Every day tree crews are confronted with mounds of wood, branches, brush and organic material that has to be moved, processed and disposed of in a safe and timely manner. While the customer who selects the “we fall, you haul” option is always greatly appreciated, they are few and far between.

Many tree care folks will remember, or perhaps even still employ, the backbreaking and hazardous “slice and dice” technique in which mounds of branches are stacked in the back of a pickup truck, and then some brave soul climbs atop them with a chain saw slicing and dicing in an attempt to decrease the size of the load.

Regardless of how the byproducts of tree care work are disposed of, customers typically expect it to be just that, disposed of – all evidence of the tree disappearing along with the sweaty sawdust-covered crew that wreaked havoc upon it. Modern industrial arboriculture has made this “disappearing act” easier by making the handling, management and removal of woody debris simpler and more efficient through the use of equipment such as chain saws, chippers and stump grinders/cutters. With the addition of any new equipment and techniques comes the attendant’s need to understand their safe and efficient operation, otherwise the pieces and parts removed and disposed of may belong to the tree crew rather than the tree.

Operating any piece of equipment requires the use of the appropriate, personal protective equipment (PPE). The best way to think of PPE is as cheap insurance. Hopefully, through the use of safe work practices and communication amongst the crew, PPE will never be tested. But if it’s not worn the consequences can be dire; replacing a hard hat is not difficult, replacing a fractured skull is a little more problematic.

PPE requirements vary only slightly between chain saws, chippers and stump cutters, with leg protection, typically chain saw-resistant chaps or pants, being that variation. While leg protection may not be specifically required, depending on geographic location, it’s recommended for both safety and efficiency while operating a stump grinder or chipper.

Feeding the hungry maw of a howling chipper often requires additional cuts to the limbs or branches. Wearing chain saw pants/chaps will save time, not to mention avoid the common “just skip ’em for this one cut” scenario. As anyone who has been “leg whipped” by black locust or pin oak branches while chipping can attest to, the extra padding/protection of chaps is more than a wee bit comforting. In addition, leg protection provides some additional protection from flying stones and debris when operating a stump cutter.

Face screens on hard hats or helmets, typically wire mesh, can help shield the operator’s good looks from quickly moving twigs when chipping, or stones, chips and soil when stump grinding. However, keep in mind that the mesh screens do not qualify as eye protection, so safety glasses or goggles must also be worn. There are face shields available, typically made of high-impact plastic, that qualify as both shields and eye protection.

Start it up, cut ’em up

The chain saw is probably the most often used mechanized tool on a tree care work site and should be used safely with respect and attention to detail. These tools are required by law/standard/regulation to have all of the manufacturer-provided safety features in order to be operated. So all those aftermarket job site “customizations” that remove safety features are more than a bit dicey regardless of how much better Johnny B. O’Doughnuts says the saw is. In technical language, if a chain saw is missing any of these features, or the features are not functioning correctly, it is a violation of law/standard/regulation to use the chain saw. The required safety features include the chain brake, chain catcher, throttle interlock and spark arrester. A few basic operational pointers can help in making sure chain saws are run safely:

  • Chain saws should be started with the chain brake engaged and in a position that will minimize the movement of the saw when the cord is pulled. The left hand should be gripping the grab handle of the saw, and the right on the pull handle of the starter cord. Two simple and efficient methods are bracing the chain saw against the ground when starting, or carefully locking it behind the left knee while bracing it on the right thigh when starting it while standing, often called the leg-lock start.
  • Chain saws should never be drop started when being used on the ground. This isn’t only dangerous, but it’s also hard on the saw’s starter cord/recoil mechanism.
  • The chain brake should be engaged whenever taking more than two steps with a running chain saw to avoid tripping and falling while grabbing at the throttle trigger and falling toward a running chain.
  • The saw should be operated from a well-balanced body position using both hands on the appropriate handles, with the thumbs and fingers wrapped around them. Chain saws should never be operated above shoulder height.
  • Kickback can occur when the upper quadrant of the tip of the bar comes in contact with wood, brush or debris. Chain saw operators should be aware at all times of the location of the tip of the bar when cutting and take measures to prevent the upper quadrant from coming into contact with any objects that might generate kickback.

Chip ’em up

Chippers come in sizes and configurations to fit any crew’s needs. All are equipped with features to make their operation as safe and efficient as possible. Crew members should familiarize themselves with the safety features and operational procedures of the company’s chipper(s). Basic safe and efficient chipper operation techniques include:

  • Avoiding loose or torn clothing, dangling jewelry, long, unsecured hair and gauntlet-style gloves, as they may become entangled in the brush and pull the user into the chipper.
  • Brush and limbs should be fed in butt first while standing off to one side of the feed table. The curbside of the feed table is preferable, particularly in roadside work environments.
  • Never reach into the feed area or attempt to kick brush or chunks into the feed wheels. Other limbs or logs or a push paddle can be used to push smaller pieces into the feed area.
  • Crew members should be prepared for the possibility of violent movement from the end of a piece of wood as it is seized by the feed wheels. Particular attention should be paid to the type of feed wheels the chipper has, as horizontal feed wheels will cause different movements than vertical feed wheels.
  • For both efficiency and safety, branches, limbs and logs should be cut with a chain saw appropriately to facilitate safer and easier movement into the chipper and through the feed wheels.
  • Dirty brush, limbs with sand, mud or gravel on them, and rakings should not be fed into the chipper, as this thecould damage chipper’s knives and operation.

Grind ’em down

Stump cutters or grinders range from small hand-held models to behemoths with their own tracked propulsion system. Once again, all are equipped with features to make their operation as safe and efficient as possible. All users should be familiar with the stump cutter’s safety features and operating procedures prior to use. Basic safe and efficient stump grinding steps include:

  • Ensuring that guards and barriers designed to reduce the likelihood of flying debris are in place during operation.
  • Grinder operators should continually observe the cutting area for stones, construction debris or other objects that could become projectiles or damage the cutter teeth.
  • Care should be taken to locate any possible underground utilities prior to beginning stump-cutting operations. This is typically required by law in most areas – know what’s below, call 811 before you dig.
  • When the cutter wheel is in motion, the operator should never leave the control station, move or shift the stump cutter’s position, or reach into the cutting area with tools or body parts to remove stones or debris.

The equipment discussed here is designed to take the large woody debris of tree work and turn it into smaller, more manageable and even useful material, but tree crews would be well-advised to remember that this equipment cannot distinguish between their pieces/parts and the tree’s. It’s up to the crew to use safe work practices and techniques, as well as the required PPE to ensure proper practices. An understanding of the basic concepts discussed here will increase both the safety and efficiency of general equipment use in tree care.