Chainsaws are a useful tool. They are portable, they allow workers to cut wood, fell a tree, or clear a path when necessary. Those same qualities, however, also make chainsaws a bigger safety risk than people realize.

We feel comfortable with chainsaws, as the basics are easy to grasp. But all it takes is a momentary loss of balance or attention, and we are soon reminded that what chews through wood can also chew through us.

In this article, we'll look a the basics of chainsaw safety and what you can do to reduce your risk of acting out a scene from the most gruesome horror movies.

Primary and Secondary Operators

Chainsaw operator is classified as a full-time occupation. These are the people who use a chainsaw regularly as part or all of their work. As such, chainsaw operators should be properly certified and have completed the requisite safety training.

There will be no surprises for those people in this article.

When there are incidents with primary operators, it is usually due to environmental conditions (such as slippery conditions), lapses of judgement (choosing to forego proper PPE), or other individual factors (fatigue, heat stress). With secondary operator, the people for whom a chainsaw is a secondary tool that is infrequently called for, many of the incidents come down to lack of training or appropriate equipment (for related reading, see Getting Your Occupational Health and Safety Program Started in 6 Steps).

Proper Training

First things first: everyone who will be using a chainsaw needs to be trained in how to safely operate one. Chainsaws seem straightforward enough, but there's more to it than just turning it on and sawing something down.

We can't stress the importance of training enough. You don't want to hand a huge, powerful tool like this to someone and just tell them to be careful. Proper training will make sure the person wielding the chainsaw knows how to hold it, make sure nothing they cut falls on anyone, keeps their eyes and ears safe, and knows how to set it aside without hurting anyone (including themselves) in the process.

Planning Your Cuts

Once you've been trained, you're ready to pick up the chainsaw and start cutting. But exactly how do you cut?

Never cut with a chainsaw above your head and never put the tip at more than a 45-degree angle. Cutting at an angle greater than 45 degrees greatly increases the chance for kick-back, and cutting above your head is just asking to catch that kick-back with your forehead. (Pro Tip: even the best headgear makes a poor guard against a chainsaw with gravity behind it).

You need to plan a cut and get the proper equipment to get you high enough or at the right angle to cut safely. Often, this is a ladder, but it could be a boom, a scissor lift, or some other lifting apparatus (find out when you need to use a fall harness in an aerial lift).

You also need to be aware of the drop, particularly when cutting branches or trees. Again, proper PPE like a helmet can reduce the severity of a struck-by injury, but it is far better to establish a drop zone where no other workers should enter. When felling a tree, running a line to ensure it falls as planned—or, worst case, slowing the fall when it goes the other way—is always recommended. More on that later.

Safe Operating Procedures for Your Chainsaw

As with any equipment, read your instruction manual and warnings before operation. You should wear the appropriate safety gear recommended in the manual as a bare minimum (we'll cover personal protective equipment in detail next). It may take five or 10 minutes to get dressed for safety, but it only takes a second for a chain going at 3,500 RPM to shred you to bits. Take the time and save yourself a nasty trip to the doctor—if you're lucky.

Most important for secondary operators: if you don't know how to operate a chainsaw competently and confidently, ask for instructions and training (if you still don't receive any, see How to Refuse Unsafe Work for advice on how to proceed).

Safety Gear

There is some basic PPE that should be used to improve chainsaw safety.

  • Boots with steel toes: The cap can stop the chainsaw from cutting through on accidental contact
  • Safety glasses: These should be worn to prevent wood chips and other flying debris from hitting you in the eye
  • Hard hat (side impact) with chainsaw visor: The hard hat with a visor is a mandatory safety item because it can prevent tree limbs and branches from hitting you in the face, as well as reduce damage from a kick-back. This can save your life
  • Chainsaw chaps or chainsaw pants: Chainsaw chaps are clip-on overpants that are equipped with webbing to clog the chainsaw's chain against the bearing and stop its motion (and stop it from removing your leg). They are not as effective as chainsaw pants, which have greater wraparound protection. The left thigh is a common victim of chainsaw cuts and the quality of the PPE is the biggest factor in survival and recovery
  • Reflective vest: Should be worn when in the company of other workers on the work site so they can see you better and prevent accidents (see How to Ensure Outdoor Worker Visibility to learn more)
  • Ear muffs or hearing protection: A chainsaw produces about 110 decibels of sound. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), exposure to sound at that level for more than one minute at a time can lead to permanent deafness. In other words, always user ear protectors when using a chainsaw (learn more in The Effects of Noise on the Body: Why Everyone Needs Hearing Protection).

The biggest difference between the severity of injuries sustained by professional chainsaw operators and people using them at home is the quality of the PPE being used. You may have just one cut to do at home, but doing it in flip flops is just asking for trouble (for more safety tips, see Life Hacks: 3 Ways to Boost Summer Safety at Home).

Location Concerns

Operating a chainsaw can become a doubly dangerous job. Not only are you working with a potentially hazardous tool, but there are other elements that add to the risks. There may be high-voltage electricity to contend with—not to mention a falling tree. As a general rule, you should always put a rope around the tree and secure it so it cannot fall backwards onto a line or towards any other dangerous location. The rope should be strong, unfrayed, and have at least 150 foot-pounds of pressure on it to help guide the tree away from the line.

Operating in deep snow also poses some serious danger because it can reduce your field of view. The most dangerous point on the chainsaw is the tip, and this is the area that can be engulfed in snow and out of view. It is absolutely necessary to have a strong command of tip guidance. If your chainsaw tip dips under the snow and contacts a power cord, power line, your foot, or something that causes it to kick back, you could be in serious trouble. To prevent this, clear away the snow and ID any hazards such as loose objects, hard objects, or objects that you should not come into contact with. Once you have cleared your area, you can work safely without being hampered by the snow. Clearing the area should include clearing it of other people too (for more, see The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls).

Knowing Your First Aid Basics

We would love to be able to say that following all the safety procedures, wearing adequate safety gear, and being extra careful will keep you from getting hurt. But no amount of preparation and precaution can keep you 100% safe. Mistakes, malfunctions, and freak accidents could still happen. So, it's important to know how to react when they do.

Chainsaw operators, their supervisors, and even the workers who are on site with them should know how to treat a chainsaw wound. Stopping the bleeding, preventing infection, and keeping the wound from getting worse are essential while awaiting treatment by emergency medical personnel.

There should always be an adequate first aid kit on site. Chainsaws can cut deep and wide, and you don't want to be stuck trying to patch up that kind of wound with a handful of band-aids and a small roll of gauze. Compression bandages will do a much better job of dressing a large wound.

Planning, PPE, and Patience

Chainsaws are very dangerous tools that require the utmost respect and attention to safety every time, no matter how often you use one. According to Elvex, there are more than 30,000 chainsaw accidents in the United States each year. You can reduce the chances of injury by planning your cuts, learning proper operation of the tool, wearing the proper PPE, and approaching the work with care and patience.