When it comes to chainsaw safety, the movie line “A man’s got to know his limitations,” from Magnum Force, is memorable enough to provide a central lesson. Trees, after all, grow tall and heavy, and they come down in ways we can’t always foresee. That’s why even a homeowner who has a chainsaw sometimes needs to call in a pro. Mark Chisholm, a spokesman for Stihl and a certified tree expert at his family business, Aspen Tree Expert Company of Jackson, New Jersey, warns of particular situations where homeowners often get into trouble—the kind there’s no reversing.
Chisholm warns that the potential for problems can begin when someone first gets a chainsaw. “It comes down to the person’s experience and interest in reading the owner’s manual, including its safety guidelines,” he says. “Many online videos also give good advice on safe operation.” Without that necessary understanding of a chainsaw’s hazards, which sent almost 25,000 people to the emergency room last year alone, here’s how homeowners often screw up:
Misjudging the job
The smallest trees generally pose no problem for the do-it-yourselfer with a chainsaw. How small? Figure in trees 12-15 feet tall with trunks no more than about six inches in diameter. When they’re larger, Chisholm says, you need to know about felling tactics so that a tree falls as expected. A pro can assess not only the tree’s lean but also where its weight is concentrated, all of which is part of planning a cut. Besides determining whether other trees or vines could complicate the operation, an arborist also factors in neighboring houses, pools and other structures.
Overlooking hidden hazards
If you remember your physics classes, you might recall lessons about tension. A tree that falls completely flat from a storm should pose no problem even for a careful DIYer. But a large tree’s crown, the upper portion, could suspend part of the trunk above ground, meaning the branches of the crown are flexed, or bent back. “When you cut large branches that are flexed,” says Chisholm, “they spring violently back at you, they split, or they ‘barber-chair,’” a particularly hazardous split that has killed arborists and loggers. (See an example below.) “You have to know how to cut those limbs properly.”
Sawing from ladders
Many accidents, Chisholm explains, occur when people carry a chainsaw up a ladder. Even professionals won’t do that. Trained in working “at height,” what the layman would call dangerous heights, they instead tie a rope to the chainsaw and haul it up to a relatively secure position. “If you’re not trained to work at height, you should keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Chisholm also cautions about homeowners’ use of lifts, which you can rent and tow home. “Technically, you’re standing on a firm surface,” he says. “But if you haven’t learned how to get out of that lift in an emergency, or that lift gets hit by a tree and it gets turned over, you can get hurt.”
Working around wires
When a tree falls from a storm, it can take down power lines. Should that happen, or you even suspect it occurred, pick up the phone—not your chainsaw. “If you’re not trained to deal with electrical hazards, you need to get in somebody who is,” says Chisholm. And never mind whatever you learned about what electricity can and can’t pass through. “If you cut a tree that’s in contact with a power line, it could be energized,” he says. “Even though it’s wood, a tree will conduct electricity.” It isn’t only live trees that pose a risk; dead, dry trees can also be excellent conductors.
Spreading the risk
Any tree could still present problems if it’s close to pedestrian walkways or a road. “Even skilled people can make mistakes, and trees don’t always go exactly where you want them. You have to be prepared for that,” says Chisholm. When it’s pros, you’ll see certified flaggers in place to direct traffic away from where the tree could potentially fall. “For anybody who could be affected, it’s not fair that you’re taking a risk and involving them.”
No matter what your experience, everyone who uses a chainsaw needs to dress the part. This means more than avoiding shorts and sandals. It means wearing hearing and eye protection, a secure helmet, boots, heavy-duty nonslip gloves and protective pants or chaps intended for chainsaw use. From the many veterans he’s seen hurt, Chisholm needs no reminding that loggers, depending on a given year’s fatalities, have either the first or second most dangerous job in the country. Says Chisholm: “You won’t find me running a saw, even for five minutes in my own yard, without suiting up properly.”