A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: It’s muzzle loading season again — tips on how to avoid deer hunting accidents

It’s that time of year again where millions of men (88.1 percent) and women (11.9 percent), begin to disappear and venture into the woods to hunt the all elusive whitetail deer.

Deer season in Kentucky opened for bow hunters this past Sept. 2 and muzzle-loading season is scheduled to begin this coming weekend, Oct. 21-22.

It’s been estimated that there are 16.5 million active hunters across the United States, and according to a Realtree.com statistic, 10.9 million of them went into the field to hunt deer, spending on average 15.5 days per hunter.

When you add the number of hunters in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin you have over 3,510,000 hunters, which equates to the largest army in the world.

For comparison, China has a 2.1 million man standing army and the U.S. has a 1.4 million force. Texas alone has 1,060,000 which would make it the fourth largest army in the world, ahead of Russia which has an 821,000 man Army.

Hunters don’t hesitate to open up their wallets when it comes to gearing up for the love of this sport either, spending on average $1,992 annually per hunter, which equates to a $24.9 billion industry in the United States.

In the early 20th century the Kentucky deer population was believed to number only 2,600, and with the help of Kentucky’s Wildlife management and deer hunters, the herd has grown to an estimate of 858,000.

Last year in Kentucky there were a total of 139,429 deer harvested during the 2016-17 season with a total of 514,000 numbers of resident hunting licenses, tags, permits and stamps purchased in the state.

I have spent my fair share of time in the woods in October and November over the years and with that many deer hunters, opening day of gun season does sound like a war zone. But the question that this safety and risk management professional intended to answer for you is “How Dangerous is this American Past Time?”

Statistically hunting is an extremely safe activity. According to the National Safety Council, far more people per 100,000 participants are injured while bicycling or playing baseball than while hunting. Further statistics show that while around 100 people die nationwide while hunting each year, more than 1,500 perish in swimming-related accidents.

Yes, hunters are sometimes mistaken for wildlife and are accidentally shot, but they also are exposed to hypothermia, poison Ivy, poisonous snakes, bear attacks, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease from tick bites and even the potential heart attacks from over exertion.

When you hear of the term “hunting accident” the first thing that probably comes to mind is an accidental shooting, and according to the International Hunter Education Association approximately 1,000 people in the U.S. and Canada are accidentally shot by hunters every year. Just under a hundred of those accidents are fatalities. Most victims are hunters, but non-hunters are also sometimes killed or injured but only 10 percent of these hunting accidents end in death.

The fact is that an accident involving a firearm is not the leading cause for injuries or fatalities. To most non-hunter’s surprise the most common type of hunting accidents are falls from tree stand while hunting. If you are a deer hunter you probably knew this, especially if you have any form of acrophobia, the fear of heights.

According to TreeStandSafetyAwareness.org, deer stand accidents are the number one cause of serious injury and death to deer hunters. Deer stands are elevated platforms used for hunting large game. They provide an expanded field of vision while minimizing ground scent.

It is estimated that more than one-third of hunters who use deer stands will be involved in a fall sometime in their hunting careers. Approximately at 300-500 hunters are killed annually in deer stand accidents and another 6,000 more sustain deer stand accident injuries, according to a study by the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA).

According to the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, more than 90 percent of hunters use some type of deer stand for hunting. Although deer stands were initially more popular with bow hunters, many rifle hunters are now use them as well. The Center for Disease Control found that the average deer stand was placed 16 feet above the ground, some hunters will go as high as 35-40 feet.

In most cases, victims from falls walked away with just a few scratches, bruises, strained ligaments or broken fingernails, however others will suffer permanent injuries that eventually cost them their jobs, businesses, marriages and/or mobility.

As a safety and risk management professional I can tell you that there is no specific distance from which a person can fall and survive. I have investigated fatalities from slip and falls from the same level. There are simply too many variables that will dominate the factor of distance. The truth is if you fall 16 feet, it’s going to hurt and it very well could be fatal depending on how you land and what you land on.

In addition to the height the factors that determine the trauma are the time duration and orientation of the body at impact, the landing surface, the time duration of impact, the distribution of force, and age and physical condition of the patient. Falling hunters can also sustain injuries from secondary impacts with tree limbs or suffer injuries related to objects on or near them such as knives, broad-head arrows, rattling antlers, and firearms.

Deer stand related injuries frequently cause fractures. Spine, pelvis, and extremity fractures are all well documented, with one study reporting that 73 percent of treating deer hunters from injuries from a fall from a deer stand sustained a fracture.

Many deer stand injuries can be crippling too, as one deer stand survey found that about three percent of those who fall will suffer permanently crippling injuries.

In a report from Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Specialist of Green Bay they estimate that about 10 percent of hunters who use deer stands are injured annually and falls from deer stand heights are associated with high injury rates. They claimed that 80 percent of fall victims underwent operative intervention and nearly 10 percent had permanent neurological deficits.

The good news is that such falls are easily preventable. The most important thing you can do to prevent a fall from a deer stand is to use a full body harness, which keeps you in the stand if you slip, fall or even fall asleep. It’s been estimated that 82 percent of hunters who fall from deer stands are not wearing harnesses, according to the Tree Stand Manufacturers Association, so in order for them to work you have to use them.

Homemade deer stands are fun and memorable to build, but over time these structures age and deteriorate with the inclement weather. Most safety professionals will tell you to purchase a recently manufactured deer stand to increase your odds of having a safe hunting season.

If you still hunt with one of those handed down 1970s-vintage deer stands and haven’t been hurt yet, you are defying the laws of probability, as many of those models were cited for slips and structural failures.

Today these major deer stand manufacturers are producing the better and more reliable deer stands. Working in the insurance industry I can tell you that the fear of lawsuits and rising insurance costs have spurred major improvements in the engineering and production of deer stands today and for those companies that didn’t adapt they were driven from the marketplace.

Here are some important safety recommendations to follow as you head off into the woods this year:

— Use a Full Body Safety Harness – Researchers estimate more than half of all hunters injured in a tree stand accidents didn’t use, or failed to properly use, a safety harness. Also never remove your hunting safety harness while in your deer stand.

— Adult Supervision – Always have adult present whenever kids or teenagers are hunting.

— Complete a Hunter Safety Course –In most states these hunter safety courses are a prerequisite before receiving a hunting license.

— Safety In Numbers – Avoid hunting by yourself. Your chances of survival after an accident increase the sooner you are found.

— Always Wear Hunter Orange – Hunter orange clothing designed to make you visible to other hunters; you would be a fool to go without wearing while hunting during deer season.

— Avoid Dead Trees – Select a tree that is substantial enough to hold your weight and won’t tip over or have a branch break while climbing into a tree. The tree should be alive and healthy without any noticeable rot or damage. Your tree should also meet the size specifications and restrictions set by the tree stand company.

— Read Instructions – Read, understand, and follow all of the manufacturer’s recommended procedures and never alter your equipment.

— Inspect & Replace – Check your deer stand before every use and replace deer stand straps and steps regularly. Make sure all cables and straps are in good working condition and re-tighten all nuts and bolts that can become loose after a long season

— Observe & Assess
– Before and after each use meticulously look over every single part of your tree stand to detect and identify potential problems.

— Maintain Three Point Contact – Have three points of contact while climbing into and out of the tree stand; either two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand at all times

— Never Carry Anything While Climbing In or Out of A Deer Stand – Carrying equipment can affect your balance and cause you to fall Use a haul line to raise and lower your UNLOADED firearm and pack.

— Use a short tether between you and the tree when seated in the tree stand

— Keep People Informed – Let people know where you’ll be hunting, where you’ll be parking your vehicle, and when you intend to return. Some hunters have multiple stands so, be sure to let family and friends know the exact deer stand location that you’re currently hunting.

— Maintain Communication
– Always carry a cell phone with you so you can call for help if you are injured after a fall. If you are out of cell service then utilize a walkie-talkie with others within your hunting party.

— Respect The Weather – Recognize the danger increases when it rains and or snows. Tree bark, steps and deer stands become slippery.

— Avoid Single Chest/Waist Straps – Statistics and gravity have proven these types of harnesses are dangerous and when you fall they instantly puts a choke hold around the hunter’s chest.

— Don’t Fall Asleep – Avoid falling sleeping in your deer stand, you can fall or accidentally drop your rifle. Get plenty of rest and sleep prior to hunting.

— Carry A Whistle – If you fall out of a deer stand or become injured a whistle can come in handy to notify others that may be looking for you.

— Always Carry a Knife – While the harness may prevent you from hitting the ground, you can still die if you are suspended for a significant amount of time and are unable to free yourself. Some experts even suggest practicing how to free yourself from the harness so you are better prepared to handle an emergency. A knife can come in handy.

— Remove Your Deer Stand – Take your stand down as soon as the season is over. Leaving it out in the weather, or bed of a truck, exposes it to moisture and elements that can lead to damage.

— Eliminate Rust – prime and repaint any areas that show sign of rusting to prevent further deterioration.

— Slow Down. More accidents occur when the hunter is excited or hurrying to climb into or out of the stand. Beware of frost and ice on your steps and slick mud on your boots.

— Avoid Medication – Never hunt from a tree stand after taking medication that can cause drowsiness.

Be Safe My Friends.


Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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