Out of harm’s way

Keep tree crews out of the ER with the proper chainsaw and log splitter safety procedures.

Photo courtesy of Davey Tree

Professional-grade chainsaws and log splitters enable your crews to quickly churn through jobs, trimming hours or even days off a project. But with that added power comes safety risks, and it’s vital that your entire crew is well-versed on injury prevention.

Basic safety clothing.

Personal protective equipment is nothing new to landscape and tree care workers. OSHA guidelines mandate the use of hard hat, eye protection, job-appropriate work gloves, ANSI-approved footwear, respiratory protection as necessary, leg protection (chaps), and hearing protection as necessary. But beyond just enforcing compliance, check for proper use.

“Be sure that chainsaw leg protection fits properly. The protective material should go to the top of the foot,” says Tim Walsh, safety manager at Davey Tree Expert of Kent, Ohio. “Many workers tend to store these items with their saw. If they’re exposed to oil or gas, the fabric can get compromised by petroleum products, and the item (will) no longer work properly.”

Start with an equipment check.

Keeping up with routine equipment maintenance, as outlined by your manufacturer, does more than just keep work on schedule.

Dull blades, frequent starts and stops, or delays to tinker with equipment can increase worker fatigue and frustration, a gateway for injury.

For chainsaws, a vital area of focus is chain maintenance. Routinely file the chain and cutting teeth, and replace the blade when the teeth have been worn down to less than 4 mm, or what is recommended by your manufacturer. With a log splitter, keep watch on your hoses, and replace anything that is cracked or frayed.

With all power equipment, keep the parts clean and free of organic matter, and lubricate according to manufacturer’s guidelines.

“Make sure your equipment is ready and functional ahead of time,” Walsh says.

Keep watch on the new guys.

Regardless of what prior credentials a new hire walks in your door with, a careful and monitored startup is the best way to ensure machine competence.

“We have training videos a new hire has to watch, and sign off on,” says Randy Owen, president of Owen Tree Service in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Training with an experienced operator is a built-in part of their new hire process.

“A skilled chainsaw operator makes sure (the new hire) uses the proper PPE, and teaches chainsaw handling skills. Usually this training is short, 15-minute blocks of time as not to fatigue the individual,” Owen says. “We also use the TCIA Tree Care Academy Program. It has a written component and a demonstrated skills component.”

Getting a worker up to speed may seem time consuming, but more often than not, it’s time and money well spent.

“It’s three to four months for us to figure out if they have the skill sets to start the more in-depth training on the tree crews,” Owen says.

Machine-specific injuries.

Anything can happen on the job, but there are certain injuries prevalent with chainsaw and log splitter use.

Perhaps the most well-known chainsaw injury is a result of kickback. This occurs if the upper quadrant of a chainsaw hits a solid object while in motion, causing the bar to hurl upward, toward the operator. Because there is little time for evasive action, injury can be extensive.

“Operators should understand all of the reactive forces so the chainsaw won’t pull them off balance and cause an injury,” Walsh says, adding that kickback isn’t the only action that can impact an operator. “Cutting with the tip of the bar can push the saw backward, into the operator.”

Proper body positioning can help a worker remain in control of the saw and potentially out of the line of injury. Protective gear on the upper body can also help minimize impact. Finally, an appreciation for the danger at hand can be one of the best ways to ensure worker safety.

“Saws (today) are lighter and easy to take for granted. Especially among younger workers, it’s easy to become complacent, and think nothing can happen,” says Andy Felix, president of Tree Tech in Foxboro, Massachusetts. “Experienced workers should be encouraged to correct younger workers early, before bad habits form.”

Pairing a new employee with a seasoned operator can bring the new worker up to speed and ensure they are aware of proper handling and safety procedures.
Photo courtesy of Husqvarna

With log splitters, crush injuries to the hands and fingers are common. In addition to keeping clear of moving parts, workers should avoid putting fingers in cracks that become open as a log is being cut, as these can quickly snap closed.

Familiarity with the type of wood common in your region is also important; anticipating how a log behaves enables workers to remain a step ahead of problems.

Hydraulic fluid, present in log splitters, is another threat. Even a small amount on unprotected skin can cause severe irritation and require medical attention. Instruct workers never to put bare fingers on a suspected leak, but to use a piece of paper or cardboard instead.

Avoid repetitive strain.

From chefs to computer programmers, repetitive strain injuries plague every profession. These injuries develop over time due to repeated movements, poor body positioning or overuse of certain muscle groups.

Problems common to tree care operators include hand-arm vibration syndrome, trigger finger, Raynaud’s syndrome, back strain and others. As a general rule of thumb, train workers to pay attention to early indicators, such as pain, tingling or numbness.

Owen says his company mainly uses chainsaws that have a vibration system in the handle to help fend off those long-term repetitive use issues.

Empower your crew.

It’s not uncommon for workers – particularly younger workers – to mask symptoms of discomfort due to concerns about peer perception or job security. It’s important for senior crew members to assume a leadership role, keeping a vigilant eye on all workers.

“We train supervisors in what to look for, and to encourage any crew member to speak up for the team if they see a problem,” says Felix, adding that safety topics are regularly addressed at weekly meetings. “Creating a comfortable culture is important. It’s critical that crew members know not to push beyond their limits.”

Every profession has risks and working with chainsaws and log splitters brings an element of danger to a landscaper’s job. But state-of-the-art equipment, properly trained and functioning crews, and solid leadership can go a long way toward keeping your workers safe.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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