Falling tree branch injures two in Victoria: a reminder to schools about Tree Management

Tree Management

A falling tree branch has injured two people on the grounds of a school at Bendigo North, in central Victoria when the branch came down on the school’s basketball court. It serves as a timely reminder for schools of the importance of an effective tree management policy, including regular inspections and recommendations from an accredited arborist.

Trees and the law

As discussed in our previous article, Australian tree protection laws are generally categorised by the tree’s location, whether it is an indigenous/native species, whether it has heritage value and a variety of other characteristics including height, amenity and canopy size.

While there are some protections at the Commonwealth level through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), most prescriptive requirements occur at the state/territory and local government  levels. Only two jurisdictions, being the ACT and SA, have specific legislation which provides general protection to certain native and non-native trees. Other jurisdictions delegate responsibility to local governments to create tree registers, lists, by-laws or local planning instruments to specifically provide for tree protection. A number of these jurisdictions also allow for certain ‘pruning’ of trees without approval, however, removal of trees or larger amounts of pruning may require inspection and consent from a government agency should be conducted in-line with AS 4373-2007 Pruning of amenity trees (the Pruning Standard), and shouldn’t involve lopping and pollarding.

The importance of trees as part of the school playground is well known both generally and they provide an important component to creative and safe risky play. However incidents like the falling tree branch in Victoria are a reminder to schools that comprehensive tree management procedures are necessary in order to discharge the school’s duty of care to students, staff, and any other parties (like neighbours) who may be affected.

Tree management best practices

A school uncertain about the content of tree management best practices should take its cues from similar procedures implemented by local council authorities, which include:

  1. Having a Tree Register
    While legislation usually only mandates the monitoring of significant or heritage trees, a school endeavouring to maximise safety should have a register for all the trees on its premises for which it has responsibility, including a site map of their location. This is to ensure there is a centralised location for the age and health of all trees, their risk ratings and any previously recorded injury or damage caused. The register should be regularly updated to take account of changes in the health and condition of trees.
  2. Regularly conducting inspections and assessments of all trees
    While the frequency of inspections should be determined by the location of trees and potential risk, the majority of safety inspections are carried out on an annual basis. To meet its duty of care obligations, a school should also consider carrying out inspections whenever they become aware of new risk factors (such as evidence of tree decline), after a significant external event (such as a large storm or a fire) and if the tree is involved in an incident.
  3. Implementing Tree Management Plans
    In many instances, it may not be possible to simply remove a tree which is considered to be a safety risk – for example in the ACT there is an emergency 24 hour hotline to request an inspector to inspect a tree that presents an imminent danger before consent will be given to remove the tree. Local laws may require persons responsible for certain large or significant trees to maintain their condition. The best solution would be to implement a plan for each tree which clearly requires management. Procedures would need to be tailored to each individual tree and could include schedules for ongoing maintenance and pruning and seeking consent to remove branches in advance of any incident occurring. In the meantime,  where the risk of falling branches appears high, barriers should be erected to prevent access.As accidents can still occur during tree pruning, the best practice approach for schools would be to follow the Pruning Standard AS4373-2007 Pruning of Amenity Trees in its implementation of Tree Management plans. Under the Pruning Standard, any inspection, assessment or specification for pruning should only be carried out by a qualified arborist. A requirement for qualifications or equivalent experience extends to any worker engaged to perform maintenance work on a tree. The qualification level required will depend on the complexity of the work being undertaken, with root pruning requiring the highest qualification.  It should be noted that the Pruning Standard is a weighty and very detailed document so turning over the regular maintenance and inspection of trees to a qualified arborist, who would also be familiar with state/territory  and local government requirements, would be a wise investment.

What should schools do?

Schools should approach tree management as an essential component of their governance, risk and compliance strategy, balancing the risk of injury and property damage against the social benefits provided, in order to ensure the best outcome for students and the broader school community. By implementing tree management best practices, engaging an arborist to perform any specialised work and following any recommendations or reports they produce during assessment or inspection, a school will be going a long way towards meeting any duty of care obligations to students to protect them from the risks posed by trees on their premises.

About the Author

Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.

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