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How to use a chainsaw safely

Whether you are a professional arborist or an amateur who simply needs firewood for the winter, the chainsaw is your trusted companion. As with all powerful machines, however, the dangers are very high if used incorrectly.

At McCulloch, we have been making chainsaws since the late 1940s so we strive to keep our customers informed about the dangers that these machines can pose. To keep you protected, we have put together a handy checklist to allow you to get the job done, safely.

Get the gear – A guide to personal protective equipment (PPE)

To have the highest level of protection possible you should consider purchasing safety clothing in addition to the chainsaw itself. The chainsaw can be unpredictable, even for experts, so being kitted out in the best possible clothing can literally be the difference between life and death.

It is recommended to get, at the very least, a set of non-slip gloves and a helmet (preferably with a visor and ear defenders). The gloves will be instrumental at keeping the chainsaw perfectly still while you are working and the helmet will protect you from any debris.

In addition to this, it is also advisable to extend your purchases to a set of trousers and a jacket, which are designed to jam the chainsaw machine straight away.

Finally it is very important that you purchase a sturdy set of boots. Your stance and balance while you are working is so important due to the power output from the chainsaw. If the chainsaw suddenly experiences kickback the weight transfer can feasibly make you lose your balance and a strong pair of boots can keep you grounded. They will also enable you to move from side to side in a stable manner. You can even get boots with steel toecaps so you have added protection from the chainsaw blade.

Get to know your chainsaw

To enable safe operation of the machines, chainsaws have a number of safety features, so you can operate them whilst minimising the risk. Understanding the role of each safety feature can help keep you safe while you are working.

Chain Brake

One of the most important safety features is definitely the chain brake. Essentially, this feature prevents the movement of the chain by applying a steel brake. This means the chain is secure when you change position between cuts. It also can activate when kickback occurs to prevent the user from being struck by the moving chain.

The chainsaw will also most often have a chain catcher that will prevent the chain being flung towards the user. If the chain were to become derailed during use, the energy that the engine is producing can make the chain very unpredictable. As the teeth are sharp, you will be very grateful for this feature.

Common dangers with chainsaws

Chainsaws are naturally dangerous machines. Consider the amount of power that needs to go through the sharp teeth in order to cut seamlessly through thick branches of wood - if this power isn’t used correctly it can cause serious issues.

The most common danger you can experience with your chainsaw is something called kickback. This is effectively where the machine jolts suddenly away from the wood. The most common, and often the most violent, kickback occurs when contact from the blade is made in what is called the “kickback zone”. This is the upper part of the tip of the blade gets momentarily snagged or is pinched on the wood.

The chain cannot move because it gets snagged and yet the power is still being driven from the engine. That energy has to go somewhere so, based on Newtonian physics, the reaction is equal and opposite away from the wood you are trying to cut. The more it gets snagged, the more violent the kickback is likely to be. If the operator’s head, neck or shoulders are in line with the plane of the bar, there is next to nothing that can be done to prevent it. This is why protective clothing is so important as it gives you that “worst case scenario” protection.

Chainsaws are also fairly heavy pieces of machinery. McCulloch chainsaws can range from 3.7kg to 5.9kg, which can be a lot to hold on to for an extended period of time. Fatigue can be a very serious cause of danger. The weight combined by the strain of marshaling the power from the engine can be very tiring. Unless you never skip arm day at the gym this can be a lot for even the most seasoned arborist to handle the whole job in one go. It is therefore important to take frequent breaks when using the chainsaw as fatigue can lead to serious issues, as your control over the machine is less secure.

How to use the chainsaw safely

All chainsaw safety instructions revolve around the elimination of risk. The chainsaw is perfectly manageable if you use it correctly and in a safe manner. Dangers can arise when it is used outside recommended guidelines, which are more risky.

The most important thing you will ever get told when operating a chainsaw is to make sure you have two hands on the chainsaw at all times. Most chainsaws have two handles for a reason, so make sure you are holding them both in a secure manner. If you are only using one hand to hold the chainsaw, it is nowhere near as manageable, which makes it much more dangerous.

When using the machine make sure that you have a secure footing and your balance is evenly spread across your body. You should, if possible, avoid cutting above shoulder height. If you do experience kickback, working above shoulder height becomes far more risky and is harder to control.

Before you start your work you need to make sure the area you are working in is safe. Particularly when you are cutting down trees you need to make sure there is space for the tree to fall down whilst also providing you an escape route so it doesn't fall on you. You also need to make sure it doesn’t take down a power line or even your house. If you are cutting smaller pieces of wood make sure there aren’t any nails that your chain blade may come into contact with. This can make the whole endeavour much more unpredictable, which is not what you will want when working with dangerous machinery.

Even if you are just chopping logs for firewood you still need to make sure you are safe. You will need to be certain there are no distractions such as pets or children. If you are cutting logs it is safer to use a sawhorse. If you are cutting on the floor you are putting your body more at risk from the kickback due to your stance.

To start the machine properly you will need to place it on the flat ground. The starting procedure can differ depending on the manufacturer and the power source. With all chainsaws the first port of call must be the manufacturer’s instructions. All McCulloch models come also with a decal on the machine to help with the starting procedure however the manual will have this in much more detail. At all times when the machine isn’t in operation, you will need to make sure the chain brake is on. Where possible, if you are setting the machine down to take a break, it is often safer to turn the machine off rather than let it keep running.