strap broke,” Lee said. “One of the things that people are doing with hang-on stands is leaving them attached to the tree for more than a year. What’s happening is the nylon straps are dry-rotting. People need to take those stands down at the end of the season and check those straps to make sure the straps are in good shape. You just cannot leave them up and expect them to be safe. Plus, a squirrel may have been chewing on them.”

Lee said hunters should make sure their tree stands and safety harnesses are approved by the Treestand Manufacturers Association (http://www.tmastands.com). The association tests all the equipment before approval is granted.

“And make sure you are attached to the tree from the time your feet leave the ground until the time you get back down to the ground,” she said. “Most people fall either going up or coming down the tree. Climbing stands now come with a tree belt you use to attach to the tree while you’re climbing, as well as the harness. For hang-on stands, make sure your stand is totally secure to the tree before you step onto it. And now you can buy a piece of equipment for ladders that’s called a climbing system, a rope that is attached to the tree so you can stay attached the whole time.”

Lee also said that a haul line should be used to hoist your hunting equipment into the stand. In the case of firearms, the firearm should be unloaded with the muzzle facing toward the ground.

In terms of firearms accidents during the 2010-2011 season, the numbers were low with only three firearms-related accidents. Unfortunately, one of those accidents was fatal. The fatality occurred when a firearm fell inside a shooting house and discharged, killing a 16-year-old hunter in Choctaw County.

One other hunting-related accident resulted in a fatality. A 12-year-old was wearing a full-body harness while he was riding an ATV. The tether of the harness became entangled in the ATV drive train and strangled the youth to death.

Alabama’s hunter safety record has improved dramatically during the last decade. A hunter safety course has been mandatory since 1993. Anyone born on or after Aug. 1, 1977, is required to complete the course before the person can purchase a regular hunting license. A recent addition to the license law allows people of license-buying age (16 and older) who have not completed the hunter education requirement to purchase a restricted license to hunt with a properly licensed hunter as a mentor. The license will indicate “supervision required,” which means the new hunter must be within normal voice control – not more than 30 feet – from a properly licensed hunter who is at least 21 years old.

Lee also reminds hunters to practice the 10 commandments of firearms safety:

1.      Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.

2.      Control the muzzle of your firearm. Keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction; never point a firearm at anything that you do not wish to shoot, and insist that your shooting and hunting companions do the same.

3.      Be sure of your target and beyond. Positively identify your target before you fire, and make sure there are no people, livestock, roads or buildings beyond the target.

4.      Never shoot at water or a hard, flat surface. A ricocheting bullet cannot be controlled.

5.      Don’t use a scope for target identification; use binoculars.

6.      Never climb a tree, cross a fence or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm.

7.      Store guns and ammunition separately. Store firearms under lock and key, and use a gun case to transport firearms.

8.      Make sure your barrel and action are clear of all obstructions.

9.      Unload firearms when not in use. Never take someone else’s word that a firearm is unloaded. Check yourself.

10.  Avoid drugs and alcohol when hunting or shooting. Even some over-the-counter medicines can cause impairment.

Lee said WFF plans to try to reinforce the safety aspects of hunting season through a series of public service announcements that stress tree-stand safety.

“Our hunting accidents have decreased over the last several years, so we’re making progress,” she said. “But when accidents can be prevented by wearing a full-body harness, it just makes sense. If they don’t get anything else from a hunter safety class – wear a full-body harness.

“They need to go home to their loved ones at the end of the day. That’s what it’s all about.”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Almost all tree-stand accidents could be avoided if hunters will wear a full-body harness and keep a tether attached to the tree from the time their feet leave the ground until they touch the ground after the hunt.

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