Currently, this lower body protection is not required while operating a saw aloft, though particular states, provinces and/or municipalities may do so. However, it would be in the tree company’s best interest — not to mention the saw operator’s best interest — to start making a habit, if not a requirement, of wearing lower body chain saw protection while cutting aloft. Simply put, a laceration inflicted by a chain saw when high above the ground is going to be much more challenging to deal with and treat than one that occurs right near the truck, other workers and the ever-present first aid kit at ground level. And the extra protection provided by chaps or saw pants may very well make the difference between life and death.

The types and styles of chain saw protection for tree care workers has grown immensely in recent decades. While the economical “one-size-fits-all” apron chaps are still available, they are no longer the only choice hanging in the saw shop. Advances in chain saw protective clothing include lighter weight, more durability and, perhaps most important of all to tree folk, breathability to increase coolness and avoid the “britches oven” effect of yore. All of these options and choices can make selection a bit confusing, and with the cost of increased durability, lightness and coolness, the last thing a user wants to realize after purchase is that they were uninformed or even misinformed.

A closer view of a pair of chain saw pants. Photo: Thor Clausen

A closer view of a pair of chain saw pants. Photo: Thor Clausen

Resistance

Every user of chaps, saw pants or overalls needs to be aware that nothing out there currently is fully and completely “chain saw proof.” All of the options are chain saw-resistant, which is not only exactly what the standards require, but in reality also the only feasible property at this time. While it might be appealing to imagine having a pair of chain saw-proof britches on, the reality is that with current materials and technology they would either be incredibly uncomfortable, stiff and heavy, or so expensive as to only be attainable by folks who work at jobs where they would never need them.

Chain saw resistance sounds quite simple in theory, but the actual standards are quite specific and involve more than a few complex explanations. Without going into great detail, a basic definition of chain saw resistance is that the apparel must allow no more than .25 inch of “cut through” to meet the standard of chain saw-resistant. This minimum “cut through” must also occur at a specific chain speed, standardized throughout the U.S., but with provincial variances in Canada. The idea behind having a certain level of resistance is that it will inflict the minimum injury while giving the user additional time to react to the fact that the saw has come in contact with their body and take appropriate, and hopefully speedy, action. Professional users should be aware that there are chaps available for the typically lower-powered homeowner saws, but in most cases these are not sufficient for professional use.

The ties that bind

There are two general kinds of fibers that provide the chain saw-resistant capabilities of chaps or saw pants. Fibers such as warp knit nylon are meant to clog up or jam the chain, while cut-resistant ones, such as Kevlar, are meant to slow it down by being difficult to cut. The clogging fibers are usually used in a way that means they come out in long strands, wrapping around the teeth, bar and even sprockets, slowing the chain speed and many times stopping it completely. The Kevlar type are so difficult for the tooth to cut through that they are constantly decreasing the chain’s speed, slowing it down as it struggles to get through the fibers and get at the operator’s flesh. These different fibers are used in a variety of ways in chain saw protection. Some only use clogging fibers, while others use only cut-resistant ones, and some apparel employ both. A general guideline is that apparel with clogging fibers will be bulkier and heavier but cheaper, and apparel with cut-resistant fibers will be lighter but more expensive.

Aprons aren’t just for cooking

Apron-style chaps are the ones that most tree care folks started out with and remain the most economical, though perhaps not the most user friendly, chain saw protection option. They have an adjustable waist strap and several leg straps to secure them around the thighs and calves. A correctly sized pair should extend down to the top of the instep of the operator’s boots. It’s important to note that the listed length is not measured from the crotch as is the inseam of pants, but rather from the hip bone. Apron chaps, and the wraparound chaps discussed below, are easy to put on and take off, thus making them a good option for a crew member that is only going to run a saw every once in awhile. Unfortunately, the straps can be more than a little frustrating, as they get hung up in brush and whatnot on the ground, not to mention branches when aloft.

Wraparounds that aren’t sunglasses

This style of chaps is meant to wrap around the calves of the user, thereby eliminating one possible downside of apron-style chaps. The rotational nature of the chain on a saw means it is possible to strike the chaps with the chain, only to have it pull the material around until tender flesh is fully exposed to the cutter teeth. By wrapping around the leg, this style of chaps tries to ensure that more material will roll around if and when the chaps rotate.

One downside of wraparound chaps is that they typically require yet more straps to fully secure the wraparound feature, leading to yet more possible intimate relations with branches and brush.

John Ransom of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education is wearing Pfanner chain saw paints while cutting aloft. Photo: Michael Tain

John Ransom of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education is wearing Pfanner chain saw paints while cutting aloft. Photo: Michael Tain

Britches or overalls

Chain saw-resistant pants or bib overalls are relatively new to the tree care industry, but have certainly made chain saw protection a lot more user friendly. There are a number of styles, fibers, features and even colors available from manufacturers such as SIP, Husqvarna, Pfanner and Stihl. Some versions even include high-visibility features required by some work site regulations.

The beauty of britches or overalls is that a user who knows that they will be using a saw most of the day, just puts them on in the morning as their work pants, and has constant protection as long as they keep their britches on. There is some variability in user friendliness in regard to weight, flexibility and breathability between manufacturers and the fibers used, but in general pants or overalls are going to be a much more comfortable option when using a saw up in the air.

The idea behind the bib overall style is that they don’t require a belt or provide that irritating rub line beneath a climbing harness, while also eliminating much of the chain saw chip infiltration into a climber’s more sensitive nether regions. Both pants and overalls provide more protection around the thighs and calves than both types of chaps, and some versions actually extend the protection up even higher on the thighs and crotch.

You clean your saws, don’t you?

No matter what type of chain saw protection is chosen, all of them require some type of care and maintenance. Not only can they be washed, they should be washed and washed fairly regularly. The washing and drying requirements will be different for the various fibers and manufacturers, but the instructions are almost always on the tag or the packaging and should be followed to avoid diminishing the protection they provide. All the constant features of a tree care work site – bar oil, dirt, dust, etc. – can infiltrate the fibers and mat them together, decreasing their ability to do their job of slowing or stopping the chain saw chain; regular washing will help prevent this.

A pair of chaps, pants or overalls that has any cut or pulled fibers should be immediately taken out of service. All those fibers work together to provide the protection, so a few missing or pulled ones can mean the difference between torn up britches and multiple stitches. If only the outer, nonprotective, layer has been torn or ripped with no damage to the inner protective fibers, the chaps or pants can keep being used, but the addition of some type of patch will help keep the fibers from getting snagged or pulled. Sewing on patches is not only a bad idea, it is a terrible one, as it will break up the fibers that have to work together to provide protection. Adhesive or iron-on patches are a better choice, depending on what kind of fabric makes up the outer nonprotective layer.

No matter what type of chain saw protection is chosen, it’s not doing anyone any good if it’s sitting in the truck or hanging in the closet back at home. Sure it may be a little bit hotter and more uncomfortable than your Arborwear britches, but if you’re running a saw and want to keep all that warm red stuff inside where it’s supposed to be, a pair of chain saw chaps, pants or overalls is the most basic step toward doing so.

Read more about chain saw safety:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Tree Services in March 2012 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.