Scouring nearly 30 years of medical-database records, a group of doctors has found that nearly 40 hunters each year in Pennsylvania experience falls from tree stands that result in traumatic injuries.
On its own, that number might be surprising, even sobering. But it tells only part of the story.
Little is known about the exact number of Pennsylvania hunters who fall from tree stands each year or the reasons why they fall.
But one thing is clear – if every tree-stand user wore a full-body harness and kept it attached to the tree at all times while hunting from or installing or taking down an elevated platform, or climbing or descending trees, 100 percent of severe falls to the ground could be eliminated.
In Pennsylvania, there’s no requirement to report tree-stand falls, and even if there were some falls inevitably would be missed. But by delving into records available on the Pennsylvania Trauma Systems Foundation database, Dr. Joseph Smith and his colleagues have compiled what’s believed to be the only report on tree-stand falls endured by Pennsylvania hunters.
Reports in the database go back to 1987, and Smith and his colleagues have documented 1,109 from 1987 to 2015. But in most cases, few other details about the falls – including what might have caused them – are available in the database.
“It makes it very hard to say very much,” said Smith, who retired in April after a more than 35-year career in providing critical care, more than 30 of them spent at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.
Because the database includes only falls that resulted in the victim being taken to an accredited trauma center, it’s hard to tell how many more falls remain undocumented. Hunters who seek medical treatment at non-trauma medical facilities, heal from minor injuries at home and even severely injured fall victims who die before making it to a hospital all are left out of this count.
Falls sustained during preseason setup, postseason teardown or scouting excursions also could be missed. To better ensure the falls studied were hunting-related, researchers limited their review to falls that occurred within or one day prior to an open deer season.
Game Commissioner Michael Mitrick, a retiree since January after 36 years working as an orthopedist in York, said he routinely would see three or four patients a year who injured themselves while using tree stands, but likely never went to a trauma center.
Their injuries might range from broken wrists to neck and back sprains to cuts and bruises – generally far less severe than the injuries documented in the report. But these cases help to better understand how frequently falls occur.
Mitrick was one of about 15 orthopedists in the York area. It only stands to reason the others were dealing with a similar number of tree-stand-related injuries, he said.
“So you’re talking about 45 cases a year, just in this one community,” Mitrick said.
And Smith pointed out the number of tree-stand falls in Pennsylvania has trended upward as tree-stands have become more popular.
Based on reports in the injury database, in 1987, fewer than one in 100,000 hunters experienced a tree-stand fall while hunting deer in Pennsylvania. In 2015, almost 12 in 100,000 fell from a stand.
But this increasing problem has a solution – never use a tree stand without wearing a full-body harness that’s connected to the tree.
Today, about 90 percent of the tree stands marketed and sold in the U.S. are produced by companies that are part of the Treestand Manufacturer’s Association, which since 2004 has made it an industry standard to include a full-body harness with each stand, said John Louk, the association’s executive director.
For hunters who need to replace a harness or who just want something different, at least seven companies produce after-market harnesses priced between $49 and $159, he said.
Safety lines, often referred to by the brand name Lifeline, are the most efficient way to remain connected to the tree while climbing or descending, and they cost about $35 each, Louk said.
Using this simple and relatively inexpensive gear, and following other safe behaviors such as climbing with care, always using a haul rope to raise gear into the stand, and to never loading a firearm or nocking a bolt or arrow before settling in, can eliminate severe falls to the ground and help prevent serious injury and death.
To better raise awareness of safe hunting from tree stands, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has launched its Hunt Safely, Wear a Harness campaign. The campaign logo, which is appearing on billboards, signs and print and digital advertisements, serves as a frequent reminder for hunters to use fall restraints every time they hunt from a tree stand, and to never leave the ground without being connected to the tree.
“When hunting from a tree stand, it’s just as important to bring your harness with you every time you go out as it is to bring your firearm or bow, and we want all hunters to understand that,” said Steve Smith, who heads the Game Commission’s Bureau of Information and Education.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky