Edgar Martin Ramos Martinez called his wife and four kids in Guatemala every morning, as he did every lunch break and after he finished work as a Bay Area arborist.
The 37-year-old would hear updates from his children, and he and his wife would discuss the future they wanted for their children and where the family could build a house in their native country.
But Ramos was killed Jan. 27 in Mill Valley when a tree he and his colleagues were cutting knocked over a second tree that toppled a third tree that struck him. Officials determined Ramos’ cause of death to be blunt impact injuries and the manner an accident. A Marin County chief deputy coroner called the incident a “fluke.”
Ramos’ death marked the first tree-related workplace fatality of the year in California, officials said, but it’s just the latest example of the hazards arborists face when providing a vital service to communities. Such deaths have nearly tripled across the state over the last decade, according to Cal/OSHA’s most recent figures, and officials and experts have become increasingly concerned that the public and even some workers underestimate the dangers of the industry.
“It’s a tough loss,” said Ramos’ 27-year-old nephew, Henry Escobar, who has his own tree service company. “This is one of the most dangerous work to do, especially climbers — they put their lives at risk every single day.”
The most recent tree-related death before this week’s was in December 2019, when a felled tree limb struck a tree trimmer supervisor in Elk Grove (Sacramento County), said Frank Polizzi, a Cal/OSHA spokesman.
But such deaths have been on the agency’s “radar” for a while, Polizzi said, due to the hazardous nature of tree trimming and meticulous regulations that should be followed. The most recent numbers the agency has indicate there were 14 workplace fatalities in 2018 involving trees and limbs across the state, a decrease from the year before when there were 24, which was a vast increase from the five recorded in 2009.
Polizzi said officials can’t attribute the jump in deaths to any one factor, but variables like economic activity or the size and growth of an industry can affect numbers.
“Tree work is one of the most dangerous industries in California,” Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker said in a statement. “Employers need to have a heightened awareness of their responsibility to ensure workers are safe from injury.”
Although arborists are trained to inspect trees and assess whatever work they may need, the work requires intensive attention as numerous factors — insects and animals, high-voltage wires and wet or windy weather conditions — make the job difficult. And dangers aside, the industry is an important one as dead and diseased trees, or those with compromised limbs, can present a serious threat to people and animals underneath them.
“Every tree looks like a perfect tree with bark and leaves,” said Tad Jacobs, a certified arborist and founder of Treemasters, a tree service company. “They don’t have a countdown clock.”
Jose Mercado, co-founder of the Hispanic Arborist Association, which trains tree trimmers across California, said there are several compounding issues that may be responsible for the uptick in deaths: demand is high for tree workers, especially in areas where utility companies are trying to curb fire dangers; some workers receive inadequate or insufficient training; and a sense of urgency from supervisors can cause employees to work at unsafe speeds.
“Everyone thinks it’s easy,” Mercado said. “There is a whole different set of skills that you need to be working 100, 150 feet up” on a tree.
Ramos’ death sounded like a freak accident, Mercado said, and he lamented how a person’s death can place a stigma on the entire industry. He compared watching a professional arborist at work to “watching Cirque du Soleil.”
“As a general rule, most tree workers are careful,” Mercado said. “The tree workers that are out there are highly skilled.”
Those who knew Ramos remembered him as a hardworking and passionate family man. He moved to the United States seeking better opportunities about two years ago, Escobar said. He first lived in Los Angeles for about six months, where he briefly worked for a cigar company, before moving north to eventually live in San Rafael.
Aside from the difficulty and dangers innate to assessing, trimming and climbing trees, Ramos also had lost sight in his right eye in a sling-shot accident with his brother, Escobar said. But that didn’t deter him.
“I believe his motivation to work super hard and give work his all was his family in Guatemala,” Escobar said. “He was such a loving father.”
Ramos adored tree work and stayed up to date on new techniques and gear, Escobar said.
“It was always about trees,” Escobar recalled of conversations with his uncle.
Ramos also was a stickler for safety, and he often chastised people who texted while driving, yelling: “You’re putting my life at risk!”
But that was the extent of any frustration he would show, Escobar said, and a contrast to Ramos’ usual happy and funny demeanor.
“I never saw him angry — always positive,” Escobar said.
Vilma Tecun Ramos, who grew up with Ramos studying, playing and going to school together in Guatemala, said the two became friends again years later when he moved to Northern California.
She said he was happy and friendly but missed his family — many times his kids would ask him when he planned to return home.
“He would say, ‘I’ll soon return to my family,’” Tecun Ramos said. “But what happened happened, and his dreams ended there.”
On Monday, Ramos and his coworkers at Clements Tree Service Inc. were cutting a Eucalyptus tree between Blue Jay Way and Chamberlain Court when the fatal chain-reaction occurred, officials said.
“There was nothing anybody could have done,” Escobar said. “Nobody saw it coming.”
In a statement, Ramos’ colleague Jason Diaz said everyone at the company would miss him.
“Martin was a good friend to all of us at the company,” Diaz wrote. “He was always hard-working, funny and caring. Martin was respected and he respected everyone he worked with. When we had to get something done, we [got] it done by helping one another. We will never forget the great memories we had with him.”
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