The CDC estimates 36,000 people are treated in emergency rooms annually for chainsaw injuries, and the average chainsaw injury requires 110 sutures to close. Although injuries resulting from chainsaw accidents happen anywhere from head to toes, most occur to the arms, hands and legs.

Dan Neenan, paramedic, firefighter and manager of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, recently addressed chainsaw safety in an AgriSafe presentation. Neenan said appropriate safety measures and clothing can help prevent chainsaw accidents.

Safety begins with reading the owner’s manual and following manufacturer’s recommendations. Becoming familiar with the parts of the chainsaw is also a safety factor, as is using the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) from head to toe.

If the chainsaw is being used in a remote area, it’s important to know the location’s GPS coordinates so emergency services can quickly access an injured person. “Know where you are,” said Neenan. “If you need to dial 911 you can give them a GPS location and they’ll know what fire department and other services to send. Have a specific address.”

The noise from a chainsaw averages 110 decibels, which exceeds OSHA’s jobsite sound threshold of 85 decibels. The inner ear can sustain permanent damage from repeated noise, so hearing protection should be in place every time the saw is used. Helmets with built-in hearing protection also provide facial protection.

Wood chips fly in all directions, including toward the eyes, during chainsaw work. Regular eyeglasses don’t sufficiently protect the eyes, so operators and others in the area should use polycarbonate lenses, many of which also have UV protection, or wire mesh safety glasses.

Cut-retardant shirts or sleeves are made with Kevlar and provide core and arm protection. Hand protection (gloves) should also be made of cut-retardant material. Leg protection options include chaps, aprons or pants with protective Kevlar.

Ideally, boots should have puncture-proof soles, padded steel toes and electrical hazard protection. In the absence of safety apparel designed for chainsaw work, clothing should fit well with no loose or torn areas. Long hair should be secured (preferably tucked into a hard hat or helmet).

Select the appropriate chainsaw for the job – one that’s equipped with built-in safety features. The on/off switch should be clearly marked, and there should be a chain brake with a front hand guard. Other safety features include a safety throttle, chain catcher, rear hand guard, anti-vibration system and cushioned handle. The exhaust system should direct fumes away from the operator and have a spark arrestor to prevent fires.

A bumper guard protects the motor, and a chain bar cover should be in place for transportation and storage. A new chainsaw should include a tool kit for corrective and preventative maintenance.

Prior to use, check the chain tension and sharpen chain teeth. “Give it a good once-over,” said Neenan. “Check the bolts, handles and guards – are they in place and serviceable? Check the controls, the chain brake and make sure the clutch cover isn’t broken or exposing the chain or sprocket. Ensure fuel and oil are full and the muffler is in place.”

Safe fueling includes using the correct fuel blend for the saw. “Add fuel from a safety can,” said Neenan. “Always add fuel to the saw before you start it for the first time. If you need to add fuel after you’ve been operating it, take a break and let the saw cool down.”

Carry the chainsaw to the jobsite by the handle with the bar facing backwards. Carrying the saw on your shoulder is only acceptable if the bar protective cover is securely in place.

Chiming in on chainsaw safety

Having the proper safety gear no matter how you’re using a chainsaw is an absolute must. Photo by Kyle Llewellyn/Images by Llewellyn

Prior to operating a chainsaw, examine what will be cut and check for dirt, debris, rocks or metal in the path of the chain. Look up to check for loose limbs or other hazards that might fall during cutting.

“Communicate with and watch out for coworkers,” said Neenan. “Keep both hands on the handles and maintain secure footing while operating the saw. Never cut directly over your head or between your legs, and don’t be distracted.”

To safely start a cold saw, activate the chain brake and turn the switch on. “If the saw is equipped with a purge bulb, press the bulb several times to prime it,” said Neenan. “Activate the choke and pull the starter handle until the engine fires.”

If the saw doesn’t run, adjust the choke and pull again until the saw starts. If the engine is already hot, purging and choking shouldn’t be necessary.

Neenan warned against drop starting a saw. “Don’t push down with one hand and pull up with the other,” he said, “which can create torque that results in the saw bouncing back.”

There are two safe positions for starting the saw, one of which is bracing the saw firmly between the legs with the rear handle against the left thigh and the back of the right thigh over the top of the rear handle. “Hold the front handle firmly with the left hand, make sure the left arm is straight and pull the starter handle with your right hand,” said Neenan. “Repeat until the engine fires.”

The chainsaw can also be started on the ground. “Stand with your right foot on the base of the rear handle and keep a firm grip on the front handle with your left hand,” said Neenan. “Keep the left arm straight and pull the starter handle with right hand according to the manufacturer’s starting procedure.”

Chain tension influences safety. “If the chain is too tight, it won’t bite into the limb and can prematurely wear out the drive socket,” said Neenan. “If it’s too loose, the chain can derail from the bar and whip back toward you. The chain separates itself from the bar and should ‘give’ about a quarter inch without much effort. Once released, it should easily retract and stay firmly in position in the bar.” The correct tension settings for the chainsaw are included in the manual.

Kickback is the number one cause of injuries, and Neenan cautioned chainsaw operators to always be prepared for it. When kickback occurs, the saw is thrown backwards with force and hits the operator’s face and top of the head.

Some chainsaws have built-in kickback protection in the form of a guide bar tip guard to prevent the operator from using the tip for cutting. “The best way to avoid kickback is to not cut with the kickback zone of the bar,” said Neenan, “and choose a blade with low kickback.”

Factors that increase the risk of kickback include blunt chains, loose rivets, poor saw maintenance, poorly sharpened chain angles, incorrectly installed chain parts, low chainsaw tension, incorrect chain depth, excessive chain depth and bent, cracked or broken chainsaw chain components.

Neenan said the number one safety measure is to read and follow the owner’s manual and manufacturer’s recommendations. Be familiar with the parts of the chainsaw, avoid using a chainsaw when tired or frustrated, never use a chainsaw alone and remain alert at all times.

by Sally Colby