“Running a chipper is one of those things that becomes routine – you just stick the branch in the back of the machine, and it goes through,” says Peter Gerstenberger, senior adviser for Safety, Standards and Compliance with the Tree Care Industry Association.
Because the operation of a chipper seems so straight-forward, it doesn’t always get the same attention in terms of safety training as, say, a chain saw. A quick Google search, though, is all it takes to learn that safety considerations should be paramount when working with a chipper — the list of horrifying chipper accidents that routinely occur is pretty sobering.
Driven by concerns on the part of chipper manufacturers, and those in the tree care industry, that significant progress needed to be made in the area of chipper safety, a TCIA Chipper Operator Specialist credentialing course was created in 2012.
“There were simply too many accidents involving chippers. And accidents with chippers tend to be pretty catastrophic,” says Gerstenberger. Industry leaders felt that more stringent training — that wasn’t specific to a particular brand or model, and that went beyond the level of in-house chipper training — was required.
Part of the challenge, says Gerstenberger, “is that the task of operating the chipper usually falls to the lowest person on the crew — the new hire with the least experience is expected to drag the limbs and feed the chipper. And, historically, to do so with very little training on the machine.”
This group is considered to be at high risk of chipper accidents, but the injuries they suffer tend to be less serious: ergonomic injuries, back strains, etc. It is actually more experienced tree care workers who tend to experience more serious injuries, Gerstenberger explains: “The statistics indicate that the group with by far the most serious and fatal injuries tend to be more experienced workers — those who have become complacent with the operation of the machine.”
Therefore, chipper training needs to be targeted to all those working in tree care.
TCIA’s Chipper Operator Specialist program was designed not only to provide a base level of knowledge on chipper operation, but also — like the rest of the programs in the group’s Tree Care Academy offerings — to certify the competency of those completing the training. That means going beyond classroom lectures and written tests; to safely operate a machine like a chipper, you need to actually do it. As part of the program, half-day workshops are combined with a live demonstration of safe chipper operation procedures.
Then, to successfully complete the program, tree care workers need to be observed running a chipper on the job by someone who is certified, such as the business owner or manager. Close observation during this process ensures safety and provides a chance to coach any mistakes that might be made, he notes. In addition to gaining general knowledge of safe chipper operation, this approach also provides a chance to train workers on the controls and features of the specific brand/model of chipper they’ll be running.
“This training is very well done and can certify the operators,” says Casey Gross, tree care products sales manager with Morbark. “This can only the help the tree companies and eventually should reduce insurance costs if everyone running the chippers are certified.”
“Training on chippers is absolutely important,” emphasizes Scott Parks, plant manager with Bandit Industries. “A combination of hands-on and classroom training is probably the best format for any training. It gives people a chance to learn the correct safety concepts and then have a chance to practice them in a controlled environment,” he states. “And the best training programs are continual, so people have a chance to learn and relearn the best and safest practices for chipper operation and tree care safety in general.”
The causes of many chipper accidents are relatively straight-forward. “Many accidents are precipitated by someone leaning into and over the infeed chute of the chipper, and then being pulled off balance, or just falling and being caught in the brush,” says TCIA’s Gerstenberger. “It’s a very fundamental rule to never break the (imaginary) plane of the back of the infeed chute with any part of your body.”
Using the proper feeding technique, such as feeding from the side and turning away and out of the path of the brush once it is let go, also is important, he adds: “Getting caught or snagged by a piece of brush that’s being pulled into a chipper can cause an accident.”
Standing in front of the chipper while feeding it is a common mistake, agrees Gross. Wearing loose-fitting clothing can increase the chances of getting caught in the brush, he notes. “And another common safety hazard is workers standing on the infeed of the chipper trying to kick material into the chipper… The majority of chippers accidents happen feet-first. We have to ask ourselves, why would someone be standing on the infeed of the chipper?”
The most critical potential safety hazard on a brush chipper is the infeed or intake area, according to Tom Haley, product safety engineering manager at Vermeer. He says that this is just one area where manufacturers have made significant safety advances over the past several decades, noting his own company’s introduction in 1985 of a design for the feed intake that helped to keep operators away from the feed rollers and knives of mechanically fed brush chippers.
“This is often referred to as ‘safety distance guarding,'” Haley explains. “Since most brush chippers are hand-fed, it clearly makes sense to put distance between the operator and the feed rollers. This design serves as a mechanical barrier so the operator cannot touch the feed rollers while standing on the ground, but it also helps prevent an operator from being pulled into the feed rollers by a limb.”
In addition to comprehensive training, tree care companies can implement some basic policies and procedures to reduce the risk of chipper-related injuries. For example, following “lock out, tag out” procedures can prevent accidents and injuries when performing any type of chipper field maintenance.
“If you’re unplugging a jam, for instance, any potential source of hazardous energy on that – whether it’s mechanical or electrical or hydraulic – needs to be controlled prior to the maintenance being performed,” says Gerstenberger.
While the steps required to prevent any accidental movement in the chipper may vary by machine, there are some basic rules to follow. “One is to remove and pocket the key before any maintenance is performed,” he states. “One of the principles of lock-out, tag-out when it comes to chippers is that the person performing the maintenance is the one who has the keys in his pocket.” This also can prevent the accidental starting of the machine by someone unaware that it is being worked on.
There are even important safety processes to follow before the chipper reaches the job site. Like any tow-behind equipment, things can go wrong if safe towing practices are not followed. “The tow vehicle needs to be of proper towing capacity size for the chipper being towed and set up properly for trailer braking,” says Tom Haley, with Vermeer. “Proper maintenance by keeping items in good working order is also a factor; this includes vehicle brakes, the breakaway cable, safety chains, lights, tire inspection (pressure, condition, lug nut torque) and use of a proper hitch connection.”
Once the chipper is ready for operation, brush should be “staged” near the chipper rather than fed continuously. “If workers are simply dragging brush across the job site directly to the chipper, feeding it into the chipper, and then going back after the next pile of brush, the danger is that you could snag a climber’s line, a rigging line, or even a winch line that’s on the ground and accidentally feed one end of that line into the chipper,” Gerstenberger explains.
The good news is that chipper safety has gotten more attention in recent years, says Casey Gross, with Morbark. “I would say it’s getting better,” he observes, noting that, in addition to TCIA’s programs and company-designed trainings, chipper manufacturers continue to be a valuable safety training resource for many companies. “We are doing a lot of chipper operator safety trainings ourselves to help educate the tree care companies that may not have regular safety meetings,” Gross says. “We have trained well over 600 tree care workers.”
Scott Parks, with Bandit, emphasizes that chipper safety often comes down to common sense. “Always being mindful of your surroundings and aware of the work is probably the best way to help prevent accidents,” he advises. “If you combine that with a high-level training program, mindful employees and quality equipment, the likelihood of accidents can be reduced.”