Choosing chain saw-resistant pants

These statistics from 1996 show that the majority of chain saw injuries happen to the lower body, exactly where your britches can prevent stitches.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

As all tree care professionals should know, the ANSI Z133.1-2006 standards require that any personnel operating chain saws on the ground wear appropriate chain saw-resistant lower body protection. Although not yet required by the standards, lower body protection, commonly called chaps or chain saw pants, is also highly recommended when operating a chain saw aloft. After all, a chain saw cut when up in the canopy means the operator is even further from first aid and assistance than when on the ground. Recent years have seen the types and variety of chain saw-resistant clothing available expand a great deal as manufacturers attempt to not only provide safe chain saw apparel, but safe apparel that is also lighter weight, more comfortable and more durable. The days of climbing arborists being limited to “one size fits all” apron chaps with one type of fiber providing the protective layers are over, though these are certainly still available. And, though this newly found variety of styles makes it more likely to find chain saw protection best-suited to individual preferences and needs, it can also create confusion. Information and knowledge before making a purchase will go a long way toward being satisfied.

An example of chaps being worn while climbing, in this case, in a spur system.
Photo by Thor Clausen.

Chain saw-resistant: One distinction that is important to be aware of is that none of the chain saw safety apparel currently available is “chain saw-proof,” it is chain saw-resistant. Although the idea of “chain saw-proof” apparel might be appealing, given current materials and the technology available, such apparel would be incredibly uncomfortable and awkward to wear, much like a suit of medieval armor. The standards require “chain saw resistance,” and give quite specific parameters of what that must consist of. Without disappearing into a maze of technical detail and specifications, manufacturers’ apparel must allow no more than a .25-inch of “cut through” at a specific chain speed; and though this chain speed is standardized in the United States, it can, and does, vary within the provinces of Canada, so Canadian arborists must be aware of their particular provincial requirements. This degree of resistance is meant to give the operator additional time to recognize that the chain has come in contact with their body and move the saw, while also slowing, or perhaps stopping, the chain, thereby reducing and limiting the severity of the chain saw cut. There are chain saw-resistant chaps on the market that are only intended for use with extremely low-powered “homeowner” chain saws, and though they are marked appropriately for their limited use, professional operators should take care to not inadvertently purchase a pair, as they do not meet the requirements for even the smallest of professional saws.

A closer view of a pair of chain saw pants.
Photo by Thor Clausen.
John Ransom of Arboriculture Canada Training and Education wearing Pfanner chain saw pants while cutting aloft.
Photo by Michael Tain.

Fibers: The fibers used to provide chain saw resistance in chaps or chain saw pants fall into two basic types: jamming materials, such as warp knit nylon, and cut-resistant materials, such as Kevlar. The jamming materials are meant to function as their name suggests, by clogging or jamming up the saw, slowing and perhaps stopping the chain’s ability to turn or move. They are typically used or woven in such a manner that they come out in long strands as the chain contacts them, then wrap themselves around the chain and front/rear sprockets, slowing and clogging/jamming the movement. The cut-resistant fibers slow the chain by being difficult, due to their molecular makeup, for the cutter teeth of the chain to sever. As each tooth struggles to cut through the fibers, the chain is slowed down more. There is chain saw-resistant apparel that relies solely on jamming fibers, some that only use cut-resistant fibers and some that employ a mix of both to achieve the required level of protection. In general, a larger amount of jamming material will be required to achieve the appropriate level of protection, which can make the chaps or pants heavier and/or warmer, but the cut-resistant materials, though typically lighter weight and cooler, will tend to be more expensive.

Apron chaps: The most basic and economical form of lower body chain saw protection is apron-style chaps. These have a waist strap and several leg straps to secure them around the operator’s hips and legs, and provide the required protection/chain saw resistance to the front of the legs. They should be long enough to extend down to touch the top instep of the work boots for full protection. Length in chaps is not based on the inseam measurement; instead, it is measured on the outside of the leg from the hipbone to the bottom. Chaps, whether the apron style or the wrap-around style (discussed next), are easily taken off and put back on, making them a good choice for periodic chain saw operators who only run a saw on occasion. The straps required for securing chaps can be quite a hassle when climbing or working in brushy situations on the ground due to their tendency to get caught up and entangled. Pants would be a better option in these situations.

Wrap-around chaps: The wrap-around style of chaps is intended to deal with the rotational nature of chain saw chain. Should an operator run a chain saw into their apron chaps, the rotation of the chain around the bar can, and will, rotate the chaps around the operator’s leg, exposing unprotected flesh to the teeth of the chain. Wrap-around chaps attempt to prevent this by wrapping fully around the calf of the leg, and partially around the thigh. This additional wrapping requires additional straps to secure it, making entanglement in brush or while climbing more likely with this style, but providing significantly more protection by covering more of the operator’s legs.

Note the heavy-duty wear patches as part of this pair of chain saw pants.
Photo by Michael Tain.

Pants: A fairly recent development, chain saw-resistant pants and bib overalls are available in a wide variety of styles, colors and fibers from manufacturers such as Stihl, Husqvarna, Pfanner and S.I.P. Pants or bibs are an excellent choice for those who use a chain saw constantly, whether on the ground or while aloft, as they function as the wearer’s work pants and chain saw protection at the same time. Many manufacturers have begun using more durable outer layer materials with particularly strong materials at obvious wear points, such as knees and ankles. In addition, some pants incorporate stretchy fabric, allowing climbers the freedom of movement that is key when aloft. Some climbers prefer the bib-style over pants, as it eliminates the belt line beneath the harness, a possible site of chafing and irritation, but both styles have a distinct advantage over chaps in brushy situations or in the canopy due to their lack of straps. Both pants and bib-style lower body chain saw protection typically provide wraparound protection fully around the calf and partially around the thigh, and some versions provide protection higher on the thighs and over the area of the crotch. Although these styles obviously can be warm in summer weather, manufacturers have used various methods, such as mesh pockets and breathable fabric, to increase comfort; and they are probably not a great deal warmer than a pair of chaps over work pants. Most are equipped with partial zippers at the bottom rear of the cuff to facilitate boot tying and adjustment, while some come with built-in, high-visibility reflection stripes for roadside activities. In addition, almost all brands of chain saw pants are equipped with some method to attach suspenders or galluses, with some even having a zip-on, bib-type option for shoulder support. If suspenders or galluses are not going to be used, the buttons for their attachment should be removed prior to climbing, as the pressure of the harness grinding the buttons into the waist can be uncomfortable.

An example of chain saw pants with integrated, high-visibility, reflective stripes being used up in the tree.
Photo by Michael Tain.

Maintenance: All forms of lower body chain saw protection should be washed regularly. The washing and drying methods and frequency will vary with the manufacturer and material, so users should follow the recommendations for their particular style of protection. Ground-in dirt, bar oil and other tree work soiling can mat the protective fibers together, lessening their effectiveness, and make a significant cut-through much more likely. Any cut or pulled fibers from the inner protective layer require that the chaps or pants be immediately taken out of service. Chain saw-resistant chaps or pants function as a system, relying on the entire length of the fibers for their protective capability, thus, a small cut at the bottom that has pulled some fibers has negatively affected the protection provided throughout the length of the leg. However, if only the outer layer has been violated, and the inner protective layer is untouched, the chaps or pants can continue to be used, but the exposed inner layer should be covered with some form of patch to prevent fibers from being snagged and pulled out. Patches should never be sewn on, as the stitches could interrupt the continuity of the protective fibers, reducing their effectiveness. Depending on the material used for the outer layer, iron-on or stick-on patches may be the most suitable option to protect the inner layer.

The most important thing to know about lower body chain saw protective gear is that no matter how comfortable/uncomfortable, lightweight/heavy or warm/cool the particular style is, there is no pair of chaps or pants in the world that will prevent or reduce the severity of a chain saw cut while it is sitting in the truck or back at the shop. Always remember, those britches can prevent stitches.

Michael (House) Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions/Arbor Canada Training and Education, currently located in Lancaster, Ky.