Staying safe in a tree stand is a complex endeavor

By Gerald J. Scott - Contributing Columnist


By Gerald J. Scott

Contributing Columnist

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Missouri’s archery deer/turkey season opens Tuesday, which means that about 100,000 bow hunters will be leaving terra firma behind in order to spend hours perching on an uncomfortable seat affixed to the trunk of a tree.

The overwhelming majority of them will return to the ground safely an overwhelming majority of the time, which, at first glance, would seem to be a reasonable excuse to not to “waste” much time worrying about anything other than firearms safety.

That’s a shame, because, based on the few studies available, there’s never been a deer season anywhere in North America in which both deaths and serious injuries from tree stand accidents didn’t far exceed those caused by firearms.

As far as I’ve been able to determine there’s never been a scientific study of accidents involving tree stands in Missouri.

Even so, there’s no reason to think that Missouri’s statistics would vary significantly from the following interesting tidbits gleaned from studies compiled from hospital records over a 10-year period in Vermont and North Carolina: 74 percent of accidents happened when climbing up or down or during installation, 21 percent involved structural failure and 58 percent of the hunters who fell were not wearing full body arrest systems.

Another medical study specifically about falls from tree stands all across North America revealed that spinal injuries–some of which impacted the spinal cord–occurred in approximately half of the incidents. About 25 percent of the accidents included head injuries and limb fractures. Fatalities after reaching a medical facility were relatively rare but did occur almost every year in almost every state covered in the study.

I was unable to locate statistics regarding fatalities prior to the arrival of professional medical aid, but it’s logical to assume that more fatalities would occur before help arrived than after.

Everywhere I looked in my search for information on deer stand safety, full body arrest systems used in conjunction with a lineman’s climbing belt were touted as a virtual fall-prevention panacea, so long as the user “remained tethered to the tree at all times.”

It’s difficult to argue with universal endorsement, despite the fact that none of the sources I found provided adequate instructions about how to maintain a continuous tether, especially during the dangerous maneuver of transferring from climbing apparatus to stand.

I don’t know a safe way to do it either, and I can only assume the 42 percent of the hunters in the referenced study who suffered injuries requiring medical treatment while wearing safety gear didn’t either.

A far more glaring “oversight” is the fact that none of the hunting safety or injury resources I checked mentioned anything about “suspension trauma.”

I had to go to a construction worker safety site to get the other side of the fully body harness story.

Suspension trauma is the result of reduced blood flow to the brain due to blood pooling in the legs. The victim can become unconscious in as little as five minutes and will die approximately 15 minutes later. Needless to say, OSHA and the construction industry take the prevention of suspension trauma very seriously.

Such is not the case with hunting organizations. Although some of the more expensive harnesses designed for hunters can delay the onset of suspension trauma from a few minutes to perhaps–and I stress the word perhaps–as much as 15 minutes by providing some support to the hips and feet, suspension trauma is inevitable whenever a person is dangled head up in a vertical position as is the case with every fully body harness marketed to hunters.

Fortunately, there are steps a hunter can take to minimize the inherent danger of fully body harnesses without sacrificing their value in preventing falls.

The most important of these by far is to invest in a device that will automatically lower you to the ground if you fall. These units run about $100, but that’s a fraction of what a visit to the emergency room costs, let alone a funeral.

Never climb a tree without having a readily accessible cell phone capable of providing rescuers with your exact GPS coordinates. Call for help immediately, if you fall.

If you chose to use a fixed attachment point, make sure that it’s as high as possible–you should barely be able to sit down.

Hunting from a tree stand is statistically very safe, and only 25 percent of reported falls require medical care.

That said, as a victim of a fall that did require medical care, let me assure you that statistics don’t mean very much when you’re lying at the bottom of a tree, wondering if the feeling is going to come back into your legs.

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

Sedalia Democrat

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

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