Staying Aware, Staying Protected


If you aren’t working safe, you aren’t working for long.

Modern-day tree crews spend hours of labor and sweat equity every day making large amounts of wood, branches, brush and miscellaneous green and brown stuff disappear, hopefully in a safe and timely manner. While the climbing and complex rigging required to create these veritable mountains of debris often get a great deal of focus – and rightfully so – the tools, equipment and methods to make it disappear are equally important and dangerous to a tree crew’s job.

The industrial gear and equipment that makes this brush and wood “disappearing act” so easy is just as likely to “disappear” an inattentive or unsafe crew member, so a basic understanding of its safe and efficient use helps increase the effectiveness and safety of a tree crew. Operators, crew leaders, and company owners should think of required personal protective equipment (PPE) as not only required by law or regulations, but an inexpensive way to prevent injury and loss of work time. After all, the costs for a head injury caused by not wearing a hard hat or helmet will far exceed the cost of the actual helmet.

As mentioned previously, while PPE is an important step, it is only one step, and hopefully good planning, communication and safe work techniques among the crew members will prevent the PPE from having to be put to the test. PPE requirements vary only slightly between chain saws, chippers and stump cutters, with leg protection – typically chain saw resistant chaps or pants – being that variation.


While leg protection may not specifically be required (depending on geographic location) while operating a stump grinder or chipper, it certainly is recommended for safety and efficiency. Chippers often will require additional cuts being made on the brush being fed, usually for ease of feeding or to deal with a poor interaction between the feed wheels and the wood/brush structure.

While stump grinding or cutting, leg protection can provide some additional padding and protection from flying stones and debris, even though not technically “required.” Face screens on hard hats or helmets, typically of a wire mesh, also can help shield the operator’s good looks from any quickly moving twigs when chipping, or stones, chips and soil when stump grinding. However, users should keep in mind that the mesh screens do not qualify as eye protection, so safety glasses or goggles must also be worn. Some face shields – typically made of high-impact plastic – do qualify as both shields and eye protection, so this also is an option for crew members reluctant to wear two items.

Chain saws

Chain saws are required by law and standard to have certain safety features to be legal to operate; thus, the removal or disabling of any of those features makes the saw illegal, not to mention unsafe. The required safety features include the chain brake, chain catcher, throttle interlock and spark arrestor.

A few basic operational pointers can help a great deal in making sure chain saws are run safely:

  • Chain saws should be started with the chain brake engaged and in a position that will minimize the movement of the saw when the cord is pulled. The left hand should be gripping the grab (or front) handle of the saw, and the right on the pull handle of the starter cord. Two simple and efficient methods are bracing the chain saw against the ground when starting, or locking it behind the right knee while bracing it on the left thigh when starting it while standing, often called the leg lock start.
  • Chain saws should never be drop started when being used on the ground. This is not only dangerous but also hard on the saw’s starter cord/recoil mechanism.
  • The chain brake should be engaged whenever taking more than two steps with a running chain saw. This is due to the possibility of tripping and falling while grabbing at the throttle trigger and falling toward a running chain.
  • The saw should be operated from a well-balanced body position using both hands on the appropriate handles, with the thumbs and fingers wrapped around them, and should never be operated above shoulder height.
  • Kickback, the sudden violent movement of the saw back toward the user, can occur when the upper quadrant of the tip of the bar comes in contact with wood, brush or debris. Chain saw operators should be aware at all times of the location of the tip of the bar when cutting, and take measures to prevent the upper quadrant from coming into contact with any objects that might generate kickback.


While there is a wide variety of chippers available and in use by tree crews, all of them have certain basic required safety features, and, in many cases, manufacturer-specific safety options. Operators should familiarize themselves with the safety features and operational procedures of their particular brand of chipper.

Basic safe and efficient chipper operation techniques would include:

  • Loose or torn clothing, dangling jewelry, long, unsecured hair, and gauntlet-style gloves all should be avoided when operating a chipper.
  • Brush and limbs should be fed in butt-first while standing off to one side or the other of the feed table. The curb side of the feed table is preferable, particularly in a roadside work environment.
  • Chipper operators should never reach into the feed area or attempt to kick brush or chunks into the feed wheels.
  • Crew members should be aware of, and prepared for, the possibility of violent movement from the end of the piece as it is seized by the feed wheels. Particular attention should be paid to which type of feed wheels the chipper has, as horizontal feed wheels will obviously cause different movements than vertical ones. As an example, horizontal feed wheels can cause violent movement up and down at the butt of the piece, typically where the person feeding the chipper is, while vertical wheels will cause the same movement in a side-to-side fashion.
  • For both efficiency and safety, branches, limbs and logs should be cut with the chain saw appropriately to facilitate safer and easier movement into the chipper and through the feed wheels.
  • “Dirty” brush – limbs with sand, mud or gravel on them – and rakings should not be fed into the chipper, as this will quickly take a toll on its knives and operation.

Stump grinders/cutters

Regardless of size, make or model, all stump grinders have inherent features designed to make them safe and efficient; and operators should be familiar with all these safety features prior to use.

Some basic safe and efficient stump grinding steps:

  • All stump cutters are equipped with various guards and barriers designed to reduce the likelihood of flying debris during operation; these barriers must be in place during operation.
  • Grinder operators should continually observe the cutting area for stones, construction debris or other objects that could become a projectile or damage the cutter teeth.
  • Care should be taken to locate any possible underground utilities prior to beginning stump-cutting operations.
  • When the cutter wheel is in motion, the operator should never leave the control station, move or shift the stump cutter’s position or reach into the cutting area with tools or body parts to remove stones or debris.

While it’s easy to focus on the “glamour” work of tree care, swinging gracefully around the canopy, lowering the huge top of the tree safely and smoothly, tree crews should not neglect training and awareness of proper ways to clean up and dispose of woody debris, as it is equally dangerous. Crew members should keep in mind that the chipper that barely “burps” over a 12-inch-diameter section of pin oak would just as easily consume them. After all, the chippers, chain saws and stump cutters can’t distinguish between wood and human. It is up to the operator to use it safely to prevent a tragic mistake.

(Courtesy of Tree Services Magazine: