A study by an Okanagan College instructor seeks to mitigate injuries for tree planters. -Image: Okanagan College

Project studies injury risks to tree planters

Okanagan College instructor and phyisotherapist from Northern B.C. collaborate on research

A chance meeting with a physiotherapist in Northern B.C. has led an Okanagan College instructor to a collaborative research project that examines common injuries in a distinct industry: tree planting.

“There are thousands of tree planters in the province, and while we may think of repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, or tennis elbow, imagine planting up to 2,500 trees each day for a number of months,” says Darrell Skinner, an instructor in Okanagan College’s Therapist Assistant program. “Injury is unfortunately sometimes expected with such physical work, but we wanted to examine possible preventative strategies.”

Bringing together a team of students, and with the support and expertise of the owner and staff of Total Physiotherapy in Houston, BC, Skinner is leading research into taping hands and wrists to prevent tendonitis in tree planters.

“More than 30 per cent of tree planters have tendonitis,” says Mike McAlonan, owner of Total Physio. “And it’s likely under-reported as planters don’t wish to take days off and lose income. Tree planters are like athletes. They have a short season to work, so we manage them like athletes to keep them going until the season comes to an end.”

Rather than treating tendonitis post-injury, Skinner and McAlonan’s research focuses on prevention. Control and test groups of planters are being closely monitored to determine if a specific form of taping may help prevent injury.

“This is the first time I’ve been part of an applied research project,” says McAlonan. “It’s been exciting working with Okanagan College on a project that will hopefully have a positive impact in the industry.”

According to the B.C. Council of Forest Industries, in 2015-16, the forest industry in B.C. generated $833 million in direct public revenue, $12.9 billion in product exports, and trees planted in B.C. captured two billion tonnes of carbon.

“This is an important component to our economy and also supports the environment,” notes Skinner.

Windfirm Resources, based in Smithers, conducts tree planting in two camps. Each season, around 150 workers plant 12 million trees. Operations manager and field supervisor Ryan Zapisocki became involved in the injury prevention research through Total Physio, Windfirm’s physiotherapy provider.

“Mike has trained our first aid and crew members to do the taping, and the planters are now learning how to recognize the symptoms and prevent injury. Our veterans (those who have returned for several seasons), are almost injury free now. Everyone loves it,” says Zapisocki. “It’s made a big difference, and it’ll be great for the province once word gets out.”

Skinner and McAlonan has visited several tree planting camps this spring, and so far the research is showing great potential to help reduce tendonitis in planters in B.C. and beyond. Many tree planters have thanked them for coming up with the project.

“It’s a great feeling when a crew member comes up to me and says thank you,” says Skinner. “They tell me that they feel their work and health are both valued.”

The project is funded by an Engage Grant from NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Student involvement, in addition to working with industry partners, is a key component of applied research at the College. Two students from the College’s Therapist Assistant program are lending a hand with the project.

Alisha Lemke, who graduated from the program last month, has been assisting with literature research and compiling prior related research throughout the project.

“I was interested in the practical training at Okanagan College, and became interested in this project as part of my education. It’s helping me prepare for the real world,” says Lemke. “The idea of preventive taping has not been well researched. Most of it is sports-related, not worker-related.”

Riley Orchard, another Therapist Assistant student will be helping with further analysis of the research results this fall.

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