They climb up to great heights and take care of the treetops or deal with storm damage – and they are also trained specialists. Arborists or treeworkers have a unique job, which is closely associated with nature. Thoren Benk has explained to us what the job entails.
Thoren Benk, a fully qualified “European Treeworker”, has been working as an arborist for more than 15 years. Christoph Kühnel from our editorial team had a chat with the Managing Director of Benk GmbH from Mülheim an der Ruhr and found out what makes his job so special.
Question: When children talk about what they want to be when they grow up, they usually want to work as a vet, pilot, footballer or model. They rarely mention wanting to be a tree surgeon or arborist. Thoren, why did you choose this job?
Thoren Benk: Because it’s a unique profession! If you spent a day trying out this job, you’d notice it right away. The job is sporty because I climb right up into the treetops. I also get to take on some responsibility. Finally, I take care of the oldest living organisms on earth. It’s quite simply really enjoyable.
Question: And what did you want to do when you were a kid?
Thoren Benk: I was actually born into a family where tree maintenance was part of everyday life. We already had a business back then. But I only really became interested in the job when I was 17 or 18. I discovered my interest in climbing as a sport at an early age. I was just eleven years old when I tried indoor climbing for the first time. There weren’t many climbing walls at the time and so it was a time-consuming hobby.
A sporty job with responsibility: Thoren Benk made an unusual career choice.
Question: Has this experience helped?
Thoren Benk: Definitely. Climbing as a sport meant I got used to climbing up to a height of several metres. But I also know some colleagues in tree maintenance who had big problems with it to start with and it took a long time before they were able to cope with the heights.
Question: Do you sometimes still feel scared?
Thoren Benk: Even for me, there are still times when I don’t feel completely comfortable. Many accidents happen because the stability of the tree has been wrongly assessed or because an anchor point has broken off. When it comes to anchor points on roofs or buildings, which is generally the case in industry, there are standards in place for clearly establishing how much the anchor points need to withstand. Of course this is not the case for a tree. I have to decide whether the structure will bear my weight or not. If I don’t feel safe, I stop the work and look for a solution.
Question: It sounds dangerous. How important is safety to you?
Thoren Benk: It’s obviously very important to me. When I climb up into a tree using a rope, permanent support is an absolute must. For me, there is no question of going without, all the more so because it is required by the Sozialversicherung für Landwirtschaft, Forsten und Gartenbau (SVLFG, a social insurance scheme in Germany for agriculture, forestry and horticulture). There is also a clear set of requirements for the equipment. When working in trees, for example, our Personal Protective Equipment must include a harness, which has been certified as a full body or sit harness in accordance with EN 358 or EN 813.
Compulsory for working at heights in a tree: permanent support.
Question: In addition to the required standards, are there other criteria you look out for when choosing your equipment?
Thoren Benk: It’s also important for the harness to be comfortable. When I’m working in a tree, I often wear my harness for several hours at a stretch. So it needs to fit perfectly, otherwise it gets uncomfortable over time. I’ve also learned from experience that the choice of equipment should also be made according to which activities I want to perform. For tree and nesting hole checks, we only climb in the trees for a short time. This means that there is sometimes no requirement for a harness that is suitable for working for a long time in a sitting position. For tree felling or other more arduous tasks, on the other hand, I need a stable and supportive harness on which I can also hang a large saw.
Question: So is there anything else I would need to know if I wanted to become an arborist?
Thoren Benk: In principle, anyone can do this job. However, you do need to have taken an introductory course in rope climbing techniques, which is known in Germany as the SKT-A course. This teaches you about the various climbing techniques, rescue procedures and how to assess the safety of the tree, amongst other things. That’s all you need to be allowed to climb as an arborist. If you want to work with a motorised saw in a tree, you must be able to prove that you have 300 hours of climbing experience and carry out a further 40 hours of training on the “SKT-B” course.
Trained specialists: arborists must have proof of their climbing experience.
Question: As an arborist, is it all about being able to climb properly?
Thoren Benk: It is, at least as far as the employers’ liability insurance requirements are concerned. It’s actually just about the technique for getting on to the tree. Tree maintenance, which is what our job is all about, is not covered in these training courses. So it’s all the more important – and in fact absolutely essential – to acquire an understanding of trees and how to care for them at the same time. It is therefore advisable to have the appropriate qualifications in this field as well. You can study agriculture or arboriculture or train as a “European Treeworker”.
Question: You are a fully qualified “European Treeworker” and have been working as an arborist for more than 15 years. Do you have any particular memories of specific projects?
Thoren Benk: Yes, plenty of them. Taking care of natural monuments is definitely one of them. Looking after young trees is also great because you sometimes get to work on them on a yearly basis and see how these trees grow over time. I’ve climbed up to almost 50 metres in the Rhineland-Palatinate region to pick cones and collect seeds and have spent the entire day in the trees. It’s physically challenging but it has a really calming effect mentally. Working in cities, when you constantly meet people, also makes a nice change.
Question: You have not only climbed trees for a living, but you also had some success in championships a couple of years ago…
Thoren Benk: Yes, that’s right. But I was still working in the trees every day at the time. As Managing Director, I don’t get the opportunity very much any more. I would therefore no longer have much of a chance in the German Championships or international competitions, even though I would probably still really enjoy the opportunity to climb in the amazing trees that make up the specially prepared courses.
Thoren, thank you very much for sharing your enthusiasm for your profession with us.
Information box “About the person”
Thoren Benk is Managing Director of Benk GmbH in Mülheim an der Ruhr, which employs 20 people, the Benk Arboriculture School and , a specialist climbing equipment and arboriculture store. Thoren Benk has proved his tree maintenance and climbing skills in several competitions and has won many titles in this field. He was German Champion in tree climbing (in 2006 and 2008) and has won the Belgian Championships (2009). He has also achieved leading positions in other national and international competitions.