January 13, 2003
Physician, others stress tree stand safety
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Harmon Tillman’s hunting buddies all knew he was a safety nut. “They called me an old maid because I was so very careful,” said the retired United Methodist minister from Winona.
But during one misty morning hunt, Tillman decided to relax his own rules. “Normally, I refused to load my gun until I got on a tree stand,” he said. But on this day, he wanted to keep his prized over-and-under shotgun dry. So he loaded the gun, checked the safety a couple of times, slipped the gun in a sleeve to protect it from the rain, then checked the safety again before climbing 15 feet to a tree stand.
To free his hands to open a padlock on the stand, Tillman propped the gun on the ladder, tapping it gently to make sure the butt was resting on a rung. That’s when the gun misfired, blasting the left side of his head and knocking him to the ground.
As a result, Tillman now lives with 34 shotgun pellets in his head, a prosthetic left ear, partial hearing loss and a lack of balance from an inner ear injury. Still, he knows it could have been much worse. “I severed my jugular vein and outer carotid artery,” he said. “I should have bled to death.”
As it was, Tillman suffered a brain injury and spent two and a half months learning to walk and talk again at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson.
Methodist Rehab physicians and therapists said accidents related to tree stand use have become an all too familiar rite of hunting season. “We see several each year,” said Dr. Rahul Vohra, medical director at Methodist Rehab. And he said it’s no surprise that the resulting injuries are so devastating.
“There is a high incidence of brain injury, as well as spinal cord injury, in patients who have significant falls,” Dr. Vohra said. “That makes that patient’s recovery more complex.
“In recent years, hunter education classes have taught people to be more safety-conscious about gun use,” Dr. Vohra said. “But hunters also need to be more aware that just a simple slip of the foot on a ladder rung can leave them permanently disabled. A moment of carelessness can lead to a traumatic brain injury or put someone in a wheelchair for life.”
Maj. Stephen Adcock, hunter education administrator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said he considers the tree stand “the most dangerous piece of equipment that our hunter can use. We have found they are more debilitating than firearm injuries. If you’re shot and it’s not fatal, you usually get over that okay. When you fall out of tree stand, the neck and back injuries tend to be more debilitating.”
Adcock said since the current deer hunting season began in October, the Wildlife Department has investigated seven tree stand injuries. “During the 2001-2002 hunting season, we had 13 tree stand incidents and two involved fatalities.”
“It used to be we heard more about firearm accidents, but tree stand accidents surpassed firearm accidents in the early 1990s,” said L.J. Smith of Brandon, a retired hunter safety administrator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, who recently wrote and published “The User’s Guide to The Tree Stand (Its History and Safe Use).”
One reason for the rise is the increased availability of the popular perches, Smith said. “Up until 1985, there were only about a dozen manufacturers. Now there are probably 130.”
Some tree stand accidents are caused by equipment failures. Since 1995, the U.S. Product Safety Commission has announced the recall of three hunting tree stands and/or tree seats, two hunting safety belts or harnesses and one brand of climbing sticks and tree steps. Problems associated with the products include belts that fray, cables that break and seats that collapse.
Homemade wooden structures that have been weathered by the elements are linked to many accidents, as well. But more often the culprit is “user error,” Smith said.
“About 85 percent of those occur while the hunter is ascending or descending the tree, either in a climbing tree stand or while first installing a hang-on stand,” Smith said.
One reason for the mishaps is many hunters never bother to read the manufacturer’s safety instructions, Adcock said. “Most tree stands come with an instructional tape and you need to follow the rules and be careful.”
Problem is, caution doesn’t come easy to hunters eager to get a deer in their sights. “The biggest cause of accidents in climbing is people getting in a hurry and not paying attention,” Smith said. “The key to preventing all tree stand accidents is to watch every step you take. If you’re climbing a ladder stand, you want three points of contact at all times. If you’re moving one foot, you want two hands and the other foot on the ladder.”
Another mistake hunters make is mixing hunting with drinking. “They go to a deer stand and take a six-pack with them and fall on the way down,” Dr. Vohra said. “We need to stress that they shouldn’t drink.”
Complacency plays a factor in accidents, too, Smith said. “A lot of tree stand accidents involve experienced hunters with 15 to 20 years experience. They’ve done it so many times they don’t realize how quickly an accident can occur. The people I’ve talked to say by the time they realized they were falling, it was too late to grab for the tree.”
That’s why fall restraint devices are so important for injury prevention. “I would fully recommend people use a full body harness,” Smith said. “These four-point harnesses support the hunter’s weight by his hips and upper body rather than his chest.”
This helps eliminate another danger associated with tree stands – people being asphyxiated by their safety harness or belt.
“I know of three fatalities associated with people wearing harnesses,” Adcock said. In most such cases, the hunter was wearing a harness or belt that constricted around his waist or chest on impact and cut off his breathing.
“Hunters wearing this type of belt need to be able to get out of the belt pretty quickly if they fall,” Smith said. “You only have about 45 seconds to a minute and a half before the belt starts putting pressure on the chest.”
Therefore, it’s important to be ready with a game plan in case of a fall, Adcock said. “You need to have knife ready to cut out of the harness and know how to reach the tree. Hunters need to be careful about attaching to tree limbs or parts of the stand that would hold them away from the tree.”
That said, both Adcock and Smith said it’s probably better to use a harness than not. Otherwise, gravity will get the best of you. “A 225-pound man falling 25 feet is the same impact as being hit by a bus traveling 40 miles per hour,” Smith said.
And the higher you go, the harder you fall. “A lot of people just climb too high,” Adcock said. “I know we had someone fall from 45 feet who didn’t live.”
But that’s not to say that a low perch is foolproof. “You don’t have to fall a long way to be seriously injured,” Smith said. “I’m working a case now where a hunter fell 8 feet and he’s a paraplegic.”
Broken backs, ribs and limbs, punctured lungs and brain injuries are common among hunters who fall. And some of the most severe injuries are associated with the hunter having a weapon in hand while climbing.
Some, like Tillman, end up shooting themselves when their weapon accidently discharges. Others are injured when they fall on their guns. “The first expert witness case I ever worked on a man fell 26 feet with a rifle strapped across his back and when he fell on it, it broke his back,” Smith said.
To prevent such tragedies, both Smith and Adcock recommend that hunters use a pull rope to bring equipment up after they are secured in their stand. “And make sure you’ve unloaded the firearm and the action is open before you pull it up,” Adcock said.
Adcock and Smith said chances are that most hunters won’t encounter a worst case scenario. In fact, hunting is a sport that ranks below badminton in terms of injuries incurred, Adcock said. Still, to be on the safe side, both men said hunters should make sure someone knows exactly where they are hunting and when they plan to be home.
Tillman followed that bit of wisdom and it probably saved his life. When he didn’t return home for an important appointment, his wife called the owner of the land where he was hunting. “Fortunately, I had told him where I was going to hunt and they found me.” By that time, Tillman had been laying on the ground for 16 hours.
Tillman said thanks to the surgical care that he received at Meridian Regional Hospital after the accident and the therapy at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, he was able to return to his work and his favorite pastimes. He has even hunted from tree stands again, albeit a bit nervously the first time. “If in the first 30 minutes a deer would have come by I would have frightened him away because my heart was beating so loud.”
Tillman said his experiences have left him a strong proponent of both tree stand and firearm safety. He knows all to well what a little lapse in judgment can cost you. “You can be careful all your life and make one dumb mistake and it can kill you. I was very, very fortunate.”
Ten Tips for Tree Stand Safety:
- Always wear a fall-restraint device. Wear it from the time you leave the ground until you return to the ground.
- Read and follow manufacturer’s instructions and warnings.
- Practice with your tree stand at a low level, under 5 feet, until you are sure you know how to use the stand.
- Check your stand before and after each use. Correct problems before using stand again.
- Take your time when climbing and watch every step you make.
- Never climb with anything in your hands. Use a pull rope to bring up equipment after you’re secure in your stand.
- Watch the weather. Some tree stands will slip on wet trees. Most stands are made of metal and are not safe during lightening storms.
- Do not sleep in tree stands or drink alcohol or take drugs during tree stand use.
- Tell someone exactly where you will be hunting and what time you plan to return. Agree that they will search for you if you do not return within an hour of that time.
- Take a whistle, flashlight, cell phone or two-way radio so you can signal rescuers with your location.
Source: “The User’s Guide to The Tree Stand (Its History and Safe Use)” by L.J. Smith
To order a copy of “The User’s Guide to The Tree Stand (Its History and Safe Use,” send $3 for shipping and handling to L.J. Smith, P.O. Box 4007, Brandon, MS 39047.
For more information:
Tree stand falls on the increase | The Clarion-Ledger