Real-life scenario: A 52-year-old male tree feller (the victim) was fatally injured after being struck in the right thigh with a chain saw. No one witnessed the incident, but evidence suggests the following scenario: The victim cut a forked hickory tree that fell and lodged in a yellow poplar. He then positioned himself between the lodged tree and a sycamore tree and notched the sycamore to fall into the lodged hickory. Before he had time to cut the sycamore, the top of the poplar snapped, freeing the hickory. The trunk or branch of the hickory struck the victim on the back of the head. The blow caused him to fall and stumble forward with his hand gripped around the handle of the running chain saw. The chain saw struck the inside of the victim’s unprotected right thigh, causing fatal injury.

Chain saws are a necessary tool for the rural lifestyle, but can be 5 times more dangerous than driving a race car, experts say. “If you use the chain saw wrong, it can kill you,” says Dr. Bruce Cutter, a professor at the Univ. of Missouri Department of Forestry.

These facts from the Univ. of Florida underscore the potential hazards:

  • When a chain saw is operating at full speed, more than 600 teeth pass a given point per second
  • A muffler on a chain saw can reach as much as 900 degrees F
  • A chain saw chain can move up to 68 mph

Inexperience, ignoring safe operation practices, improperly maintained equipment and fatigue all can lead to injury. You play a critical role in helping prevent those injuries, since dealers are often the initial point of contact.

“The customer may never even be aware of safety issues, such as kickback, unless someone explains it to them,” says Terry Ditsch, vice president of product services for Echo. “Because it’s a common tool, many underestimate its danger.”

What about business liability?

“Any time you have a business, you have yourself exposed,” says Earl Miner, manager of global technical services for the Oregon brand at Blount International.

John Keeler, Stihl’s national training manager, says dealers need to be aware of what manufacturers offer —and require — in terms of safety discussions. It could help protect them later.

Here are some guidelines for discussing safety during the sales process.

Saw Selection Guidelines

Gas-powered chain saws vs. electric generally fit the rural lifestyler’s cutting and portability requirements. However, the size of the saw and the customer’s skill level are key determining factors.

“Dealers should qualify customers,” says Ditsch. “Too big of a saw, too small of a saw — there are problems with both.” Be sure to ask about the kind of work they intend to do, says Keeler.

For instance, the dealer may best serve the customer by advising them to hire a professional.

Here are some guidelines regarding chain saw size. Keep in mind that a chain saw can cut a log with a diameter almost twice the bar’s length:

Lightweight Saws

  • 30-40cc, bar lengths ranging from 12-14 inches
  • Good for occasional use, such as cutting limbs, firewood and small trees

Midweight Saws

  • 40-60cc, bar lengths ranging from 16-24 inches
  • Better for more frequent use and larger cutting requirements

Heavyweight Saws

  • 60-120cc, longer bar sizes — for professionals only

Safety Features Round-Up

Manufacturers say they’ve committed themselves to improving safety as well as performance.

“Safety is so important,” says Keeler,“and the dealers are on the front line of explaining this to the consumer.”

Any discussion regarding safety and features should include explaining kickback — one of the most serious hazards. It occurs when the nose of the bar is stopped or the chain becomes pinched. The reaction can force the saw rapidly — and uncontrollably —toward the operator. Here’s a roundup of features that can reduce kickback or other injuries:

  • On/Off Switch: Most switches are clearly marked and conveniently located to avoid accidentally shutting off the saw during a critical point.
  • Throttle Interlock: Prevents the throttle from accidentally advancing, or inadvertently moving, by automatically returning the throttle and chain to idle when the trigger button is released.
  • Low-Kickback Chain: Reduces the energy if kickback occurs.
  • Chain Brake or Kickback Brake: Stops the chain immediately if kickback occurs, even if the machine is at full throttle.
  • Low or Reduced Kickback Bar: Helps reduce the dangers of kickback.
  • Nose Guard (On Some Models): The guard can be removed, which could lead to safety issues.
  • Chain Catcher: Prevents the chain from being thrown back if it breaks.
  • Front Hand Guard: Protects hands from kickback and keeps the left hand from slipping into the chain.
  • Anti-Vibration System: Mounts that separate the cutter bar and engine from the handles and controls. It helps reduce the painful hand-arm vibration syndrome, or “white finger.”
  • Exhaust System, Spark Arrester: Directs the hot gases coming from the engine away from the operator and decreases the noise level. Helps prevent exhaust from being a fire hazard.
  • Scabbard: Hard cover that covers the guard bar and saw chain when the chain saw is not in use. It helps prevent injuries when transporting the saw.

Proper Personal Protection

Personal protective equipment is a“must,” not an extra, says Ditsch, and dealers can help customers choose the right gear. Appropriate protective equipment includes a hard hat or helmet, safety glasses, hearing protection, cut-resistant and skid-resistant gloves, cut-resistant leg wear that extends from the waist to the top of the foot, and boots which cover the ankle. Operators should not wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothes and should tie back long hair and keep it tucked into clothing.

The Georgia Farm Bureau offers this additional fact, underscoring the need for protective equipment: Operating a chain saw for longer than 12 minutes without hearing protection can damage hearing. Dealers are doing a disservice to their customers, says Keeler, if they don’t offer and strongly encourage personal protective equipment.

Preparing for the Job

The machine’s condition can significantly affect safety. Customers should routinely check controls, chain sharpness, chain tension, depth-gauge adjustment, and all bolts and handles to ensure they’re functioning properly and meet manufacturer specifications. Also, verify other functions, such as making sure the cutting chain stops moving when the throttle control trigger is released.

Keeler advises checking the chain for sharpness every time the operator fills the gas tank.

Safe Operating Practices

Experts say demonstrating safe operating practices is just as important as talking about it. “Many dealers have logs outside where they can show how to start the machine, and how to fuel and oil it,”says Miner. They can even demonstrate basic cuts.”

Dealers should emphasize that the safest way to start a chain saw is on level ground, clear of debris. Use both hands and get down on your left knee, with the toe of your right boot firmly on the base plate of the handle. Make sure the chain brake is engaged and the chain is not contacting anything. Remind customers to never “drop” or “air” start the saw.

When cutting, hold the saw firmly with both hands and be on solid ground, not in a ladder or a tree. Thumbs and fingers should encircle both chain saw handles. Grip the saw with the right hand on the rear handle (throttle) and the left hand on the front handle, even if you are left-handed . Stand slightly to the left side of the saw, making sure your body is clear of the cutting path. And, always have an escape path.

Other important advice regarding safe operation:

  • Cut with the lower part of the bar, not the nose.
  • Run chainsaws at full speed while cutting to maximize productivity and reduce operator fatigue.
  • Always cut at waist level, or below, to maintain secure control.
  • Bystanders should be at least 150 feet away when felling a tree and at least 30 feet away when removing limbs or cutting a fallen tree. But have someone in the vicinity in case of an accident.
  • Carry the saw with the engine stopped, the guide bar to the rear and the muffler away from the body. When transporting, always use the scabbard.
  • Be aware of utility lines.
  • Follow safe fueling practices.

Summing Up Safety

About 36,000 people are treated each year in emergency rooms for injuries from chain saws — with many of those injuries potentially being preventable. Safety isn’t just one isolated discussion.

Experts emphasize that dealers need to discuss how proper maintenance — a sharp, properly tensioned chain, for instance — plays in safety.

“There’s a certain amount of maintenance that a user should be able to do,” Ditsch says. “Our manual lists the different procedures, as well as the level of difficulty.”

Dealers should also point out the manual’s recommendations regarding replacement parts and other important “how to” and trouble-shooting tips, especially related to best practices for felling or limbing a tree.

Keeler says customers choose a dealership over a “big box” store because they are seeking advice and service. They don’t just want to purchase a saw in a box. “It takes a little longer to discuss safety, but the further the customer lets you go, the more chances you have to sell something before they leave … protective chaps and glasses, hearing protection and so forth,” he says. “It does affect the bottom line and the safety of your customers.”