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Tree Risk Management

January 21st 2022

Tree Risk Management
Tim Coulson, rural specialist at Lycetts Insurance Brokers, considers how garden owners can help protect the public and themselves from the risks brought about by tree damage during a storm
In November, Storm Arwen battered the UK, bringing 100mph gusts of wind that caused uprooted trees and branches to crash to the ground. 
According to forestry chiefs, around eight million trees were affected in Scotland[1], with a further four million in England[2]. Three people were also killed due to falling trees[3].
According to the Health and Safety Executive, around five to six people are killed each year due to falling trees or branches, with around three of these tragedies happening in public spaces.
The law states that it is the tree owner’s (duty holder’s) duty of care to their employees and members of the public to take ‘reasonably practicable measures’ to prevent future risk from trees and branches. 
If a visitor, for example, was injured by a falling tree in a public garden, the tree owner may be liable. However, this is dependent on whether the owner is considered to have been negligent in their duty to maintain.
What determines whether a tree owner has been negligent?
There is a legal requirement for tree owners to provide a sufficient risk management assessment that is proportional to the size of the property and resources available.[4] This means larger landowners are expected to provide a more thorough and higher standard inspection compared to a residential homeowner, for example. 
The National Tree Safety Group[5] says effective tree safety management should be broken down into three steps:

  • Zoning: appreciating tree stock in relation to people or property
  • Tree inspection: spend time identifying trees that may be unsafe or could pose a risk to either a person or property
  • Managing risk at an acceptable level: carry out any further maintenance, such as monitoring the tree or having it felled

If owners are found not to have undertaken investigations or measures to rectify current or potential future issues that would have prevented harm, they could be liable.
How often should landowners undertake tree inspections?
A zoning exercise should be the first step in a tree safety management programme. This involves defining areas of lands according to levels of use and thus level of risk to the public, enabling tree owners to prioritise how often an inspection should occur.
At minimum, two zones should be used:

  • Zone one: high risk. This is an area where the public has frequent access to the trees  
  • Zone two: low risk. This is an area in which trees aren’t subject to frequent access by the public  

Those gardens open to the public with high-risk zones should consider an annual inspection to ensure they are on the right side of the law. 
What is involved in a tree inspection?
Inspections can range from a quick visual check to a more detailed examination. 
For trees in frequently visited zones, a visual check by the tree owner or a person with working knowledge of trees, such as your employees, should be sufficient. The assessment should involve looking for any defects that may pose a risk to public safety, with staff educated on what to look out for.
When a tree has been identified as a risk concern, a more detailed inspection should be undertaken by specialist who can advise on the necessary actions going forward.
What happens if I have a tree that is considered unstable or unsafe? 
If a tree is considered an immediate risk following an inspection, it is important to deal with the issue immediately, such as felling the tree. It is also vital to keep members of the public safe so until it is felled, close off the area where the tree is, reroute paths and relocate any facilities nearby. 
When a tree does not pose an immediate risk but may cause harm in the near future, The National Tree Safety Group says the issue can be dealt with ‘at an acceptable level by a planned, cost-effective response’. That involves taking action to help manage the risk, such as through arboriculture work, or further specialist assessments to gauge the damage and what treatment is needed. 
What do I need to prove an effective tree safety management programme?
Records of inspections and work would be helpful in evidencing duty of care. This is not to say you need to document the review of every single tree, including the safe ones. Instead, keep an audit of those trees which may pose a risk and the plan of action you are taking in order to rectify the issue. 
Procedures should also be in place should storms with high winds occur. This can involve the closing of the garden or restricting access to certain areas with trees. 
What insurance cover do I need? 
Public liability insurance is essential for those businesses who come into contact with members of the public. 
If something goes wrong and someone is injured in your garden, public liability provides protection against these circumstances.  
Whether you are planning to open your garden to the public or already have done so, if you would like a review of your insurance then please get in touch with Tim Coulson at Lycetts Insurance Brokers, a Discover Scottish Gardens partner, on 0131 225 9119 or [email protected]
For more information on tree risk management, take a look at this guide from the National Tree Safety Group: