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Trees hold dangers for deer hunters

November 4, 2010

Trees hold dangers for deer hunters

As deer hunting season gets underway around the country, trauma surgeons in Ohio have a message for hunters: It's not the guns but the trees that will get you.

A 10-year survey of hunting-related injuries at two major trauma centers in Ohio found that falling out of trees is how the majority of deer hunters are injured.

"More and more frequently, we're seeing people showing up in our emergency rooms that weren't shot but who fell out of tree stands," says Charles Cook, a trauma surgeon at the Ohio State University Medical Center and author of the study, which is in this month's edition of The American Surgeon, a medical journal.

Tree stands are platforms that allow hunters to perch between 10 and 30 feet above the ground and wait, out of sight, for game to come by. They're mostly used in the Midwest and the South, almost always to hunt deer. Tree stands first became commercialized in the 1970s, and by the 1990s there were more than 100 manufacturers, says John Louk, executive director of the Treestand Manufacturer's Association.

According to the Ohio study, half of hunting-related injuries that sent people to the hospital were caused by falls, 92% from tree stands. Gunshot wounds made up 29% of injuries. Very few of the injuries (2.3%) were related to alcohol use. "You fall from that height and something's going to break," Cook says. "We just admitted a guy this morning who fell out of a tree and is now a paraplegic."

That patient was the eighth tree-stand-related accident since the beginning of hunting season this fall. The most commonly reported injuries are broken legs, arms and ribs, as well as back and spinal cord injuries. About 80% of those who fall require surgery. The Ohio study included four patients who ended up paralyzed.

The trouble isn't the stands themselves, which since 2004 have come equipped with safety harnesses. It's that hunters aren't using the harnesses, Cook says. The researchers have been asking those brought into the ER if they used the protective device, and so far only one person has said yes.

"He was wearing his device, but then he clipped out to change position and he fell. The poor guy ended up with multiple broken ribs and a whole chest full of blood," Cook says.

There's no national data on tree-stand injuries because there's no reporting requirement. However, news media accounts of tree-stand fatalities reported this fall include three in Maryland, one in Michigan and two in Pennsylvania.

The problem is that hunters won't wear the body harnesses, Louk says. The organization's own data on injuries, culled from multiple sources, put tree-stand accidents at closer to 60% of hunting accidents, with guns causing 40%, Louk says. Louk estimates that about 10% of tree stands currently in use are homemade and typically don't contain any safety gear.

The presence of safety harnesses doesn't mean anything if hunters won't wear them, and they won't, Louk says. "It's a mental block. They're just assuming they can fly, but gravity will always win out in the end.".

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