Saw Safeguards

FOrget handing your newest green worker a chain saw and turning him loose. Asking whether he knows how to use one does not demonstrate competent use, either.

Proper equipment and PPE are critical for safe operation of a chain saw, a potentially dangerous tool that is tougher to handle than it appears. The most important components of a chain saw user’s PPE ensemble may be his eye and face protection, although protective gloves and footwear are included.

Maintenance and operator training are additional keys to operating a chain saw without injury. They’re not for the feeble minded or physically weak; using one can be a hazardous and constantly unstable balancing act that involves the physical ability to stand upright and walk through tough terrain carrying the saw, the tools of the trade, and the PPE for the job. Factor in the determination to wear protective gear when it’s needed, the ability to handle the ergonomic stresses of the task; the strength of character not to do reckless things; and the knowledge to assess the risks in work conditions, which can include physical hazards such as tangled trees, co-workers doing stupid things unexpectedly, biting insects and animals, poisonous plants, strains, lacerations from the saw itself, and a potential for serious injury a long way from any help or medical attention.

All of that being said, chain saws are widely used by landscapers, in agriculture, and for general maintenance crafts. They are highly useful tools when handled safely and correctly. A successful chain saw safety program relies on every worker’s determination to follow the rules of safe use and the training he or she received; the company’s determination to purchase and maintain equipment to the highest standard of working order; the safety department’s determination to reinforce use and misuse knowledge and to explain injuries so that other workers can learn from mistakes made; supervisors’ determination to know where employees are at all times, so in case there is an accident the search will be in a small area instead of 90,000 acres of densely forested wilderness; and everyone’s determination to follow up when something goes wrong, whether it is damaged PPE or no first aid being available on remote vehicles. All concerned must be determined to work safely -- every employee has to understand his safety depends on his personal actions. There is a lot of responsibility and liability for such a small but powerful piece of equipment!

Train Right the First Time
If you really want to know your level of physical and mental fitness, handle a midrange or professional chain saw for a few hours, clearing hurricane debris or last year’s ice storm-damaged trees in high humidity, heat, thick mud, and insects swarming in dense waves.

From heavy logging applications to timber management and clearing, small trimming jobs, or general maintenance, using a chain saw is an activity that requires training to be provided by competent folks, often enough that the safety information is remembered. Used by the ignorant, a chain saw is one tool that has potential for mass destruction and even the death of the operator or others.

The original hands-on training is crucial. Forget handing your newest green worker a chain saw and turning him loose. Asking him whether he knows how to use one does not demonstrate competent use, either.Ask in hours:How many hours in the past six months have you used a chain saw? Ask for a physical demonstration of how to inspect it, sharpen a chain, refuel it,when to pull it from service, how to field service it, etc.You will often be surprised at how little they do know.

Your beginner staffers need to learn the correct way to carry and handle the equipment from the start from someone who knows the good, the bad, and the ugly of chain saw use. Many experienced workers learned on the job and learned all of the shortcuts and bad habits that they think save time (but may cause an injury). Keeping the chain saw in top working condition takes skill, too, from sharpening the chain correctly to ensuring correct use of features such as the chain brake. These must be reinforced often.

Every worker needs and must have personal protective equipment. The list looks long and daunting; and sometimes employees will whine pitifully about wearing PPE out in the heat or humidity.Your job as supervisor and or safety manager is to educate them on why PPE is so essential to their survival.

I’m often asked which PPE category is the most important. There is no answer to this question because hard hat, face protection, eye protection, hearing protection, gloves, chain saw chaps, and safety shoes are all essential in the event a tree falls, rolls, or breaks back on an employee or a co-worker. This equipment provides a portable safety net for the employee. Show them damaged/ cut/smashed PPE items from previous injuries or near misses and explain how it saved the wearer. This is a show-and-tell they will remember.Any item removed or left in the truck opens the potential for serious injury or death. PPE works only when they wear it!

First Aid and Unique Hazards
Make sure everyone has fast access to top-quality first aid supplies in the field and know how to use them. Communication is extremely important in case of an injury, but keep in mind that cell phones do not work in all terrains.

Heat stress? Cold stress? Absolutely, these are important concerns. Vibration often comes into play, especially with older equipment or saws that have not been serviced adequately. Make sure everyone knows no horseplay is allowed and how to communicate with one another using hand signals, etc., and to keep clear of others in the brush. Fluids are important because the workers must maintain hydration, and they must rest (especially in hot weather).

And leave the beer or booze at home -- staying hydrated does not mean a cold beer when so much is on the line. In this type work, each employee has to know his/her limitations and stay within them.

Nothing is as tangled as trees that have weathered storm damage and then left till a later time. The trees become twisted masses of live and dead limbs and vines and trunks under pressure that will break and ricochet with little or no notice.Hidden hazards abound underfoot, as well, with muddy conditions, inability to see the ground due to dense brush, and new growth. Co-workers’ safety is key when work is being done in hazardous terrain.

Most chain saw-related injuries can be prevented. Teamwork, not solo acts, is what you need. Everyone on the team needs a backup -- someone with experience and training to work safely.

At the end of a long day using a chain saw, every worker has great pride in looking at the physical accomplishments from taking tangled brush to cleared land. A greater pride comes from ending each day safely. Our mission as safety leadership for these workers is to ensure they know the rules, maintain the equipment, and understand not to take weird shortcuts. Our work is completed long before the first growl of the chain saw.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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