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Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

Tree management in Hong Kong under fire after falling branch kills Indonesian domestic helper

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said she had seen ‘no real action taken by the government’ despite seven years of pressing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 9:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 5:26pm

An Indonesian domestic helper was killed by a falling tree branch on Tuesday, putting the spotlight again on long-unresolved questions about Hong Kong’s struggle with tree management and inability to improve safety through legislation.

Jumiati Supadi, 48, was struck on the head by the 4½-metre-long branch, weighing 30kg, as she was walking with her employer at around 7.30am along New Clear Water Bay Road in Sau Mau Ping. She was rushed to United Christian Hospital and certified dead soon after.

It marked the fifth tree-related death in the city over the past 10 years, with critics immediately complaining about how little progress had been made since the last fatality, when a heavily pregnant woman was killed by a falling tree in Mid-Levels in 2014.

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said she had seen “no real action taken by the government” to improve safety, despite pushing Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to establish a tree management law since 2011, when Lam was development secretary.

“I brought it up seven years ago and made a lot of effort to pursue it. But so far, nothing has changed,” Chan said.

At a Legislative Council question-and-answer session in April, Lam had said the government was open to introducing tree management legislation and that the Housing Authority had studied practices in six overseas and mainland Chinese cities.

Chan also noted that tree carers faced a heavy burden, with official figures showing each worker had to take care of 2,900 trees on average.

The Tree Management Office under the Development Bureau and the Housing Department expressed sadness over Tuesday’s accident at the Shun Lee public housing estate.

They said the Indian rubber tree was 40 years old and stood 15 metres tall. It had been inspected in June by the Housing Department, which had arranged for a contractor to prune it and remove dead branches by August 24.

The contractor began the pruning work on Tuesday afternoon following the woman’s death.

The office and the department said they had also checked the condition of nearby trees and would take steps to protect the public from further risk.

Kwun Tong district councillor Choy Chak-hung said he had long been concerned about the rubber tree and asked the government’s tree managers to “keep an eye on it”.

“You can see trees in that area were planted too close to each other, they are always fighting for space. The tree that fell had branches sticking out onto the road before this accident happened,” he said.

It takes skills, knowledge, experience and the right attitude to properly take care of a tree, and some companies are just not that professional
Jim Chi-yung, HKU geography professor

According to Choy, the estate’s management office informed the department two weeks ago that trees in the area needed pruning.

Jim Chi-yung, a tree expert and geography professor at the University of Hong Kong went to the scene and identified noticeable signs of decay at the branch’s breaking point.

“It would take more than six months for such a big branch to decay to this degree,” Jim said. “Considering there were not many leaves on the branch, it would not be hard for a tree assessment team to have seen [the risk].”

Jim suggested fungus had caused the decay and the lack of space for the tree to grow had weakened its immune system.

“Indian rubber trees are rampant and need room to grow. From what I saw, that tree was trapped between the pavement and the stairs,” Jim said.

He noted that the overall quality of tree assessment contractors hired by the government varied, so risk management problems could crop up from time to time.

“It takes skills, knowledge, experience and the right attitude to properly take care of a tree, and some companies are just not that professional,” he said.

The Housing Department said the tree was considered “normal” when assessed in January by City Landscaping, a tree inspection company. The same company reassessed the tree in June and found “no issue needing to be followed up immediately”.

“The department will investigate this accident and require the tree inspection company to file a report,” the department said. “We have requested the company assess the conditions of other trees in Shun Lee Estate again and take follow-up steps if any pruning work is needed.

“We have contacted the employer of the victim to express our condolence and hope to get in contact with the family to provide help and compensation.”

Zhang Qin, 37, was 38 weeks pregnant when she was hit by a 10-metre-high Indian rubber tree that came crashing down a slope while she was waiting for a minibus on Robinson Road in August, 2014. Her baby was delivered by emergency caesarean section and remained in a critical condition for more than two weeks.

In October 2012, a truck passenger was killed and its driver injured when a falling tree hit the vehicle in Tai Po.

A cyclist was hit and killed by a five-metre branch from a yellow poinciana tree in Sha Tin in 2010 and in 2008, a university student was killed by a falling tree in Stanley.