There are plenty of technical safety procedures to follow when operating a chipper, but sometimes it’s the basics that are most overlooked, says Joe Deriscavage, Northeast outside territory manager for Bandit Industries and a Tree Care Industry Association-certified chipper trainer.
“You really need to start at the beginning with the correct PPE,” he emphasizes. “Many times, I see crews not wearing helmets, hearing protection, eye protection, or gloves.” He also sees people wearing things that they shouldn’t, like loose-fitting clothing, long hair that’s not tied back and jewelry.
A lot of chipper safety is common sense, which unfortunately “is highly uncommon,” says Deriscavage, noting that ANSI Z133 spells out a lot of the general safety practices that should be followed, but too few people take the time to read it. It’s up to the foreman or crew leader to be the safety expert on the job, Deriscavage says. “They’re responsible – the crew is working for them. They need to be the promoter of safety.”
That means monitoring crew members to be sure they have proper PPE and that they’re following key safety guidance, such as not putting their hands in certain areas where there are moving parts of the chipper and making sure the wheels are stopped when not chipping.
While new employees in the tree care industry obviously need to learn how to operate a chipper safely, Deriscavage says it’s sometimes more experienced tree care pros who are most at risk. He cites research done by Dr. Ball at South Dakota State University, showing that the age group most likely to be injured while running a chipper isn’t 18 to 24, as you might expect, or even 25 to 34.
Instead, the group that had the most accidents was the 45- to 54-year-olds. “It’s often the company owner, who says ‘I’ve always done it this way.’ They get complacent,” Deriscavage explains. That’s easy to do when you’re around a chipper all day long and it seems easy to operate. He says it helps to bring some perspective to the matter, citing the fact that commercial tree chippers typically have a feed rate of about 100 linear feet per minute.
In one research project Deriscavage cites, it took only about 1.2 seconds for a crash test dummy fed into the chipper to end up in the chip truck. “That example… really hits home with people,” he says. “I’ll snap my fingers and say 1.2 seconds; that gets their attention.”
The accidents that occur when operating a chipper often aren’t the type of serious injuries and fatalities that make the news, but rather more minor incidents that are painful and costly for the tree care company. Maybe somebody didn’t wear their eye protection and got a piece of material in their eye, or wasn’t wearing gloves or a helmet and got hit by a branch, says Deriscavage. “These all count as incidents. Somebody might say, ‘Oh, it just needed a few stitches.’ But next time, it could be worse.”
Each brand and model of chipper has specific safety equipment and directions. But there are some general rules to follow. “All manufacturers want you to feed from the curb side whenever possible; we want you to feed from an angle, and basically walk in a circle,” Deriscavage explains.
“You feed the material into the rollers and the machine takes it over, and then you walk in a radius around where you’re clear from all materials, because you have to keep an eye on your work zone.” He uses the analogy of “having your head on a swivel,” always knowing what’s going on around you, being in communication with any climber who is up in a tree, watching that you don’t interfere with pedestrian or automobile traffic and having a safe zone to work in.
It’s important to search out a high- quality chipper operator training program for more detailed information on chipper safety; check with your dealer and/or professional tree care organization for opportunities in your area.