Important Chainsaw Safety Information and Skills

Wood carver uses a chainsaw to sculpt a tree trunk

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You may want to remove some trees to give a favorite tree room to grow, cut some firewood or fence posts, or remove an unhealthy or dangerous tree. A chainsaw is the tool used most often to cut down trees, but often with no training.

Cutting down a tree is one of the most difficult and dangerous forestry activities for even a master arborist. From the moment you take a chainsaw out of storage to the time you put it back, you can be hurt by it or by what you are cutting. To work safely in your woods you need knowledge, skill, and safe working habits.

01
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What to Know Before Cranking a Saw

A dirty chainsaw bar and chain covered in oil and dirt

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Becoming skilled enough to safely drop a tree in any desired direction requires hands-on chainsaw training. Please do not be tempted to use a saw alone! In the event of an accident or emergency, you need someone who can help or bring help. Best practices for chainsaw safety include:

  • Review the parts of a chainsaw
  • Take a hands-on course
  • Get personal instruction from your dealer
  • Watch and work with an experienced tree surgeon or tree feller
  • Start by felling several under 8-inch diameter trees
  • Practice cutting off branches and bucking the trunk
  • Hire professionals for work exceeding your ability
02
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Find the Right Saw For Your Needs

A lumberjack in flannel prepares to saw

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Your local chainsaw dealer should be able to advise you on the saw that best meets your needs. You may even consider an electric saw if your forest is next to a power source, or small limbs and saplings are your only concern. Before you make a selection, consider such vital chainsaw stats:

  • Horsepower: Use a saw with a powerhead rated at 3.8 cubic inches or less.
  • Bar length: Using the shortest bar possible to accomplish your tasks reduces the hazards involved. You should be able to perform all your tasks with a bar length between 16 and 18 inches. Stick with the length you are used to.
  • Chain types: Choosing the right chains for your saw—and keeping them sharp and maintained—will improve your productivity and reduce wear and tear on your body and the saw.
  • Safety features: Become familiar with your chain brake, throttle safety latch, and the guard links on the chain.
03
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Basic Protective Gear

Minimum forestry safety gear includes a helmet, respirator, gloves, a boots

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You must protect your head, ears, eyes, face, hands, legs, and feet. Many chainsaw users have regretted not doing so and suffer from lifelong injuries.

Headgear

Protect your head, ears, and eyes with a specialized hard hat outfitted with earmuffs and a screened or clear plastic full-face shield in one piece of equipment. Googles, respirators, and earmuffs protect you from saw injuries, hearing loss, and getting particles in your eyes and lungs.

Hands

You must wear work gloves or mittens when operating a chainsaw to protect your hands. Consider additional protection by wearing ones that are constructed with specialty chainsaw protection for both hands, or the left hand if you’re right-handed, or for the right if you’re a lefty.

Legs and Feet

At the very least, above-the-ankle leather work boots, preferably with steel toes, are a must to protect your feet. Leg injuries account for nearly 40% of all chainsaw injuries, and many chainsaw protective boots seamlessly attach to protective pants. Otherwise, choose either chaps, leggings, or separate protective pants to pair with your boots. Chaps should wrap around and fall at a length that will protect the ankle. Pants provide greater comfort and avoid the problem of twigs catching behind the chaps. If possible, purchase chaps and pants made with washable ballistic nylon fibers. This fabric is easier to keep clean and will stall a rotating chain.

04
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Be Prepared Before You Start

An arborist trims peripheral branches to prepare the tree to be felled

Sheryl Watson / Getty Images

First, assemble other necessary tools and supplies: wedges, ax, large hatchet or maul, properly mixed fuel, bar oil, bar wrench, chain file with protective handle, minor maintenance tools, and a first aid kit. It makes for a bad day when you pinch a saw, run out of fuel or need to tighten or sharpen a chain.

Carry the chainsaw to the cutting site by holding it at your side with the bar pointing back. This will prevent you from falling on the bar if you trip.

Always look carefully at what is around you and what may be endangered by a falling tree. Size up the tree from several directions to determine its lean, any excess branches on one side, broken or lodged material in the tree, and ice or snow in the branches. Look for tall dead tree trunks, leaning trees, and trees hung up in other trees within a distance equal to two tree lengths from the tree you are cutting, because they may fall at the same time as the tree you are cutting. Based on these observations, you should be able to estimate the most likely direction the tree will fall.

Develop a clear picture of what you intend to do, estimate the most likely direction the tree will fall, and plan two escape routes that are free from obstructions.

Never move directly opposite the direction of tree fall as the tree trunk can jump back. Never turn your back completely on the tree as you retreat and wait at least 30 seconds after the tree hits the ground to return.

05
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Safely Start your Chainsaw

A chainsaw rested on a stump

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An important safety procedure is to always engage the chain brake whenever you:

  • Start the saw
  • Take one hand off the saw to do something
  • Take more than two steps with the saw running

Start the saw safely by using one of the following two techniques:

  1. Place your left hand on the front handle. Hold the back of the saw tightly between your legs. Pull the start cord (after engaging the choke, if necessary) using a fast but short stroke.
  2. Place the saw on the ground. Place the toe of your boot through the back handle to hold the saw down. Hold the front handle with your left hand. Pull the start cord using a fast but short stroke.

Both starting methods are safe, but the leg lock method is so fast and easy that it allows you to turn the saw off and restart it even when you walk a short distance.

06
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Kickback Prevention

A chainsaw shears through a piece of timber, exposing the top forward section considered the kickback danger zone

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Be aware of the reactive forces of a saw. When you cut with the bottom of the bar, the chain can pull you into the work. When cutting with the top of the bar, it can push you away from the work. Your body stance and grip are determined by which part of the bar you are using.

Kickback happens when the chain is suddenly forced to stop and suddenly throws the machine violently back toward the operator. Severe kickback can cause severe accidents. It can happen any time, while removing limbs from a tree that is on the ground, or while bucking up the trunk. While most chainsaws are easy to control, you could experience it every time, if you're not careful.

Kickback often occurs when the upper tip of the bar touches a tree, log, or branch, or when a log or a limb pinches the top of the bar and chain while cutting from below with the top of the bar. If cutting a log from below, do so in two stages: first cut from above, then make another cut from below to meet the first. Other techniques to prevent kickback include:

  • Keep the upper tip of the bar in solid wood
  • Hold the chainsaw with both hands
  • Grip the handle by putting your thumb around it
  • Keep your elbow locked
  • Never cutting above shoulder height
  • Keep the saw close to your body
  • Use a saw with a chain brake
  • Start every cut under full throttle
  • Keep the chain sharp

Resources and Further Reading