Power tools and chainsaws are extremely powerful machines that can help us complete difficult tasks swiftly and decisively. However, they can also be very dangerous and working with them can quickly get out of control.
According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,000 Americans each year have to go to the emergency room as a result of chainsaws.
The risk of injury is greater after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or other natural disasters because chainsaws are used to free branches and remove fallen trees. To stay safe when using a chainsaw is not a complex equation – you just need to be aware of how a chainsaw works, and the most common types of injury. By following the fundamental safety rules of chainsaws and power tools – and remaining vigilant – you will be able to avoid becoming one of those 36,000 people. This guide will walk you through the steps required to stay safe.
Before you even think about starting a woodworking project involving a chainsaw (or other large power tools) you need to make sure that you understand the basic rules of safety. These generally center around two key ideas: preparation and equipment.
Start by thinking about the process of completing the work – what will you do at each stage, what can go wrong, and how would you act in that situation. Then think about what equipment you will need. If you’re working with a large power tool or a chainsaw, you should read the owner’s manual, and make sure that you understand all of the key elements within it.
All types of power tools are different, so even if you have worked with a chainsaw before, make sure you are familiar with this particular model. Once you have a plan, and all of the required safety information, then you can proceed with the project.
The most important thing when working with a chainsaw or another power tool is to make sure you have the correct protective gear. Each power tool has slightly different requirements, although, in general, you should start with the following:
If you don’t own any of the above items, you should buy them; you will need them every time you work with your chainsaw (without exception).
First Aid Kit
Prepare (or buy) a fully-stocked first aid kit, running the gamut of potential injuries from a small cut to a major injury. Check your first aid kit regularly to check nothing is out of date or needs replacing. Before you start any project involving a chainsaw or power tool, make sure you know where your first aid kit is.
If you are not used to handling a chainsaw, you should aim to start small with any project. Don’t make the first time you use a chainsaw the time you cut down the giant tree in your yard. This will increase your chances of injury, and of the project going disastrously wrong. Instead, pick a smaller project to begin with.
For example, you could start by removing a smaller tree or cutting up logs into firewood. Alternatively, if you have a friend who is more experienced with using large power tools, ask if you can help them on a project. Your goal is to get to the stage where you feel comfortable with these tools.
Get a Second Person
One of the best safety measures for any home improvement project is a second person. Having someone else present will mean that you can call for help in case of emergency; a second person can also help if you become trapped or unable to remove yourself from an unsafe situation.
Particularly if it’s your first project, have a second person (ideally with experience working with chainsaws) helping you. They should aim to stand close, but not too close to you when you are working. The goal is for them to be able to help quickly in case of emergency, but not be in harm’s way.
As well as general power tool safety, you should also take extra precautions when it comes to chainsaws. Because of the way a chainsaw works, it has additional risks that require additional safety steps and equipment. You should, therefore, aim to follow all of the above rules, as well as taking extra care.
As a general rule: if you do not feel comfortable on a project you should stop. This refers to doing projects you have never done before, as well as being comfortable when working (i.e. not fatigued, in a stressful position, nervous, etc.).
Chainsaw chaps are pants that are designed to protect your legs in case you temporarily lose control of the chainsaw. These are filled with chain-link metal (like a medieval suit of armor) that is designed to stop a chainsaw if it touches the chaps.
The most common serious injury when working with a chainsaw is an injury to the upper leg when the chainsaw suddenly cuts through a piece of wood, so chaps are an absolute essential for anyone working on a chainsaw project.
For those who are unfamiliar working with chainsaws, the idea of a kickback zone can be daunting. Many newbies instinctively aim to cut with the tip of the chainsaw, thrusting it into a branch or a trunk.
However, the kickback zone is the area of the chainsaw from the upper tip round to the upper side of the chainsaw. Touching this part of the chainsaw on a surface may cause the chainsaw to ‘kick back’ to the user, which can be extremely dangerous. Instead, you should aim to cut with the underside of the blade, pushing downwards (hence the need for chaps).
Stance and Grip
When using a chainsaw, you should stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the chainsaw above the area you intend to cut (in the vast majority of cases, the safest way to cut is directly down). You should use an encircling grip on the front handle of the chainsaw so that if the chainsaw does move rapidly downwards you are braced to prevent it from falling into your leg or boot.
When carrying the chainsaw less than 10 feet, you should hold it with the front handle only to avoid pulling the throttle accidentally. If you are carrying the chainsaw more than 10 feet, you should turn the power off completely.
Using a Chainsaw
Once you’ve mastered the basics of power tool safety, you’ll need to get prepared for actually using your chainsaw. The two most common activities for chainsaws are removing trees and cutting logs (or branches).
In both cases, there are specific techniques to use to keep you safe. It is also recommended to begin with log cutting and then moving up to tree removal once you become more comfortable: with log cutting, the chainsaw can be dangerous; with removing trees, you have the danger from the chainsaw as well as that of the tree to contend with.
Log cutting – also known as ‘bucking’ – is when a branch is lying on the ground, and you slice it up into segments. To make firewood, you should aim for 16-inch cylinders, which you can then cut into quarters with an ax. The branch should be horizontal. If the branch is on the ground, you should raise it up using props so that you can cut all the way through. If this isn’t possible, you will need to follow a different technique.
If the branch is propped
The first step to take is to make sure that you are properly braced – meaning your feet are on secure ground, and you are balanced. If not, move the branch to a more secure location. If the branch is not in a secure position, you should not begin cutting. You should never stand on the tree while you are cutting it.
Check underneath the branch to see if there are rocks or other debris. You don’t want the chainsaw to strike anything accidentally – if it does, the chainsaw will either cut into it or will ricochet off, causing flying debris or cause you to lose control of the chainsaw.
Begin by holding the chainsaw, using an overhand grip on the front handle, and cut the branch downwards, maintaining control of the pace of cutting at all times. Don’t use the tip of the chainsaw, or you will be at risk of kickback.
If the chainsaw gets stuck in the branch at any point, cut the engine immediately. Use a bar or a log to raise the end of the branch that is falling; this will relieve the pressure on the chainsaw and will mean you can lift it out. Do not attempt to remove it while the engine is still running.
If the branch is flush on the ground
If the branch is flush on the ground, you need to follow all of the above safety tips, although instead of cutting all the way through the branch, cut two-thirds of the way down. Then, when you have done this along the length of the branch, roll it over and cut the remaining third from the top down. This will prevent you from cutting into the ground, while also cutting down the length of time it takes to finish.
As mentioned throughout, removing a tree can be extremely dangerous and therefore requires serious planning. You should wear adequate safety gear throughout, as well as ensuring you always have a second person present. You should also plan an escape route for a variety of eventualities (including if the tree falls in an unexpected direction).
The first step is to clear the area around the tree fully. If there are any major obstructions, you need to remove them before felling the tree.
You should then inspect the tree itself. The main things to look out for are:
Defects in the tree
Whether the tree is entangled with another tree
The approach to cutting down a tree is to first cut a triangle of wood from the trunk. This hinge controls the direction the tree falls. Never attempt to cut all the way through the tree.
Once you have the hinge and the tree begins to fall (you may have to use a wedge to make sure the tree begins falling in the right direction), immediately shut off your chainsaw and do not turn your back on the tree.
If you need to proceed to your escape route, keep looking at the tree. If the tree becomes wedged and doesn’t fall totally onto the ground, do not stand underneath it – it may suddenly lurch down. Instead, you should mark the areas as being unsafe and either call a professional or finish the job yourself if you are able to do so safely.
A chainsaw and other power tools are extremely useful ways of undertaking large-scale projects in your home and yard; they make it far easier than with other man-powered tools. However, with this power comes a great deal of risk, particularly in the hands of inexperienced workers.
The more experienced you become at working with a chainsaw or power tool, the less likely you are to injure yourself – as long as you do not become complacent, and instead remain vigilant. However, with safety technology and equipment becoming more readily available, chainsaws are an increasingly more viable piece of equipment for enthusiastic gardeners.
As long as you follow the safety tips outlined above – and work on the basis that you should plan for the worst, and hope for the best – you will be able to use the power behind the power tools to get your yard in order and bend nature to your will.