Monday, October 16, 2023

Working Safely with a Chainsaw 

Two people wear appropriate safety gear while operating chainsaws

Chainsaws were once tools used only by professional lumberjacks. But, today they’re widely used by farmers, landowners, and homeowners, as well. And they sure are useful! In fact, it’s hard to think of a more efficient, time saving power tool. But a chainsaw in the hands of an inexperienced, unconcerned operator can very-suddenly become lethal.

I don’t know how often I’ve seen it. A recent storm takes down a couple of limbs or a tree, or a few trees in a yard or driveway, and the homeowner is out there with a brand new chainsaw. A beauty! And he can’t wait to use it. He fires it up. It roars! And there he stands, with his new toy in hand, right smack dab in the middle of an intertwining tangled mess of limbs, leaves, and spring poles, wearing nothing but a shirt, jeans, a light, loose-fitting jacket, and sneakers, ready to have at it. Not a care in the world.

Useful and Practical, but Dangerous 

Chainsaws certainly are remarkable tools. They’re commanding enough to make relatively quick and easy work of felling trees, removing fallen or uprooted trees and downed limbs, and / or cutting firewood. In fact, they’re powerful enough to cut through just about any reasonable size tree in mere seconds.

It cannot be overstated just how dangerous working with a piece of equipment that rips across lengths of solid hardwood in seconds can be; especially when the operator is standing amid or upon a jumble of bent and broken limbs, some of which are embedded in the ground, from impact.


Be Aware of Your Environment 

Actually, even though the chainsaw inflicts the injury, it’s the environment that’s the primary cause of most chainsaw-related accidents; the result of the operator becoming tangled up in brush, fatigued, or perhaps, a combination of the two.

The whip of a bent limb or small tree, as it’s cut, can slap the operator with enough force to cause him to lose control of his saw. As can being hit by a falling, dead limb; even a small one. In fact, anything that startles or distracts the operator can cause him to momentarily let down his guard, resulting in physical contact with the moving chain or in some other form of serious accident.

Loose, unsafe chain tension (top) and correct chain tension (bottom)

Loose, unsafe chain tension (top) and correct chain tension (bottom)
Source: Cornell Small Farms Program.

By the Numbers 

Even the most experienced operators make mistakes. And if the pros can mess up, obviously less-experienced chainsaw-users can too. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hospitals report approximately 36,000 chainsaw-related injuries and deaths annually; almost all of them preventable. And that figure doesn’t include all of the injuries that go unreported.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), roughly 40% of all chainsaw accidents occur to the legs; 35% occur to the left hand and wrist; 1% of injuries result in amputation. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the average chainsaw injury requires 110 stitches. And the CDC states that medical costs for chainsaw injuries amount to at least $350 million, every year.



OSHA ascertains that, annually, there are around 250 chainsaw-related deaths. Most of these fatalities are caused by kickback during usage. Kickback can happen without warning, in the blink of an eye. Kickback occurs when the teeth on the saw-chain catch on something, as they rotate around the tip of the bar (e.g. hardware or a knot in the wood, hidden branches, underlying debris), in a way that causes the bar to be thrown back violently toward the operator. And while it’s true that gasoline-powered chainsaws are equipped with protective devices designed to minimize kickback, it nonetheless remains the primary cause of chainsaw-related accidents and injuries.

An image illustrating how chainsaw kickback works

Chainsaw Kickback – Do not cut with the tip of the chainsaw.
Photo Credit: Cornell University Environment, Health, and Safety.

A description of chainsaw kickback

Source: Cornell Small Farms Program.

Safety Measures 

Some general precautions for safe chainsaw operation include: 


– Reading and understanding the manufacturer’s chainsaw operation manual and following all manufacturer safety procedures

– Checking your chainsaw thoroughly before every use to be sure that the bar, chain, and sprocket are in top condition; that

chain tension is correct; that the bar oil is flowing; that all nuts and bolts are tightened; and that the chain brake is working


– Sharpening your chain and topping off the bar oil each time you stop to refuel

– Always wearing appropriate protective clothing

– Never using the saw to cut anything above shoulder height

– Keeping hands on the handles, and maintaining secure footing while operating your chainsaw

– Carrying the chainsaw with the motor off and the saw blade pointing to the rear

– Always having a properly equipped first aid kit with you

– Keeping other people and animals away from the working area

– Making sure there is a second person within calling distance (It doesn’t hurt to have someone nearby who knows first aid

and / or CPR, either.) Never work alone!

– Using the saw to cut only wood

– Stopping the saw and resting, if you become tired

– Avoiding the use of a chainsaw in wet or windy conditions or in poor light

– Waiting a few minutes for the motor to cool before refueling


Additional Information    

    If you’d like to learn more about selecting, maintaining, and safely operating a chainsaw, Cornell Cooperative Extension has a webpage dedicated to chainsaw safety, with links to other emergency preparedness topics, as well. Visit


Photo at top: Wearing appropriate safety equipment can prevent serious injury. Photo Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.


4 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Assuming the guy is cutting in the top photo. That seems dangerous to be cutting at the pile of small logs. They could easily go flying off, or you catch a tip on another log. Also, I think he might want to put face shield down…

  2. rumrum says:

    for me I think one of the most important things is not to work tired. I have some physical disabilities so my rule is one tank of gas and I am done for the day

    • I’m with you. Disabilities & fatigue are factors for me also. One thing I have learned through the years, saw size/bar length make a big difference in that regard. My last two saws have both had 16″ bars. Cuts most everything I’ve got any business dealing with on my own & I can man that smaller saw safely without getting fatigued for far longer.

  3. Arborists often work in natural environments where they must be mindful of the surrounding ecosystem.

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