Carelessness Causes Most Treestand Accidents

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Each fall, hunters in Missouri and across the nation suffer injuries in falls from tree stands. A few die or are permanently disabled. To find out how such accidents happen, the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) went to the ultimate experts--hunters who have taken spills from tree stands. Their answers could help other hunters stay safe.

Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., conducted the telephone survey of 1,056 hunters in Vermont and North Carolina. One in seven hunters surveyed said they had fallen from tree stands. The average age of hunters who had falls was 33 years.

About half of the 78 hunters who reported falls were bowhunters and about half were gun hunters. A large majority (79 percent) were careful enough to use a rope to get their hunting equipment up to their stands. This is the method recommended by hunter education instructors. However, 16 percent of hunters who had falls said they carried their gear on their backs and 3 percent carried it in their hands, the worst possible ways to do it.

The difficulty of climbing with weight on their back or in their hands may have contributed to falls that occurred when hunters were climbing up to or down from tree stands. These falls accounted for three-quarters of the total number. Not one hunter reported falling from a tree stand while shooting game.

Most hunters who had falls said their equipment was not to blame. Nearly half (43 percent) admitted to not having read the instructions that came with the commercially manufactured tree stands from which they fell.

Although only eight hunters reported injuries serious enough to require medical attention, the economic loss was significant. The average cost, including medical care, rehabilitation and lost wages, averaged $7,506.

One-quarter of the injuries occurred when the hunters hit the ground. Thirteen percent suffered injuries when they caught on steps while falling. Only 1 percent reported injuries from safety belts or harnesses.

Tree stand height was not significantly related to the severity of injuries. Carelessness and lack of sleep led the list of factors that hunters said contributed to their falls.

Rick Flint, hunter education program coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said all these facts emphasize what hunters learn in hunter education classes.

"It's a mistake to think that you're safe because your tree stand isn't 20 feet off the ground," said Flint. "Falling five feet can cause severe injuries if you land wrong or fall on a sharp object or a stump."

Flint noted that while 80 percent of those surveyed said they were somewhat concerned or very concerned about tree stand safety, 79 percent also said they thought they were not at all likely to fall from a tree stand in the next two years.

"Wearing a safety harness is important to reduce injuries if you fall," said Flint, "but the best thing that tree stand users can do to protect themselves from falls is believe it can happen to them and take every precaution to prevent it."

Hunters who use tree stands should take the following precautions to protect themselves:
* Tell a reliable person where you will hunt and when you will return.
* Wear a safety harness while climbing up to or down from a stand, not just when on the stand.
* Use a harness that distributes your weight around your torso. Single-strap belts can cause spinal or internal injury when the wearer's weight suddenly jerks tight.

Furthermore, the pressure from a single strap on the abdomen or chest can cause rapid loss of consciousness.
* Keep yourself on a short leash. Eight inches to a foot usually is plenty. Never leave more than two feet of slack in your safety belt. Falling farther than this causes severe impact when the belt finally snaps taut.
* Inspect your stand before each use. On climbing stands, look for loose bolts or nuts, slick gripping surfaces, cracked or bent metal and worn chains, cables or straps. Check permanent stands for loose steps, rotten wood and exposed nails or screws.
* Practice with your stand at ground level until you are skilled at using it.
* Choose the location for your stand carefully. Avoid trees with hollow trunks or rotten branches that could fall on you.
* Remove twigs and branches that make it difficult to get in and out of your stand.
* Check the sturdiness of your stand each time you climb into it. Hold onto the tree trunk while slowly transferring your weight to the stand. While still hugging the tree, bounce lightly up and down to check for secure mounting.
* Always use a safety chain with climbing-type stands.
* Climb down from your stand before you grow sleepy or the weather turns bad. Drowsiness, wind, rain, sleet or snow increases the danger of falling.
* Don't climb with equipment in your hands. Instead, use a rope to haul items into the stand after you are securely positioned.
* Don't leave equipment on the ground directly under you while climbing. You could fall on an arrow or other item, worsening injury from the fall.
* Carry survival gear including food, water, a whistle to signal for help, a reflective foil blanket and matches.