Tree crews are dealing with brush, branches and large pieces of wood every minute of every day in the tree care industry. The majority of the time, dealing with these items involves the use of a large, expensive, loud, mechanized metal object known as a chipper. While some company owners may think a chipper will break the bank, the reality is that without the chipper’s seemingly magic ability to make big things into little things there would be a lot more bad backs and overloaded pickup trucks than there already are in the tree care industry.
Chippers are incredibly valuable and useful in the day-to-day operations of tree care, not to mention a considerable investment, so crew members need to understand how to use this helpful behemoth safely and efficiently to get the benefits and maximum life from the machine.
As in any tree care operation, the first consideration for safe use needs to be what personal protective equipment (PPE) is required. In the case of chippers it is fairly straightforward; the minimum is head protection (helmet or hard hat), eye protection and hearing protection. Obviously, good footwear and clothing choices should also be part of this, and leg protection in the form of chaps or chain saw pants, while not required, can be an excellent idea. Not only does wearing them increase efficiency in the event a piece of wood requires additional cutting prior to going through the maw of the chipper, but they can also provide additional protection or padding against that irritating “leg whip” effect, which can occur with long branches or the thorns of species such as the black locust.
While mesh face screens do not fulfill the eye protection requirement, they do provide additional safety and protection for those soft downy cheeks or impressive Duck Dynasty-esque facial hair against inquiring twigs and branches. Gauntlet-style gloves with large cuffs, dangling jewelry, long unsecured locks, and loose or torn clothing can all be exceedingly dangerous during chipper use because the chipper makes no distinction between soft tissue and hardwood. Thus, anything that allows the operator to be snagged and drawn in will soon become small pieces.
The use of high-visibility clothing is already desirable in tree care operations, but is particularly important when a chipper is being used curbside or roadside, along with the appropriately marked and signed work area to Department of Transportation (DOT) specifications.
There are far too many makes and models of chippers available today for a discussion of all the various safety features within the scope of this column. However, one of the most important, and often ignored, steps is to train and educate every member of the tree crew on the safety features of their particular chipper, and how to operate each correctly.
The majority of chippers have some form of reversal bar or lever that allows the operator to reverse the feed wheels in the event a stubborn piece of wood is jammed. Many modern chippers have different emergency stop mechanisms that can be triggered in different ways to stop the chipper immediately in the case of a near or actual emergency. None of these features should ever be disabled, regardless of how frustrating operators may find them, as the reality is that they only exist because, sadly, tree people keep going through chippers.
The safe operation of a chipper is by definition the efficient operation of a chipper. Users who attempt to take unsafe shortcuts will most likely cost themselves a great deal more than time and money, and in all likelihood shorten the life span of a costly piece of equipment.
Chipper operators should never reach into the feed area/table with their hands, or try to kick brush or wood into the feed wheels with their feet. An excellent practice is not to stick anything in there that you don’t want chipped.
As mentioned previously, chippers do an excellent job of grabbing large, unwieldy items, crushing them with the feed wheels, chopping them up into little pieces with numerous sharp blades, and then spitting them into the back of a truck at a high rate of speed. Notice there was nothing in that statement about distinguishing Johnny from juniper, and chippers certainly don’t.
If a branch or stub needs to be pushed into the feed wheels, a push paddle or longer branch should be used to maintain a safe distance from the bad place. The use of metal implements such as shovels or rakes should be avoided, as their consumption by the chipper can give it a bad case of indigestion.
The feed wheels may be positioned differently depending on the model of chipper, as some are vertical and some are horizontal. A safe place for the user to position himself is off to one side or the other, thus avoiding rapid movements of the piece or branch in either a horizontal or vertical plane. The right or curbside of the chipper is typically best, as the controls are most often located there; and in a roadside work environment it is certainly the safest.
Many modern chippers have some form of automatic feeding system that pulls larger pieces in as the machine can handle it by monitoring engine RPMs. In the case of machines not equipped with this type of system, a crew member should be on the feed bar to adjust the rate of feed accordingly, or the user who just fed the piece in should go there immediately to control the rate of feed.
Continually jamming brush and wood into the chipper without adjusting the rate of feed accordingly will not only lead to jams and blockages, but also take a toll on the engine and overall efficiency of the chipper.
“Sweepings” or whatever else the crew may term the leaves, small twigs and whatnot that are shoveled up off the ground around the feed table should not be fed into the chipper. Instead, take them up and put them directly into the back of the chip truck. There is a great possibility of gravel, rocks and other undesirable substances being put through the chipper if the droppings are shoveled into the feed tray, leading to an expensive piece of equipment needing repair.
Location, location, location
Usually it will be fairly easy to figure out the best or most efficient location for the chipper once the work site has been examined and a general work plan formulated, but a few general rules will help in this process. As any crew member who has lost 10 pounds of water weight in one long August day can attest to, the most energy expended during chipping is in hauling the brush or wood to the chipper, thus the closer the chipper the better.
For those crews using an aerial lift with a forestry package hauling the chipper, this concept can present a dilemma, as the best location to use the lift is not necessarily going to work out best for chipping. Personal experience has shown that the job might be finished more quickly by placing the truck in the best place to use the lift, and waiting to chip until it can be repositioned more advantageously for chipping, or use rigging techniques to swing the brush behind the chipper.
Some organizations have a policy that does not allow chipping while a climber or operator is aloft due to communication difficulties. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, care must be taken to ensure that crew members are communicating with each other and are aware of other members’ actions when chipping is going on. This can be accomplished through radios, whistles or hand/arm signals, but all crew members need to be aware of the communication system and what the different signals mean.
Trucks and tools
The amount of chips that are going to be produced needs to be considered from the first look at the job with the initial bid, as many tree removals will produce multiple loads of chips; and an idle chipper is not paying for itself, especially when it’s just waiting for an empty truck. Larger jobs may call for a single chipper but multiple trucks if available.
Every company has its own take on the best way to do cleanup and move the smaller piles of brush/leaves to the chipper. Some commonly used options include tarps with handles for dragging and large plastic trash cans. In both cases, users need to think about what needs and doesn’t need to go through the chipper to avoid the rock and gravel factor. An additional problem for chippers can be jobs around sandy areas such as beaches or playgrounds, all that sand on the branches and wood can take a toll on chipper knives.
The brush chippers of today are head and shoulders above their ancestors, and there’s no doubt that these machines will continue to evolve. Integrated winches and even grapples could only be dreamed of not that long ago, so who knows what the future might hold. In the end, a chipper is still a piece of equipment that is maintained, used and controlled by tree crew members, so understanding its safe use and efficient operation can help users get the most out of it.