Deadly Treestands

It was a tough hunting season in New York State last fall – at least four hunters died in falls from treestands, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission tallied three deaths from tree stand falls in the 2016-2017 hunting season. On the last day of 2017, a hunter from Milwaukee died after he fell out of a tree stand in Sauk County. Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost nearly died in November when he fell 20 feet from a treestand at his Georgia home. Yost fell through the floor of the stand, breaking his pelvis and several ribs, and would have bled to death, had he not had his cellphone, according to news accounts.  

Falls from treestands now kill and injure more hunters than guns. For example, in 2014, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources reported that in 182 reported hunting accidents over a five-year period, 100 – or 55 percent – involved falls from treestands. But how many of these incidents are the result of user error, manufacturing or design defects is unknown. The non-profit International Hunter Education Association, which gathers detailed hunting incident data from state agencies, is the only national clearinghouse of hunting injury and fatality statistics. Its reporting form solicits detailed information on each incident about the hunter, the equipment, and the reason for the fall, from state environmental officials who regulate hunting, but the IHEA does not publish its data. 

The injuries from these falls can be devastating. A recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin department of neurosurgery and University of Alabama at Birmingham examined treestand injuries from 1999 to 2013, and found that 55 percent resulted in spinal injuries. 

Not surprisingly, hunter safety information offered by groups such as the Treestand Manufacturers Association, which bills itself as “a nonprofit trade association that specifically devotes its resources to promoting treestand safety through education,” only examine the issue through the lens of hunters’ behavior. But, consumer complaints, recalls and investigations by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission indicate that some treestands fail because they are poorly designed and cheaply manufactured. Outdoors Underwriters Inc, an insurance company that caters to hunters and outdoors organizations and businesses, recently published an analysis of the 27 most serious treestand injuries, defined as “injuries that had medical bills in excess of $50,000, or partial disabilities, and/or fatalities.” In this subset of claims, more than a quarter – or seven cases involved a mechanical issue with the stand. Similarly, the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation found a significant percentage of equipment failure its injury and death statistics from 724 falls that occurred in 10 states from 2010 to- 2016. Among the top five causes of falls: 39 percent were attributed to human error; 31 percent were attributed to a strap break, a stand break or a step/ladder failure. 

Since 2000, there have been at least 14 treestand recalls for cables and chains that snap, bad welds, pin breaks, and webbing problems. For example, In November 2016, Summit recalled 270 Summit Explorer SD Closed Front Climbing Treestands because a weld in the treestand’s frame could suddenly break. In October 2015, Global Manufacturing Company recalled 5,300 model year 2014 API Outdoors “The Marksman” model climbing treestands, following the report of one user who suffered a broken vertebra, fractured rib and sprained shoulder when the cable assembly released and led to a fall.

Hunters have also reported treestand failures to the commission. On March 14, a hunter reported a November incident: 

While deer hunting this morning using an API Marksman climbing treestand, I was coming back down the tree and a structural support on the stand broke in two, resulting in me flipping backwards out of the stand and hitting on my back. Thankfully, I was only 4 feet off the ground when it happened resulting in a bruised back and a torn calve muscle. I have pictures of the stand along with the model number. I see that this stand has an unrelated recall for the chains but my feeling is this stand needs to be taken off the market completely and an effort to eliminate anybody from using this stand in the future. 

On March 5, another hunter reported a September 10 incident:

I purchased my API stand from Bass Pro about 4 years ago. On Sunday it suffered a total structural failure while I was using it. The standing platform cracked in half, suddenly without warning. Luckily, I was in a full harness and my fall was arrested. As background information, I have used this stand about 30 times. I also have kept it inside when stored and never left it out in the elements for more than a day or 2. I've always used care in using the stand as not to put undue wear on it. When the stand failed, I was climbing up the tree. At the time of failure, I was standing on the platform and not moving either the top or bottom section of the stand. The failure was sudden and fast, it was like the floor dropped out.  The pictures attached show the failure points. It failed at the location where the foot strap is connected to the standing platform. In this location, there is less structural material. It is also where your feet attached to the stand when climbing, and the pressure of downward force is focused. 

The commission also regularly conducts epidemiologic investigations into treestand injury and death incidents – which may not lead to a recall, despite findings of a product failure. For example, in 2002, the CPSC conducted an investigation of the “Baby Grand Lite” Model GS2300 treestand because of possible weld problems that caused the seats to fail. Initiated by a complaint from a Fowlerville, Michigan hunter who suffered back injuries after his treestand failed, the investigation led CPSC staffers to obtain exemplar seats. The examination found that the welds were substandard. In May 2002, the Commission issued a Product Safety Assessment Report indicating that “the weldments showed poor welding technique had been used” and that “fracture surfaces of the failed weldments showed various weld discontinuities,” including incomplete fusion, no fusion between the tab and channel of the seat frame, no evidence of a weldment between the seat arm and the folding portion of the stand, and weld porosity. The report concluded that the welding of the treestand seat frame channel to the mounting tabs was not done with the highest quality welding technique in the subject stand and the two samples provided by the company.

(Despite the injury incident that prompted the epidemiologic investigation, and the discovery of weld failures in two of the exemplar stands examined, the CPSC did not take further action in this case.)

In 2015, the CPSC also investigated a February 2015 incident in which a 50-year-old male from Wall Township, New Jersey fell 15 feet, as he prepared to descend, when the bolt on his API Crusader treestand broke, the frame cracked and the snap pin wire snapped. 

Most of the recalled treestands were manufactured in China, sold in the U.S. at major outdoors equipment retailers and imported by a tangle of U.S. companies – some of which appear in public filings to be related. This means that a single manufacturer could be supplying different importers with the same basic treestand that is branded under different names in the U.S. If the manufacturer uses sub-standard materials or assembly practices, the failures can appear unrelated, because the importers’ brand name and model names may be different.  

In November 2015, Gene “Vic” Moore fell approximately 20 feet to the ground after the foot section on his API Crusader Treestand failed. Moore broke his right leg in multiple places and was left with a permanent injury, says Attorney David Whittington of the Summerville, South Carolina firm of Knight and Whittington. Moore purchased the treestand in November 2014, and had used it for less than a year when it collapsed. Whittington is exploring the possibility that manufacturing practices and design choices, made solely to make it easier to pack and transport into the woods, were among the reasons for the stand's failure. 

“One of my client’s concerns has to do with the safety of other hunters and concerns about the safety of this particular treestand,” Whittington says. “My client was specifically drawn to this model because it was marketed as inexpensive, lighter weight and more portable, but now, as he reflects on it, he is concerned the manufacturer sacrificed safety when trying to improve sales by making this stand easier for hunters to carry into the woods.” 

The Failure to Regulate

Like many consumer products, treestands are only subject to voluntary regulations, despite an attempt in the early 2000s to place the platform devices under federal standards. In March 2002, Carol Pollack-Nelson, a former CPSC employee and safety consultant, petitioned the CPSC to establish a mandatory standard for hunting tree stands to address their design and construction, and to ban safety belts in tree stands. Pollack-Nelson argued that hunting tree stands posed a serious injury and death risk, and that safety belts “can prove to be a deadly precaution, as there is risk of fatality caused when it constricts around the chest and/or abdomen.” 

“I first learned about the issues contained in my petition through my work in a case in which a 15-year-old boy strangled to death in the single strap waist belt. In this case, the 15-year-old was hunting by himself on his family’s property,” Pollack-Nelson said in an email. “He’d been hunting his entire life and had just received a new treestand for Christmas, the night before his death. He went out on Christmas day and was later found by his family, hanging from the belt. The top part of his climbing stand was no longer affixed to the tree. With all of his body weight suspended by a single strap, worn “properly” around the chest, he was unable to breathe or rescue himself.”

The briefing package that the CPSC staff prepared for the commission documented the hazards of using treestands for hunting. The staff cited 6,000 injuries attributed to treestand use that were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2001 based on a review of National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) data. It also reviewed the Injury or Potential Injury Incident Database (IFIl), the In-Depth Investigation Database (INDP), and Death Certificate Database, and found 137 incidents involving treestands from 1980 through 2001, including 62 deaths and 55 injuries. Of the total incidents, 54 mention treestand failures resulting in 6 deaths and 40 injuries; eight fatalities involved hanging or traumatic asphyxiation by a safety belt or harness.  In April 2004, the staff recommended that the petition be denied, because it concluded that the standards adequately addressed the products’ structural integrity, stability and adherence to the tree, under a rated static load condition.

Despite the commission’s rejection of a mandatory standard, the CPSC staff worked with the ASTM Hunting Tree Stand Subcommittee and the TMA to assess the voluntary standards related to dynamic loading conditions, and to address safety when a hunter is entering, exiting, ascending, and descending a hunting treestand. 

One of the issues that emerged was the problems created by safety harnesses. The Treestand Manufacturer’s Association agreed to require a full body harness be included with any treestand that seeks TMA certification. Hunters’ failure to use full-body harnesses while hunting in treestands is often cited as a reason for the large number of falls. But the use of harnesses itself can sometimes lead to fatalities. Hunters can escape the broken bones of a fall, only to suffer what is known as suspension trauma after being suspended  in a harness for extended periods with no way to extricate themselves. For example, in a 2003 CPSC investigation involving API Grand Slam Shooting Star and other epidemiologic reports, hunters died trying to extricate themselves from a full-body harness

Suspension trauma is a well-documented succession of medical events that can include nausea, burning sensations in the extremities, fainting, shock, respiratory distress and death. Studies show that humans cannot survive in an immobile suspended position for very long without sustaining serious injuries. 

Salena Zellers Schmidtke, a biomechanical engineer and safety expert, noted that serious injuries can occur to people suspended from a harness for as little as ten minutes:

“After ten minutes of inactive suspension, which could easily occur if the person is injured, the body can go into shock because of blood pooling in the legs,” she says. “This can result in breathing problems, brain damage and even death.”

Some of the CPSC’s work with the voluntary standards involved prodding the TMA to write better voluntary standards regarding requirements for self-rescue. While the agency regarded industry standard TMS 06-02, and ASTM standard F2337, requiring a full body harness as “a significant safety improvement,” there was still concern about the absence of a requirement to ensure that hunters can extricate themselves while suspended. 

In 2009, the commission wrote a letter chastising the association for its lack of progress on this issue: 

Since July 2003, when CPSC staff first requested that ASTM address the issue of self- rescue, the only standards-related progress made has been limited to suspension relief. CPSC staff would like to see standards modified to include performance requirements that would ensure a hunter's ability to safely return to the ground in an emergency situation. It is our understanding that a number of safety devices that would likely meet such requirements are already available. CPSC staff views self-rescue as equally important to harness use, recognizing that the latter is a critical component in the overall scheme of safety and self-rescue. ….CPSC staff understands that many treestand users choose not to wear safety harnesses or other safety devices. Given this fact, staff encourages TMA and the industry as a whole to try to gain an understanding as to why hunters do not utilize safety-related equipment or devices which are readily available. For example, might a more user-friendly harness design (one that is easier to wear, adjust, untangle, etc.) help to encourage harness use? Has the TMA conducted any studies or surveys to attempt to understand why hunters do not wear basic safety devices that could prevent severe injury, paralysis, or death?

The CPSC conducted its own evaluation of harnesses in 2011. “An Evaluation of Injuries from Falls and Suspension Traumas Related to Treestands" summarized the CPSC staff assessments of various full-body harnesses, sold separately or included with a treestand. The CPSC tests found that “all of the harnesses tested produced pressure points.” According to the commission’s annual summary of voluntary standard activities, the report also discussed the injuries sustained after falling from a treestand and the causes and effects of suspension trauma. The 2011 Standards Activities Report noted that CPSC staff would release the test report when it was approved. The report was never finalized or published.  

The CPSC continued to participate in voluntary standards setting through 2014, after which the agency cut back its involvement to simply monitoring.

Have voluntary standards done anything to lessen the death and injury toll from treestand equipment failure? With a lack of centralized data collection it’s difficult to discern. Certainly, what death and injury data do exist show that equipment defects are at the root of a good portion of falls from elevates stands. The CPSC’s interest in the issue has been waning, but the falls, with their broken bones, damaged spinal cords, and sudden deaths continue.