According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around 36,000 people each year are injured in chainsaw accidents. Almost 3,500 accidents involve injury to the head area and the average number of stitches required per cut is 110. I think you’ll agree those are some pretty sobering statistics.
Thankfully, given the number of chainsaw users out there, the number of deaths is relatively small. However, many accidents are extremely serious in nature and are life changing for the person involved. That’s why your safety is of the upmost importance and why you should research before you buy, then follow operating instructions when you start to use your saw.
Modern chainsaws incorporate many features designed to help protect the user. Before looking at these it’s worth considering some of the things which are likely to cause injury.
Kickback is the most common cause of chainsaw injury and potentially the most hazardous.
There are several types of kickback, each of which results in the unexpected movement of the guide bar. This movement is often so fast and aggressive that the user is unable to react, which it turn can result in the loss of control of the saw. Rotational kickback occurs when the tip of the guide bar touches an object when the chain is moving as illustrated below.
What often happens is that the chain digs into the object, then momentarily stops moving before being thrown back in the direction of the operator at an incredibly fast speed. The degree of kickback can vary and may only be slight. Alternatively, it can be extremely serious and unless you have experienced it you may not appreciate just how quickly and violently the guide bar is thrown towards you.
Linear kickback occurs when the wood on either side of the bar closes in on it, resulting in the chain being ‘pinched’. Again, the chain stops momentarily before the force is reversed and the bar thrown back towards the operator.
Pull in occurs when the moving chain on the bottom of the bar makes contact with something solid in the wood. The chain stops and is then thrown forward resulting in the potential loss of control by the operator.
Snapped or derailed chain
Occasionally you may find that the chain either snaps or jumps loose from the bar during use. This has the potential to cause quite a serious injury, particularly to the hands, which is why the wearing of gloves is strongly recommended.
Inappropriate Extension Cord
When using an electric chainsaw you need to ensure that an appropriate extension cord is used. This means using a cord suitable for outdoor use, with the correct gauge depending on your saw’s power. Using the wrong cord not only impairs the performance of the saw but increases the risk of electric shock.
The frequent use of power tools can cause health problems to the operator due to continuous vibration. These include circulatory problems to the hands as well as the development of conditions such as ‘vibration white finger’ and ‘hand-arm vibration syndrome’.
Unless you take appropriate precautions, the regular use of some saws (especially gas powered machines) can result in damage to your hearing. Wearing ear protection during use is definitely recommended.
This can occur unexpectedly during cutting and cause damage to both your eyes and hands. Wearing appropriate gloves and safety goggles will protect against this.
Chainsaw Safety Features
Having considered some of the hazards, let’s look at some of the safety features incorporated in modern chainsaws. Whilst you should never rely solely on these features for your personal safety, they are certainly worth considering before you buy.
Reduced kickback Guide Bar
In tests, this type of guide bar has been proven to reduce the number and severity of kickback incidents. The bars are designed with a small radius tip which reduces the size of the kickback danger zone.
A low kickback chain is one which has met all the ‘low kickback’ requirements of ANSI B175.1-2012. This is the American National Standards Institute’s standard relating to engine powered hand-held chainsaws. This type of chain has links which help deflect kickback force and enable the wood to gradually ride into the cutter. It should be noted that they do NOT guarantee that kickback will not occur.
Chain brakes are designed to stop the saw in the event of kickback, helping to reduce the risk of accidents. Many brakes are activated either manually, by pushing forward on the front hand guard, and/or automatically by an inertia release mechanism. If the kickback is modest and the ‘kickback zone’ of the bar is near to the operator, the movement of the left hand will usually activate the brake. On the other hand, when kickback is violent and the ‘kickback zone’ of the bar is furthest away from the operator, the inertia release mechanism is designed to activate.
Chain brakes don’t guarantee protection in the event of kickback. For example, if the bar is too close to you, the brake may activate but not have sufficient time to stop the chain before it hits you.
Most saws have front hand guards and many of these double up to manually activate the chain brake, as mentioned above. Some saws also feature rear hand guards.
The purpose of these guards is to protect the user from flying debris, as well as reducing the risk of the left hand hitting the chain in the event the user loses grip on the handle.
Safe Start Up
Most modern electric saws have ‘lock-out’ buttons to prevent accidental start up. These buttons need to be depressed before the ‘throttle trigger’ can be activated, ensuring that you don’t inadvertently set the saw in motion.
Many saws now incorporate features to lessen the impact of vibration. These include anti-vibration rubberized handles, which help to absorb the vibration, as well as dampening springs located throughout the body of the saw. The springs help to reduce the transfer of vibration from the saw’s mechanical parts to the handle.
Whilst these help, it is strongly recommended that users also invest in a pair of anti-vibration gloves, especially if they are regular users or cut hardwoods (which causes more vibration than cutting softwoods).
These are small mechanisms positioned on the bottom of the saw and will catch the chain in the event that it snaps or comes loose. The main way to prevent this, however, is to ensure that the chain is always properly tensioned and oiled.
Also known as dog spikes, these are spikes which can be attached to the saw and help to keep the saw positioned correctly on the wood.
Saw use and maintenance
As you can see, modern saws offer some great protection features. However, whilst they can help reduce the likelihood and impact of accidents, only the user can prevent them from happening in the first place.
Here are some tips to help in this regard:
• All manufacturers issue instructions about how to operate their chainsaws safely. Ensure that you ALWAYS follow these instructions.
• Make sure you learn how to hold a chainsaw properly, the correct stance you should adopt and the appropriate cutting techniques you should employ for different situations. The video below provides some excellent advice on how to safely operate a chainsaw.
• Never use the chainsaw one handed or be tempted to cut higher than the shoulder. Try to cut at waist level of lower to help maintain control over the saw. Furthermore, don’t attempt to use a chainsaw standing on a ladder.
• When tackling large or tricky jobs, never work alone.
• Take care when cutting ‘spring poles’. These are branches and trees which are twisted or caught under other objects. As they are under tension, cutting will release them suddenly and in some cases with enough force to cause injury to the operator or bystander. Manufacturers usually provide detailed instructions on how to cut branches under tension.
• Always choose the proper size saw, bar and chain for the job being attempted.
• Always be mindful of the weather conditions. Using an electric saw in heavy rain or high winds is foolhardy to say the least!
• Remember to properly maintain and service your saw in line with the manufacturer’s instructions. Faulty cutting equipment or the wrong combination of bar and chain can increase the likelihood of kickback. A chain brake which is not working will afford you no protection whatsoever – check regularly to confirm that everything is in order.
• For gas saw users, never adjust the carburetor unless you know what you are doing. In addition, don’t start your saw within 10 feet of where you filled your gas tank.
• You won’t be surprised to learn that the majority of accidents occur when the chain comes into contact with the operator. Wear the appropriate protective equipment for the job you are undertaking. This includes the use of hard hats, safety glasses, ear protection and heavy duty gloves. Chainsaw chaps will also provide protection against cuts and run from the waist down to the top of the foot. Sure, you may not look that cool donned in your safety gear, but it’s far better than risking injury and a large medical bill!
• Finally, always use common sense. It’s impossible to conceive of every type of accident so make sure you are mindful of safety issues at all times. For example, you should avoid carrying out tasks which may be beyond your capabilities. When using a gas saw, don’t operate it in a confined space or poorly ventilated area. If something seems like a bad idea, it probably is!
So here are a few final thought on chainsaw safety. There are plenty of ways you can get hurt using a saw and whilst the safety features built into today’s models will help, they will never fully protect you against accident and injury. If there is one thing you absolutely MUST do, it is to read the manufacturer’s operating manual. Don’t just skim through it, read it in detail and pay heed. Even if you have used a saw before, different makes and models have different characteristics and features which you need to understand.
Providing you do this (and also follow the guidance!) your chances of becoming one of the statistics mentioned in my opening paragraph are significantly less.