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Stop! Don't go out on a limb; Trying to trim or cut down trees should be left to the professionals

If you're thinking about cutting down that old tree in your backyard or looking to clear out some shady spots on your pool by yourself or with some friends, think again. Two local people have already died this season in tree cutting-related accidents, and summer has officially just begun.

Todd Mansfield, 43, of Buffalo, was killed May 22 by a falling tree that he and some friends were cutting down in Orchard Park.

Frederick J. Hannun, 84, of Mayville, was killed June 2, after the base of a downed tree that he was cutting on his property suddenly flipped back on top of him.

Police say both men were considered by friends to be amateur tree cutters with some level of experience. In recent years, professional tree cutters have topped the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' list of most dangerous jobs several times. Those in the business claim it is, hands down, the most dangerous job in the country. Tree service is a business riddled with so many unknown factors, putting the inexperienced at even greater risk. The primary causes of injury or death among professionals are electrocution, falls and being struck by an object, such as a limb or tree.

So what prompts the average homeowner to grab a chain saw and take matters into their own hands? Is it just ego? Or does the financial burden of hiring a professional tree service weigh in? It's probably safe to say that it's a little of both.

"Many people seem to think, 'I could do that,' " said Greg Haskell, owner of Haskell Tree Service in West Falls. "For the average person to go out with little or no training, the risk is tremendous."

Haskell, a certified and licensed arborist with more than 40 years of experience, said that it takes at least three to five years of training just to become an average tree climber, and most of that time is spent teaching how not to get hurt. Haskell said two of his customers over the last three years have broken their backs attempting to take down trees.

The president of the New York State Arborists, Brian Sayers, and registered consulting arborist Donald Blair, agree there are several mistakes homeowners commonly make when attempting to prune or cut down a tree.

When taking trees down, people do not climb high enough to tie a rope, therefore failing to have the proper leverage to pull the tree in a safe direction. They might attempt to drop a tree into the woods, but it bounces off another tree and falls back toward them.

Working off a ladder is never recommended. A falling branch can easily take out the ladder.

Chain saws are often improperly used. They are extremely dangerous, especially when used while working in a tree. The average chain saw runs at 15,000 revolutions per minute; one slip and even the fastest reaction time is not fast enough to get out of the way.

People often fail to wear proper safety equipment. There are safety harnesses, ropes, climbing gear and other specialized tools and safety equipment that are crucial to successfully performing a tree service.

A far too common mistake is working alone, something that should never be done.

Such was the case for Hannun. According to the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office, Hannun went out by himself to cut up a tree that had uprooted and fallen over during a storm. After separating the base from the tree, Hannun reportedly went to walk around to the other side when the unexpected happened. The roots and stump, recently freed from the weight of the tree, snapped up and crushed him.

"There are just so many things that can go wrong," said Sayers. "It's extremely dangerous, especially for a homeowner."

Any homeowner or nonprofessional who has to get more than seven or eight feet off the ground or rent specialized equipment should not attempt to do the work, said Blair, co-founder of the International Society of Arboriculture certification program.

But homeowners need to be especially cautious when it comes to hiring a tree service. With so many contractors to choose from and prices ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars for the same job, it can be difficult to assure the best and safest results.

"I usually suggest calling a full-service company," said Sayers. "Treatments other than cutting a tree down, such as pruning, which statistically is twice as dangerous, may be more beneficial to a homeowner since trees make up a huge percentage of the landscape value."

The International Society of Arboriculture -- an authority on education, training and certification of arborists -- claims that hiring a certified arborist will at least ensure the person has more than three years' full-time experience in tree care, has passed an extensive examination and complies with an established code of ethics.

According to the certified arborists, there are many landscape companies performing part-time tree service who advertise as fully insured but only carry landscaper's insurance. That could render a homeowner liable if an accident happens, including injury to employees.

Prior to hiring any tree service, homeowners should demand to see a current certificate of insurance for workers' compensation and liability from the carrier. Getting all estimates in writing also shows some level of professionalism, and homeowners should always get more than one.

There are also several quality tree service providers out there who may not be certified arborists, but still have a good reputation in the community and are up to speed with the current safety standards.

The lesson here is simple: a tree that looks like an easy job still carries with it serious, if not fatal, risks.

"Homeowners pay an electrician to wire their house," said Sayers. "Why take a similar risk trying to cut down a tree?"

e-mail: emazzu@buffnews.com