Tree stands bigger threat to hunters than gun accidents, study shows

A new study from The Ohio State University Medical Center proves that tree stands, not guns, are the deer hunter’s most dangerous weapon.

Critical care and trauma researchers sought to debunk the stereotype that most hunting injuries result from gunshot wounds, typically associated with alcohol or drug use, and are accidentally self-inflicted or caused by a fellow hunter. Specifically, they wanted to identify the causes of hunting-related injuries and to characterize trauma-associated injury patterns.

“Observations and experience from working in a Level 1 trauma center led us to the hypothesis that … falls, not firearms, are responsible for a significant proportion of hunting-related injuries,” said Dr. Charles Cook, a trauma surgeon at Ohio State’s Medical Center and also lead author of the study.

The study recently published in “The American Surgeon” confirmed the hypothesis that falls from tree stands are the leading cause of hunting-related injuries in Ohio requiring Level 1 trauma center admission. Study authors also believe this is the case in the South, where tree stands are prevalent.

“Cold air, fatigue, darkness and early morning hours, combined with the fact that tree stands are very small and most of the hunters were not wearing safety harnesses, I believe, all contributed to their falls,” Cook said.

Over a period of 10 years, researchers in the division of critical care, trauma and burn at OSU Medical Center, analyzed trauma databases from two Level 1 trauma centers in central Ohio and identified 130 patients who suffered hunting-related injuries.

Fifty percent of injuries resulted from falls and 92 percent of the falls were from tree stands, whereas 29 percent of the injuries were attributed to gunshot wounds. Fifty-eight percent of the gunshot wounds were self-inflicted and 42 percent of the patients were shot by another hunter. Alcohol was involved in only 2.3 percent of the cases, and drug abuse accounted for 4.6 percent.

The level of severity for tree stand falls was quite high, with 59 percent of victims suffering fractures and 47 percent experiencing lower-extremity fractures (ankles, legs), while fractures to upper extremities (shoulders, arms, wrists) accounted for 18 percent of the injuries and 18 percent of fall victims sustained closed-head injuries.

Surgery was required for 81 percent of fall-related injuries, and 8.2 percent of the victims suffered permanent neurological damage.

“The severity of these falls is not surprising considering that an ‘optimally’ placed tree stand is 10 to 30 feet in the air,” Cook explained. “A body falling from this height can reach speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour, and the impact often occurs on hard surfaces, logs or parts of hunting equipment, which further compounds these injuries.”

According to Cook, hunter education regarding proper and safe use of tree stands is critical to decreasing the incidence of hunting-related injuries and keeping hunting safe and enjoyable for everyone. Cook and his colleagues are seeking opportunities to actively participate in hunter safety courses to help raise awareness about injuries related to tree stand falls.

“We’ve been asking the patients we treat from hunting accidents if they were wearing a safety harness, and the majority of them that have fallen – at least from a significant height – were not,” Cook said.

The researchers also noted that this study is reflective of local geography and topography, as tree stand hunting is more common in the eastern, Midwestern and southern areas of the United States. Conversely, the use of trees stands to track prey is relatively rare in the western states due to vast plains, open fields and mountainous terrain.