CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Acorns aren't the only objects dropping from trees this fall.
Since West Virginia's bowhunting seasons opened on Sept. 29, one hunter has been killed and eight others have suffered life-threatening injuries in falls from tree stands.
If falls keep occurring at that rate, this could turn out to be the worst year in state history for tree-stand accidents. According to Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter education coordinator for the Division of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Section, 14 hunters were injured in 2011, the most accident-filled year to date.
"Falls from elevated platforms are now the leading cause of hunting incidents nationwide," Coleman said.
Dr. Norman Wood knows how dangerous a plunge from a stand can be.
Fourteen years ago, the Fort Ashby physician broke his back in a fall from a stand. He has since become an expert on tree-stand safety, and he recites the grim statistics from memory:
"Six thousand hunters a year are injured or killed in falls from tree stands," he said. "Eighty percent of those injured end up needing surgery. Thirty percent end up with partial or total paralysis."
Use of stands will ramp up dramatically during the next few weeks with the onset of the whitetail rut and the advent of the state's annual firearm season for bucks. With that in mind, Coleman has drawn up a list of tree-stand safety tips.
Hunters who purchase new stands should carefully read all the provided safety instructions and warnings, and should practice setting up their stands at ground level before putting them in trees. All provided pins and safety straps should be used as directed.
Hunters should wear their safety harnesses at all times while climbing, while hunting and while descending. Good harnesses hold hunters upright, do not restrict breathing, and come with a quick-release system.
Hunters should inspect their stands for wear, and loose fasteners. Worn equipment should be fixed or replaced immediately.
When placing their stands, hunters should look for trees that are as straight as possible. Stands shouldn't be set on trees with rotten wood or with dead overhanging branches. Hunters should take extra care when placing stands on smooth-barked trees.
Hunters should always use a haul rope to raise and lower gear to their stands. Guns should always be unloaded before they're hauled. Bows should be lifted from their top limbs while ascending and their bottom limbs while descending to avoid snagging arrows on tree branches.
Hunters should keep their harnesses secured to the tree while in their stands, should avoid stand hunting while overly tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and should always make sure someone knows where they are and when they will return.
Hunters should be extra alert when climbing or descending, because that's when most accidents occur.
Glenn Jones, president of the state Hunter Education Association, offered a few additional tips:
Hunters should use tree stand safety lines that allow them to ascend and descend while keeping their harnesses attached to the tree.
Harnesses should be tied off at hunters' eye level when standing in the stand, and they should be tied off with just enough slack so hunters can sit comfortably.
Hunters who fall and are suspended in their harnesses, even for a few minutes, should visit their physicians to be checked out. Upright suspension can cause oxygen-starved blood to pool in the legs, and that blood can later damage the kidneys.