Staying Safe in the Woodlot

By Brett McLeod

Notice the backward hands that put the saw dangerously close to the legs.
Photos by Brett McLeod.

For me, the choice between working in the woods and working in a cubicle is no choice at all. The freedom that comes from being outside, even in less than ideal weather, always trumps the stuffy confines of the office. Given the enjoyment that working in the woods brings, it's easy to forget all the hazards that exist, both as part of the natural environment and as a result of the forestry equipment you depend on, specifically the irreplaceable and venerable chain saw.

Environmental hazards and woodlot safety

Widow-makers, which are sometimes called "fool killers," are partially broken limbs that hang freely, posing a serious danger to those working in close proximity. In a study published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, it was estimated that approximately 11 percent of all chain saw-related fatalities involved widow-makers.

Never attempt to fell a tree that contains a widow-maker; ideally you should avoid the tree and surrounding trees. For those with professional climbing skills, it's often possible to set a rope or cable in the widow-maker and remove it by pulling/winching from a safe distance. However, even this method should be used with caution, since broken tops and limbs are usually a good indication of an unhealthy tree that could pose other threats to the climber/sawyer.

Here the saw is being drop started. The bar is in danger of kicking upward, toward the sawyer.

Another common woodlot hazard results from walking into the felling zone immediately after your tree has hit the ground. Chances are good that as your freshly felled tree swept through neighboring crowns on its downward descent, it knocked surrounding branches and deadwood loose. The problem is that there's often a delay before these surrounding branches fall, and they can land on the unsuspecting sawyer who walks into the felling zone before the surrounding crowns have ceased to shake. In addition to waiting for the surrounding crowns to calm, look up and inspect neighboring crowns for newly created hazards, such as fresh widow-makers.

On the topic of felling zones: Before you make your back cut or strap cut, it's important to always look down the felling lane one last time. Scan for people, pets, forgotten tools or anything else that may be in harm's way.

Proper "crotch starting" position, with the saw firmly braced.

From an ecological perspective, logging in winter avoids environmental impacts such as compaction and reduces the potential for soil erosion. From a safety perspective, working your woodlot in winter poses new challenges. Uneven footing, ice, and snow-covered obstacles such as rocks all present elements of danger that must be managed. Carrying a small shovel to dig out the base of trees as well as your escape route is important. Additionally, wearing calked boots will give you extra traction.

Since sound forestry often involves removing unacceptable growing stock, or UGS, you should be prepared to encounter defects that may make the harvesting process more dangerous. One common defect is ring shake, which can cause the tree to split or barber chair during the felling process. Barber chairs (vertical splitting of the tree during felling) are also more common in straight-grained species. Specifically, the risk is that as the tree splits, it can kick back toward the sawyer without warning. Trees with internal defects such as heart rot, as well as winter-cut trees with heavy, snow-filled crowns, are particularly susceptible to barber chairing.

Your left hand should always be on the top handle, and your right hand should be on the rear handle.

Sawing safely

Over the last decade, I've taught several hundred students to use chain saws. My favorite students are those who have never touched a chain saw before; in other words, those students who haven't developed unsafe habits. The errors described below are incredibly common - and incredibly dangerous.

You should always have two hands on the saw.

Drop starting - Drop starting saws was once standard practice, but it's very dangerous because the bar of the chain saw is unsupported. The risk is that as the saw fires to life, the bar can flip up and cut the sawyer on the arm, chest or face. A safer method is the "crotch start," where the saw is safely braced between your legs. An alternate method is ground starting, where your right foot is placed in the rear handle guard of the saw.

Backward hands - All chain saws are designed to be operated with your right hand on the rear handle (operating the throttle) and your left hand on the top handle. Reversing this is extremely dangerous, putting the bar of the saw right next to your leg.

Never lift the saw above shoulder height.

Sawing above shoulder height - Another common mistake is the temptation to reach up and "prune" with the chain saw. This position is outside of your control zone and can result in the saw kicking back, with the bar moving toward your face/shoulder.

One-handed sawing - This careless operating error is often practiced with smaller chain saws, where the operator removes his/her hand "for just a second." The consequence is that the saw doesn't have any downward control, which greatly increases the chance of kickback.

A wrapped thumb gives better control and reduces the likelihood of kickback.

Setting the chain brake - All modern chain saws are equipped with an inertia chain brake that can be operated manually. As a rule of thumb, you should set the brake if you're taking three or more steps. The brake and handle are designed so that you don't need to remove your hand to set the brake. Instead, simply rotate your left wrist forward to activate the brake.

Close contact - Many new chain saw operators assume that the farther they hold the saw from their body, the safer they are. Unfortunately, holding the saw far away from the body only increases fatigue and makes it more likely that you'll lose your balance.

Never remove your hand to set the chain brake.

Personal protective equipment - Commonly referred to as PPE, this should be viewed as the minimum safety equipment while working in the woodlot: chain saw chaps, forestry helmet with face and ear protection, safety-toe boots and properly fitting work gloves. Collectively, this equipment will help to protect you from the most common chain saw injuries, making your time in the woodlot both more productive and enjoyable.

Brett McLeod is an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul Smith's College, located in the Adirondacks of northern New York.