Even the most experienced worker can be caught by surprise in the woodlot. Sometimes, a decision made months earlier can come back to grab you by surprise. Other times, it is a moment’s inattention that proves hazardous.

Such was the case with Dan Sweet of Danville, Vermont, when he came into a load of logs, cheap. Splitting the wood was a job he actually looked forward to doing.

“I find splitting wood to be very relaxing; it takes my mind off other things,” he said.

Usually Sweet’s woodlot projects only involve cutting trees on the family farm. However, their son Jason got a good deal on a load of logs, and decided to dump them on the edge of the family property to give his Dad a project for the whole summer. Luckily, they have a big lawn for stacking the timber.

“My son Jason bought 12 cords of wood at a good rate this year and dumped it on the side of the lawn,” Sweet said. Jason figured it would be a good father-son project to cut the logs up and sell more firewood than they normally would.

“I find it is better to run a wood splitter alone,” Dan said. “If Jason is helping me, I have to watch his hands and mine. If he is running the cylinder lever, he needs to watch my hands and make sure he doesn’t pull it too quickly.”

In short, many hands – rather than making light work – add a degree of difficulty.

The accident

On a Saturday afternoon in July, Dan was splitting 16-inch firewood with the log splitter by himself.

“I was in a hurry, thinking about something else and not paying attention,” Dan said. “I put the piece of wood onto the tray and pushed the lever running the hydraulic cylinder.”

In an instant, as the wood was getting pushed to the backstop, Sweet’s right index finger got stuck between the backstop and the piece of wood. “Of course I immediately pulled back on the lever…but it was too late, my finger was squashed.”

Luckily – or, perhaps, safely – Sweet had done one thing right. He had donned safety equipment before he started, namely. Key at this point was the pair of gloves he was wearing. The gloves softened the blow a bit and probably saved his finger.

“My finger hurt from the tip to the middle knuckle. It was in severe pain so I ran to the house where my wife, Barb, was working,” he recalled. He knew he was in a world of hurt. He lowered himself down onto the ground because he thought he was going to pass out.

“Barb was in the garden working and she said when she saw me holding my finger, she knew exactly what happened. My mother-in-law is a nurse so she came to look at me and to avoid a hospital trip,” he said.

He was fortunate in the outcome. “I was really weak for the rest of the day,” he said. He is doubly lucky since he has a friend who lost the end of his finger due to a wood splitter.

He had to keep the finger bandaged tightly for some time. “I could not use my right hand, either,” he said, noting that his finger is still flattened some. Cold bothered it for months. If he is like many others with damaged digits, weather changes will be foretold by miscellaneous aches through the years.

This 22-ton log splitter was working 12 cords of wood when the accident happened

Around the woodlot

“I have 10 acres and thin some wood off the adjoining family farm,” Sweet said. The firewood is maple, beech, yellow birch and ash.

“The main purpose is to cut firewood for my stove and sell to the neighbors,” Sweet said. He cuts about four cords a year for his family’s use and about six for the neighbors. In addition, he also cuts trees to make sugaring roads and thin any trees that might affect sap lines.

Sweet has a 20-ton splitter with a 6.5-hp Briggs and Stratton engine. “It has worked fine,” he said. It can split logs up to two 2 feet diameter and 24 feet long.

“I have had it for eight years,” he said. “Definitely if a wood lot owner wants a firewood business then they should purchase a wood processor,” he said. He offers some observations from a man who has brushed shoulders with what could have been a serious incident.

Safety advice

As a parting word of advice, Sweet advised others in the woods that it is necessary to stay hydrated and alert. “If possible, I try to be in the shade during the hot summer,” he added.

His advice: Pay attention when operating machinery. “Give that equipment 100 percent of your attention,” he said. “Don’t hurry. Hurrying causes accidents.”

At any woodland job, safety has to be a priority. That starts with maintaining the machinery properly – from the engine to the mechanical parts.

“I always wear gloves and ear protection and watch out for loose sleeves,” Sweet said. “I know I should wear eye protection too,” he concluded.

Read more: Mechanized Harvesting Safety