Mention the word chainsaw, and you’ll generally get one of two responses: rapture or repulsion. The chainsaw is a high-powered, potentially lethal machine sold without a required operating license and sometimes without training guidelines. Many people feel much too intimidated to even think about running one, and with good reason. More than 165,000 injuries occur every year due to chainsaw accidents in the United States. Some prove fatal, which is why the word “safety” should immediately begin any conversation about chainsawing.
Operating a saw is an essential skill for maintaining land or cutting wood for heating season. Those gainfully employed in the lumber, logging and tree business are also comfortable with a chainsaw in their hands. Whether a weekend woodsperson or a professional cutter, proper training and guidance is essential for all first-timers, and luckily there are a number of safety courses available nationwide.
During a three-day chainsaw safety training program for women, I learned there are specific rules and procedures for the safe handling of a power tool with myriad whirling teeth, which need only the slightest inattention to turn dangerous and deadly.
The women-only class was proposed after co-ed classes had somewhat limited participation by some women who felt inhibited when it came time to handle the saw.
Without men in the class, it was thought that women would be more likely to engage their own questions, bodies and strengths, and challenge perceived limitations. One participant said, “I came because I had an interest and a need, and because the group was only women, I felt comfortable bringing questions and fears to the group.”
The course was targeted to female woodlot owners and other women who like to work in the woods. Fifteen of us between the ages of 18 and 72 gathered from 8:30 a.m. to noon on three consecutive Saturdays on a volunteer’s land in Falmouth, Maine.
No previous experience with a chainsaw was required, and most of us were as green as they come, having never used one. Our instructors, Tish Carr and Mike Maines, both licensed foresters and arborists, drove the point home that for anyone interested in safely operating a chainsaw, a healthy respect and thorough understanding is critical of both the power of the saw and that stored within wood and trees. So much so that it can be the difference between life and death. Being alert, sober, and prepared physically and mentally are necessary to safely complete the job.
Tish brought a woman’s perspective through her work as co-owner of a tree service. Having sustained on-the-job injuries, having searched to find proper equipment sized for women, and having faced some gender prejudice in her chosen profession, she brought firsthand expertise and an insider’s lens to our learning. She said, “There are some nuances because of body dynamics that play a part in both learning styles and how a chainsaw is handled.”
Mike emphasized that no matter how many hours of sawing experience are under your belt, every day is a new adventure, and you always have to prepare for the unexpected. “It is when things get too routine that we make mistakes. We have to approach each day of sawing with the same diligence as a beginner, just to make sure we don’t get lazy and careless. This is the only way to make sure we are coming out of the woods uninjured and alive.”
Not until the third day of class were we given the go-ahead to use our new saws.
We showed up ready for action dressed in Kevlar chaps, safety helmets, reflective gloves, steel-toed boots, and ear and eye protection, and were thrilled to finally start ’em up and put them in motion with some limbing and bucking. Even though we weren’t felling any trees, we were excitedly anticipating our first trial of cutting off branches and sawing up the tree into smaller pieces.
By this third day, the instructors had already invested more than six hours, drilling us on basic safety rules such as, “Never saw alone. Always let someone know where you’ll be working. Bring a cell phone and first-aid kit with you always. Never push past fatigue. Always gear up in personal protective equipment. Never air-drop start a saw.”
Chainsaw safety training classes and instruction are popping up more frequently. The class I took was organized through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. A student at Bowdoin College told me she took a chainsaw safety course through the Outing Club on campus. She shared these safety tips: always bring water; take a break from sawing every half an hour; have the car parked nose out with a full tank of gas just in case of an emergency; limit the amount of cutting to two hours or less, gauging your stamina realistically; and most importantly, never go out alone.
To find a safety program in your neck of the woods, start with a quick Web search. There are programs nationwide, especially in states with large forestry industries. Also check with local universities and colleges. A comprehensive list of chainsaw safety tips can be found at Chainsaw Safety Training, but in no way can this replace the invaluable lessons and firsthand experience of taking a training course with a professional instructor.
Chainsawing is an investment. Along with shelling out a couple hundred dollars for a decent saw, another couple hundred will need to be invested in protective gear, which is a necessity for skull, eyes, ears, hands, legs and feet. If any of these parts of your body are injured, it can be life-altering.
Get a good hardhat, one with at least four internal straps that fit over your head and leave a gap between your skull and the top of the hat to provide a shock absorber should something heavy come crashing down in the woods. It should also have a screen visor to protect your eyes from sawdust and wood chips that fly at high speed. I even wear a pair of safety glasses behind the screen just for good measure. Even a small spec of a wood chip can cause irreversible damage.
We learned that safe operating procedures apply to every moment the saw is in your possession. Always engage the safety lock bar when not sawing, and carry the saw with the bar facing backwards when walking between locations in case of a stumble. The sharp teeth will be facing away from you, and the mechanism that puts them in motion is on lockdown. Before sawing, examine the location, wind trajectory and tree lean to establish exit routes. Never saw with the bar above shoulder height, and never, ever, operate a chainsaw while standing on a ladder.
These are just a few of many more rules and guidelines to commit to heart to feel confident with a saw in your hands. Habitually following these procedures cannot be emphasized enough.
With the help of basic safety guidelines and a few well-spent class hours, anyone can easily learn to chainsaw with sensible preparation and physical fitness. Handling a saw and strictly adhering to safety guidelines can lead to a wonderful passion for working in the woods. It is exhilarating, empowering and great exercise. The hands-on experience of this workshop pulled it all together, and taught me invaluable lessons that I have consistently relied on. The sagest advice is safety, preparation and the use of diligent caution every time you go out to cut. If these rules are followed routinely, you should be sawing safely for years to come!
Read more: Learn more about chainsaws in Choose the Best Chainsaw for You.