Let the Chips Fly

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Proper body placement, eye protection, leather gloves and chaps offer adequate protection while bucking.
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Appropriate safety gear includes a helmet with face shield, chaps and gloves, in addition to a saw equipped with the latest safety features.
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The green link indicates a low kickback chain.

Woodcutting season is here again and that means folks will dust off their chain saws and head out to manage their timber tracts, reclaim overgrown acres or just replenish their woodpiles. The annual ritual is as gratifying as the season is compelling, but for some weekend woodsmen, the reward is an unexpected trip to the hospital. As handy as they are, chain saws are directly responsible for thousands of injuries and a number of fatalities each year. All it takes to avoid becoming a saw statistic yourself is a little forethought, some safety equipment and a bit of training.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, U.S. consumers own more than 17 million gasoline powered chain saws. These numbers will surely increase as more people move to the country, reach for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels to heat their homes and seek to clear those overgrown tracts to create the perfect building site. The vast majority of these chain saws are obtained from big box stores where the likelihood of receiving a lesson in chain saw safety is slim. All that good information is packed into the machine’s manual, but most first-time sawyers hit the woods without looking at the manual long enough to figure out how much oil to mix in the gasoline, much less how to saw safely.

Dress the part

Just as a hockey player never hits the ice without protective pads, never operate your chain saw without appropriate safety apparel. The gear you wear is the first line of defense if things go awry while the chain saw is in operation. Starting from the top, a hard hat with face shield, hearing protection, safety glasses, a long-sleeved shirt, leather gloves, safety chaps and leather boots are all recommended to ensure a safe day in the woods. No one will accuse you of being stylish but that’s a small price to pay for keeping things together – literally.

Some seasoned sawyers suggest that a hard hat with a face shield may not be mandatory when cutting wood below waist level; however, when felling or limbing trees, it is important because limbs can spring wildly in any direction after cuts are made. The face shield provides a defense for your eyes and some protection from a kickback event that tosses the saw blade toward your face.

Hearing protection is also often overlooked, especially when an operator intends to saw for only a short time. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders rates the noise of a chain saw at 110 decibels, and at this decibel level, permanent hearing loss can occur with regular exposure periods of more than one minute. Proper protection can be in the form of earplugs designed to limit sound or approved safety muffs (both available at your local chain saw dealer).

Choose close-fitting clothing while working with a saw to avoid accidental entanglement with its chain or the tree that’s providing the chips. Leather gloves will protect hands from hot saw components as well as abrasions from tree limbs. A good pair of steel-toed leather boots will provide some protection from a slip of the saw’s cutting bar as well as the crushing power of the wood you are cutting.

Chaps aren’t just for cowboys and bikers

Well over a third of all chain saw injuries involve the legs. Considering that the saw’s chain moves at about 60 mph (88 feet per second) with the throttle wide open, that means roughly 530 cutting edges will pass a given point in a mere second. It’s suddenly easy to understand that even a glancing collision between saw and leg will result in serious carnage. But this doesn’t have to be so. Perhaps the best investment you can make in your personal saw-safety equipment is a pair of chaps. These leg protectors are made with layers of special fibers that instantly tangle with the saw’s chain and cause it to stall – ideally before it cuts through your Carhartts and into your thigh. Chain saw chaps won’t prevent all injuries but in most cases they substantially limit the damage. For around $80 a pair, chaps are cheap insurance – look for them at any reputable chain saw dealer or online.

Kickbacks can cut you down to size

When your chain saw’s speeding teeth grab hold of something solid at the cutting bar’s tip, there’s a good chance that certain laws of physics will cause the saw to swing upward in a fairly explosive manner known as kickback. If you happen to be stooped over the saw at the time of launch, there’s a reasonable chance your face will bear the brunt of the blow. If the chain is still moving, that blow will rapidly become a slice. Obviously, this is a worst-case scenario, but no matter what the trajectory, a running saw arcing through space just isn’t safe. It’s not possible to prevent kickback entirely, but knowing how to avoid causing it and keeping your face out of harm’s way will go a long way to preventing injury.

Saw manufacturers have also developed safety features to lessen the probability of kickback occurring. For example, the chain brake on all newer saws stops the chain instantly – it’s triggered by the operator’s wrist when the saw swings upward. Of course, this assumes that the operator has a firm grip on the saw’s top handle. Even if you are an experienced sawyer, if you find yourself with a used machine that lacks a chain brake, bury it and buy a safer model.

Other cutting bar improvements minimize the possibility of kickback. These include reducing the cutting bar tip’s radius and narrowing its profile. Some cutting bars are equipped with nose guards that prevent tip contact, but they also prevent plunge cutting and seriously limit the saw’s cutting width. Low kickback chains designed to limit the tenacity of the saw’s bite are also available. (These cutters work well for occasional users, but low kickback chains are slower to make the cut, which is problematic for professionals.) The combination of a chain brake, low kickback chain and careful operation will sufficiently minimize the danger of kickback for most operators.

Wake up and take a stand

Body position relative to the saw and the wood you are cutting is key to safe operation. Avoid making cuts where the footing is poor and especially in situations that tempt you to operate the saw directly in front of you. Instead, try to make cuts while the saw is offset to the left or right of your legs. This will allow the saw to swing down away from the body if an accidental slip is made while cutting, or as the saw plunges through the cut. In the event of a kickback, the saw will also be more likely to miss your head and upper torso.

A common mistake of inexperienced sawyers is to use the chain saw to make cuts above shoulder height. Arm strength is seriously diminished once rotated beyond the horizontal plane from the shoulders, which makes any unanticipated movement of the saw extremely difficult to control. And worse, gravity will bring it down on top of you. Single-handed saw operation is also dangerous because using the trigger hand alone will circumvent the chain brake, never mind the loss of control encountered once you let go of the top or side handle.

Statistics suggest that many power equipment accidents are at least in part related to fatigue. Operators tend to take more chances, cut corners and make mistakes (both mental and physical) when they are tired. Even if it isn’t the end of the day, when you feel tired, weak or hungry, no matter how close you are to finishing up in the woods, take a break. No amount of firewood or tree clearing is worth losing an arm.

Maintenance is mandatory

Keeping your chain saw in tip-top shape will make it easier to use and safer to boot. Before each use, take a few minutes to adjust and check the chain. Make sure the safety features, such as the chain brake, work properly – go ahead and lubricate the sprocket and clutch (if recommended) and fill the bar oil reservoir before heading out. If the saw is running poorly, and/or the chain is dull, limit your chances of injury by avoiding the temptation to fight through a cut. If the blade is dull, install a sharp chain or take a 20-minute rest break and sharpen it. If the saw is running rough, check that the spark plug is clean, gapped correctly and tightened. Look over the fuel system at the same time and correct any obvious issues such as a pinched fuel line. If the saw still refuses to run well, it’s best to take it back to your shop (or the dealer) to give it a proper tune up.

Let the chips fly

The chain saw is one of the most useful tools a property owner can own. But like any machine with the capacity to cause serious bodily harm, it is essential to respect the saw’s inherent dangers and to take your time getting comfortable with its operation. It’s hard to imagine an early winter day better spent than in the woods cutting fuel for next year’s heating season. And make no mistake, you’ll find the activity plenty warming – even while wielding a chain saw.

A lifelong Kansan, Mike Lang manages the landscape of a university campus by day and his own quarter-acre the rest of the time.