Chainsaw Safety: A Guide to Training, Hazards, and Inspections

Chainsaws are one of the most frequently used power tools on the market. They’re also one of the most dangerous because chainsaw safety is incredibly complicated.

Each year, 36,000 people in the U.S. seek emergency help for chainsaw-related injuries. And a far greater number of people have close calls. Because even chainsaw experts, like professional arborists or lumberjack champions, can and do experience chainsaw hazards that threaten their lives.

This chainsaw safety guide is a helpful tool for utility workers, agricultural workers, arborists, or even those using chainsaws for one-off tasks at home. In this guide, we’ll walk you through:

  • OSHA Chainsaw Training Requirements
  • Dangerous Chainsaw Hazards
  • Required Chainsaw PPE
  • Chainsaw Do’s and Dont’s
  • Chainsaw Inspections

How Dangerous Are Chainsaws, Really?

Chainsaws are an incredibly common power tool used across several hazardous industries.  And you likely have one at home for occasional use. However, they’re also a tool that is too often underestimated. The hazards associated with a chainsaw are both numerous, and each hazard has the potential to be fatal, even if you manage every other risk well.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at an OSHA recordable fatality from the Christmas holiday period in 2000. The OSHA Accident Report Detail says:

  • Three employees were trimming trees on a December day.
  • One of the employees was inside a utility truck bucket cutting a 20-ft long limb from a 75-ft high tree. He was not wearing fall protection.
  • Two other employees stood on the ground holding a rope tied to the limb.
  • The employee in the bucket saw the limb lean towards him and asked the ground workers to hold the rope tighter.
  • The limb leaned away from the tree and hit one of the workers on the ground. The limb also hit the boom of the truck, and the employee fell out of the bucket. He died at the scene of the accident.

In this case, everything that could go wrong did. And a man died three days before Christmas.

These cases show why it’s so important to not only provide dedicated chainsaw operator training but to regularly train teams on potential hazards that come with chainsaw operations.

In other words, it’s not just about the power tool itself. Your ability to stay safe while operating a chainsaw requires excellent planning and a full risk assessment of the potential knock-on effects that can come from chainsaw work, especially the impact of something going wrong.

What are the OSHA Requirements for Chainsaw Training & Safety?

Worker In Orange Shirt In Tree Cutting Off Dead Branches
Worker in a tree after completing chainsaw training not wearing all the correct PPE

Tree care (excluding logging) falls under the General Industry Standards (29 CFR 1910). According to OSHA, the most relevant standards within 1910 for the industry include:

To be compliant with OSHA chainsaw training, all chainsaw operators should know how to:

  • Inspect, maintain, and carry a saw
  • Operate the saw correctly and safely (with special training for operating a saw within a tree)
  • Identify and work safely around hazards
  • Wear and inspect the PPE needed to operate the chainsaw
  • Initiate emergency procedures

While it’s tempting to run training on a case-by-case basis, particularly if chainsaw use isn’t included in the daily job risks, it’s always better to go through comprehensive training prior to beginning the job. In addition, you should run regular toolbox talks to reinforce best practices, address near misses, and provide training or compliance updates as needed.

If you’re looking for OSHA chainsaw training options, consider resources such as:

There are also some great videos from the U.S. Agricultural Safety and Health Centers for people who might use chainsaws occasionally but not as part of their day-to-day job duties:

What Are the Most Dangerous Chainsaw Hazards?

There are many hazards that can threaten even the most experienced chainsaw operators. Every chainsaw operator must identify these hazards before starting work. The most dangerous chainsaw hazards are:

  • Chainsaw kickback
  • Vibration disease (ergonomic)
  • Hearing loss
  • CO poisoning
  • Electrical hazards

Other hazards can include:

  • Tree or branches hitting the operator or a passer by (springback)
  • Explosive tension in logs or branches (binding)
  • Slip, trip, and fall hazards
  • Fuel tank issues (using incorrect fuel-oil mixtures, fueling on the ground, using an unapproved container, fueling near sources of heat)
  • Work at height hazards

Chainsaw Kickback

Chainsaw kickback occurs when the chainsaw jolts or jerks suddenly in an upward direction. What causes kickback on a chainsaw? According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “Kickback occurs when the end portion of the nose of the bar (the kickback zone) strikes an object and momentarily snags or is pinched.”

It can be difficult to appreciate how dangerous kickback is until it happens to you. Here’s an example of how powerful kickback can be and an explanation of just how dangerous it is:

In the video, he explains that if it wasn’t for the tree, the power of the kickback would have sent the saw 180 degrees and hit him while the saw was running. In other words, the tree prevented him for experiencing a serious, or even fatal, injury.

Kickback can be the result of:

  • Low engine speeds
  • Overreaching and cutting above chest height
  • Failure to maintain the chainsaw according to manufacturer’s instructions
  • Incorrect replacement of chains and guidebars

Why is kickback so dangerous? When kickback occurs, the blade tip can move upward and go as far back towards the chainsaw operator. If you’re holding the chainsaw and the blade tip hits you, then you could become seriously injured. Most chainsaw fatalities happen as a result of kickback.

You can prevent chainsaw kickback with thorough chainsaw training and refresher training for operators as well as the use of safety tips to cover the nose of the bar (the kickback zone).

Vibration Disease

Vibration disease (or white finger syndrome or hand-arm vibration syndrome) is an ergonomic hazard that every operator and employer should take seriously. The disease occurs as a result of the vibration of hand-held power tools, especially chainsaws. Some experts believe that it’s not only the most common neuromuscular disorder in environments like construction and forestry but also the most underappreciated. Once vibration disease fully develops, it’s irreversible.

Hearing Loss

The noise made by chainsaw operation is a huge hazard for operators. Although it may seem minor for occasional users, CDC data shows that noise-exposed workers in Forestry and Logging had a higher percentage of hearing loss than every other industry with noise exposure combined.

Wearing hearing protection is important as is installing mufflers and silencers on equipment. Ensuring all tools are well-maintained and reducing exposure time are also vital for protecting hearing.

Remember that hearing loss isn’t only caused by noise. Vibration disease can also impact hearing, possibly through changes to the blood flow as it travels through your inner ear. So, wearing the correct PPE is imperative because there is an overlap between these two high-risk hazards.

CO Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is another underappreciated hazard among arborists, forestry workers, and farmworkers. Small gasoline-powered engines emit a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide and are particularly dangerous for loggers. Data from a NIOSH study shows loggers experience twice the CO exposure compared to workers who also perform limbing and other operations.

Unfortunately, CO is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. It’s also deadly, even in small amounts. The CDC provides an example of a farmer who died of CO poisoning after working only 30 minutes indoors with a gasoline-powered pressure washer.

Working outside will not necessarily protect operators from CO poisoning. In situations where the dispersal of exhaust fumes is hindered by another factor, fumes can still build up and threaten the operator and those in the immediate vicinity.

Electrical Hazards

Electrical hazards can come in several forms. While electric chainsaws aren’t often used outside of domestic use, like pruning and cutting trees, they still pose a danger; any electric chainsaw comes with the risk of electric shock and electrical fires. You should always inspect the cord, plug, and socket for burn marks or arcing and you should only use an appropriate extension cord and a socket with an RCD (residual current device).

The other electrical hazards for gas-powered chainsaws relate to falling branches or trees and the risk of contact with power lines. Before operating near a power line, you must verify that the line has been de-energized. 

What PPE Do You Need to Operate a Chainsaw?

Chainsaw PPE includes six components. For safety and OSHA compliance, you must wear:

  • Protective gloves
  • Hard hat (head protection)
  • Safety glasses (eye protection)
  • Steel-toed boots
  • Hearing Protective Equipment
  • Leg protection (kevlar leg chaps, either internal or external)

The operator’s clothes should fit neatly. You don’t want any sleeves or trousers flapping in the wind as these can become a hazard in an accident.

If you’re working in a tree or off the ground, you will also wear fall protection as required. Working at height requires its own risk assessment and should be considered for when you’re planning the job.

Do you always need to wear the full set of chainsaw PPE, even for a quick job?

Wearing the right PPE can seem cumbersome for people who operate chainsaws regularly or even just for a short job. However, chainsaws are so powerful that there’s no level of experience that can protect you from these hazards. Just look at this champion lumberjack who nearly experienced a serious leg injury during a competition — if it weren’t for his chaps.

Even competition winners can still experience hazards like kickback

How to Use a Chainsaw Safely: A Guide to Chainsaw Techniques and Ergonomics 

Learning how to use a chainsaw safely will help avoid operator error and potentially fatal incidents. OSHA also requires that anyone who uses a chainsaw must learn how to use it correctly and understand the hazards before they are allowed to take on into the field.

The first rule of chainsaw operation is to always follow the manufacturers’ instructions. After that, competent operators can follow these steps for a safe work environment.

1. Complete a Work Plan or Risk Assessment

Before even picking up the chainsaw, every operator should run a risk assessment and complete a work plan for the job to be done. The process should identify and document any key risks, including the risks associated with the chainsaw and its use.

For example, if the job involves trimming branches and working at height, be sure to account for the potential of a branch to hit the worker on the ground as well as any possibility that the worker may fall.

Chainsaw Risk Assessment Example

RiskPotential HarmRisk SeverityAction
Chainsaw woundsOperators
Participants
Spectators
MediumProvide training for competency; Wear full PPE as provided by safety management plan; Replace chain cover and apply the brake when saw is not in use
BurnsOperators
Participants
Spectators
MediumWear gloves and chaps; allow the machine to cool before inspecting, refueling, or re-starting
Eye injuriesOperators
Participants
Spectators
MediumWear eye protection
NoiseOperators
Participants
Spectators
HighWear hearing protection
Falling limbs & branchesOperators
Participants
Spectators
MediumComplete work plan to assess the potential of falling branches; wear PPE in the vicinity
An example of a chainsaw risk assessment to perform prior to starting a job

Part of the work plan should always include spotting hazards around the work area and eliminating them where possible. You need to clear everything away that you don’t intend to cut and remove any potential trip and fall hazards. It’s also vital to ensure you have a retreat pathway available to you.

2. Start the Chainsaw Safely

Your chosen OSHA chainsaw training will cover how to start the chainsaw safely. This is an often-overlooked part of chainsaw operations. There are several methods for starting the chainsaw, but the golden rule is: never drop-start the chainsaw.

You can get step-by-step instructions for starting a chainsaw from:

Your chainsaw manufacturer will have

Additionally, you should:

  • Keep the saw away from your body and anything you don’t intend to cut.
  • Avoid contact with any object as the chainsaw starts.
  • Cover the guide bar when the motor stops.
  • Always turn off the engine before putting the chainsaw back down.

3. Hold the Chainsaw Correctly

The way you hold a chainsaw will determine how you manage the remaining hazards that you haven’t eliminated through the hierarchy of controls.

You should hold the chainsaw with your right hand on the rear handle and your left hand on the front handle. Operators should use a firm grip to hold the saw securely. However, you should take extra care not to hold on for dear life: if your grip is too tight, you amplify your risk of vibration disease, which is painful and irreversible, even if you wear the correct gloves.

There are four golden rules for chainsaw operation:

  • Hold the chainsaw with two hands. No exceptions.
  • Stand to the side of the chainsaw. Never rest it on your leg.
  • Keep the saw parallel to the ground when cutting.
  • Carry the chainsaw with the guide bar pointed to the rear, so the blade drops off behind you.

When you put the chainsaw down, always keep it on a level surface.

4. Cut Safely

You’re ready to work. Your plan of action will dictate how and where you cut. However, there are general rules to follow:

  • Don’t cut anything above mid-chest height.
  • Make sure you don’t cut a tree where the diameter is greater than the length of the blade.
  • Always work with a companion.
  • If you get tired, stop work. When you’re tired, you can lose your concentration and grip, resulting in a severe incident.

Remember that the size of the tree isn’t fully indicative of how dangerous it is. Brush and small branches can cause accidents by grabbing the chain and throwing the operator off balance.

What Should You NOT Do With a Chainsaw?

There are a few things that no operator should ever do when their job involves a chainsaw. Forgetting these rules not only increases the chance of an injury but even grows the chance of a potential fatality. 

Never Work Alone

Chainsaws come with many risks. Even when you complete a thorough risk assessment, you can’t control everything. Because of the increased severity of chainsaw accidents compared to other power tools or tasks, operators should never work alone.

Never Carry a Chainsaw While It’s Running

A chainsaw can cause injury anytime the blade isn’t covered. Carrying a chainsaw when it’s running puts you at risk of cutting yourself, those around you, objects, or animals in the vicinity and increases the chance of a burn.

Never Use a Chainsaw When You’re Tired

Mitigating hazards like falling branches requires your complete attention. Don’t operate a chainsaw when you’re tired, as you could lose focus or find it difficult to maintain the correct grip.

Take frequent breaks when using the chainsaw and let a supervisor know if you’re struggling to concentrate.

Never Saw Above Shoulder Height

There are three very good reasons to never use a chainsaw above mid-chest or shoulder height:

  1. Holding a chainsaw overhead throws off your center of gravity, making it easier to lose your balance.
  2. Raising a chainsaw too high impedes your view. It’s much harder to see where and what you’re cutting.
  3. Lifting a chainsaw makes it more prone to kickback. When combined with impaired balance and vision, kickback becomes exceptionally dangerous.

Never Use Faulty Equipment

If a chainsaw inspection results in any question or doubt about the chainsaw’s maintenance, you must report it to the relevant person immediately. You should never use a chainsaw that doesn’t pass an inspection with flying colors.

How and When to Inspect a Chainsaw

Every operator should know how to inspect a chainsaw before they start the equipment. The chainsaw inspection should include the:

  • Chain
  • Bolts
  • Brake
  • Handles
  • Ignition
  • Clutch cover
  • Fuel and oil
  • Cord and plug (if electric)

If any part of the chainsaw is up for review, turn it over to the equipment manager and get a new one. Never use a chainsaw that you have any doubt about, even if it’s the only tool available. A loose chain, missing bolt, or sticky brake can land you in the hospital.

You can find free pre-operational chainsaw inspections from Northern Hire Group Chainsaw Pre-Operational Checks. Safesite users can also ask for a chainsaw inspection to be uploaded into their organization’s template library, so you can assign it to operators for completion and better manage equipment and hazards.

Chainsaw Safety is a Job that’s Never Done

The issue with chainsaw safety is that you can be the most skilled chainsaw operator in the world and still be at risk from half a dozen or more different hazards. And all of those hazards could present a severe risk to your body. As a result, it’s vital to avoid any complacency in chainsaw operations. Whether it’s suiting up with the correct chainsaw PPE or performing a chainsaw inspection or risk assessment, every step you take could be the step that prevents an injury if something goes wrong.

Are you looking for more information on OSHA training obligations? Check out How to Comply with OSHA Safety Training Standards.

Team Safesite

By Team Safesite

We're a group of safety and tech professionals united in our desire to make every workplace safer. We keep a pulse on the latest regulations, standards, and industry trends in safety and write about them here on our blog.

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