Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong
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Workers remove trees that could pose a safety risk to residents at Ng Tung Chai village in Tai Po on Saturday. Photo: Jelly Tse

Hong Kong authorities warn of action against contractor after tree branch snaps and kills villager

  • Lands Department says contractor should have removed tree immediately after determining in August it had a high risk of collapsing
  • Source says 64-year-old man killed was among group of villagers trimming branches from six-metre-tall tree in Ng Tung Chai, Tai Po
Ezra Cheung

Hong Kong authorities have warned they will hold a contractor accountable after a tree branch snapped and killed a 64-year-old man on Friday afternoon while villagers were carrying out clearing work.

The Lands Department said the contractor should have removed the tree immediately after determining in August it had a high risk of collapsing.

It said the contractor did not submit an inspection report about the tree until after Friday’s incident.

“The investigation report alleged that the contractor had inspected the tree on August 29, assessed the tree as high-risk and recommended its removal,” the department said on Friday. “The contractor should have dealt with it immediately. We are extremely dissatisfied with the performance of the contractor and will take appropriate action.”

The villagers had been using ropes during the clearing work. Photo: Handout

Police said the incident took place at about 3pm in Ng Tung Chai village, Tai Po, adding that an investigation was under way. The villager died after the branch snapped and landed on him.

A source said the victim had joined several of his neighbours in using ropes to clear dead branches from the six-metre tall (20 feet) tree in the village.

One of the branches snapped in the process and struck the man, causing him to lose balance and hit his head on the ground, the insider added.

The victim was sent to Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Tai Po and later certified dead at 6.01pm.

The department also said it had arranged for arborists and the contractor to follow up at the scene on Saturday and that it would review the monitoring mechanism for such firms.

It would contact the Home Affairs Department and Social Welfare Department to provide appropriate help to the family of the deceased, it added.

Workers remove trees that could pose a safety risk to residents. Photo: Jelly Tse

The Home Affairs Department said, however, its Tai Po district office had not received any complaints or requests for assistance regarding the tree in the past six months.

The Social Welfare Department said it had contacted the family members of the deceased and would appropriate assisstance.

The day after the accident, Lands Department workers and the contractor went to the village to assess the trees, sawed away the ones deemed a safety risk and checked the trunks of others. The department said it inspected 60 trees, pruned six and removed eight others. It added that it aimed to finish working on the remaining trees in Ng Tung Chai within two weeks.

“The department is very dissatisfied with the contractor’s performance and will impose severe punishment according to the contract terms and mechanism,” a spokesman said.

Falling trees have led to several injuries among the public over the past few weeks.

On October 17, a tree collapsed during the passage of Typhoon Nesat, injuring seven people when it hit a bus travelling on a section of Peak Road. They were sent to Queen Mary Hospital for treatment.

A poinciana tree in Ho Man Tin, which stood 10 metres, landed on a school bus and three cars on September 16, injuring two people. Authorities subsequently ordered an inspection of all such roadside trees, with 59 later marked for removal and 130 ordered to be trimmed.

7 passengers hurt after tree falls on bus as Typhoon Nesat nears Hong Kong

Ken So Kwok-yin, the chief executive of the Conservancy Association, said that judging from the images available online, the tree was an autumn maple, a species commonly found in Hong Kong.

He said it was not a brittle tree and could reach more than 30 metres tall in rural areas.

So highlighted there was an autumn maple in nearby Fong Ma Po village that had been registered by the government as a valuable tree.

“But unlike urban areas, where authorities such as the Leisure and Cultural Services Department have to check the trees regularly, the Lands Department would not actively examine trees in the countryside,” So said. “The Lands Department depends heavily on contractors assigned to assess those trees when receiving a complaint.

“Now there is a loophole as to why the inspection report could come so late,” he said.

So said the Lands Department was responsible for managing most trees grown in rural areas.

The Audit Commission in 2014 criticised the Development Bureau, which coordinates the work of several tree management agencies, for a failure to define tree maintenance duties, among other deficiencies.

The remarkable story of how Hong Kong’s loneliest tree could save a species, via Scotland

Architectural, surveying, planning and landscape sector lawmaker Tony Tse Wai-chuen criticised the government for lacking a systematic way to maintain trees.

“Many trees in the countryside have not been cared for closely, and they will pose hazards to people in the event of weather conditions such as rainstorms and typhoons,” Tse, also the chairman of the Legislative Council’s development panel, said.

He suggested the government should set up a system to prioritise tree inspection depending on their condition and make its complaint reporting system digital so that everyone involved would be on the same page.

“The government has to find the loopholes and fill them, but not wait until something goes wrong,” he said.