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Proper use of harnesses key to tree-stand safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the next couple of weeks, thousands of West Virginians will take to the trees in the hope of killing a trophy buck.

Inevitably, some of them will fall.

Feet will slip on frost-covered metal steps. Unexpected weight shifts will pitch hunters off balance. In the stillness of the morning woods, sleepiness will overcome early risers.

Falls from tree stands have become epidemic. Every year in the Mountain State, hospitals admit a steady stream of people who have suffered stand-related injuries.

Dr. Fred Pollock, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Charleston Area Medical Center, said four hunters have been hospitalized there so far this year, barely a month into the state's archery season for deer.

"I was in the hospital seeing a patient recently, and someone told me there were three people in the hospital that week at the same time, all with tree-stand injuries," Pollock said.

A check of CAMC's trauma registry revealed that 34 other hunters were admitted to CAMC between 2008 and 2012.

"The most common orthopedic injuries are heel, [lower-leg] and [thigh-bone] fractures," Pollock said. "Chest injuries with rib fractures and collapsed lungs are [also] frequent."

The grimmest injuries are neck and spine fractures. Pollock said that among the 38 admissions between 2008 and the present, two involved spinal fractures that resulted in paralysis.

Some of those who fall don't make it out of the woods alive.

Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter safety coordinator for the state Natural Resources Police, said five hunters have died in tree-stand falls since 2008, including one already this season.

West Virginia maintains records on four primary categories of hunting-related incidents - shootings, tree-stand falls, all-terrain vehicle accidents and heart attacks. "Of all those, we see more tree-stand falls and heart attacks than anything else," Coleman said.

Falls have become such a problem that the state's hunter-safety education instructors now devote a considerable chunk of the 10-hour hunter-ed course to tree-stand safety. Glenn Jones, president of the West Virginia Hunter Education Association, said that's quite a change from the past.

"Fifteen years ago, we mentioned tree-stand safety, but only barely," he said. "Over the last eight years, it's become a priority because falls have become a leading source of hunting-related injuries. We now explain to our students the different kinds of tree stands and the hazards associated with them. We also show students how to wear safety harnesses, and we tell them the kinds of harnesses we like to see them wear."

One of the first things Jones and the other instructors emphasize is that tree stands are safe if they're used properly. Problems occur when people make mistakes.

"Most accidents occur when people are getting into their stands or getting out of them," Jones said. "Most people aren't tethered to the tree during that transition, and a slip or a loss of balance sends them right to the ground."

Sometimes the stands themselves are at fault. Jones said homemade stands - wooden platforms attached to trees with screws or nails - are notoriously unsafe.

"They aren't weight-rated, and they aren't often built well," he explained. "They might be OK the first year. But a year later when the tree has grown, the wind has worked the fasteners loose, and the tree sap has corroded the fasteners, those stands can become pretty unsafe."

Jones also is leery of "hang-on" style stands.

"Those are the ones that have a V-notch that grips the tree, and a chain that goes around the tree to hold the platform in place. The problem with that kind is that guys don't often use enough screw-in steps to get above the platform and step down onto it.

"When they try to come in from the side, they knock the platform sideways and they go to the ground, sometimes hitting a few of the screw-in steps on the way down."

Jones said one of the most popular stands - the "climber" style with upper and lower platforms that allow users to inchworm their way up and down tree trunks - is relatively safe if users attend to one important detail:

"Tie the two pieces together," he said. "If you don't tie them together, and you get 12 or 14 feet in the air and lose the footrest [platform], you're stuck up a tree with no way to get down."

The safest type of tree stand, and the one Jones recommends, is the ladder-style stand.

"It's the safest of the bunch because the ladder provides a solid, dependable way to get up and down," he said. "Ladder stands are heavy and awkward to set up, but with two people it isn't much trouble."

Like all equipment that sees rugged outdoor use, stands should be checked regularly for broken or missing parts and for signs of excessive wear.

"Before the season starts, all stands should be checked for rust, corrosion and broken bolts," Jones said.

Hunters who have put on a few pounds should make sure they don't now exceed their stands' weight ratings.

"Taking a stand weighted for 175 pounds and trying to put a 250-pound man in it is asking for trouble," Jones said. "And even if someone only weighs 175 pounds, they'd be wearing clothing and carrying equipment that would put them over the rated weight. It's important to buy stands that are rated for enough weight to hold both the hunter and the hunter's gear."

All tree stand manufacturers are required to provide safety harnesses with their products. Jones said, however, that some safety harnesses aren't safe at all.

"Most of those that come with stands are cheap and not weight-rated," he said. "It's wise to pick up an aftermarket harness of the full-body type, the kind that has leg straps as well as straps for the upper body. In our classes, we recommend harnesses from Hunter Safety System or the Rescue One Controlled Descent System from Mountaineer Sports."

The key to any harness, Jones added, is to attach it to the tree at the proper height.

"The ideal tie-off is at eye level when you're standing on the tree stand's platform," he explained. "That allows you, with a normal 3-foot strap, to sit comfortably, and you'll still be waist-high or higher on the platform if you fall.

"If you tie off too high, you won't be comfortable. If you're too low, you won't be able to climb back into the stand."

The early November whitetail rut marks the peak of West Virginia's bowhunting season, which means a lot of hunters will be sitting in a lot of trees. Jones said a little caution on everyone's part would go a long way toward keeping hunters in the woods and out of emergency rooms.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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