Chainsaws: Selection, maintenance and use

Guy Watsonin Technical

Chainsaws are designed for one purpose: to cut quickly and efficiently. They are fabulous tools. However, they are potentially lethal if poorly maintained, used incorrectly, or without proper training. Even in trained hands they can be lethal, as the tragic death of a tree worker in east London recently illustrates. Guy Watson of Certhia Consulting Limited gives an insight.

The use of chainsaws in any part of the ground care industry is primarily governed by the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (commonly known as PUWER 98). These Regulations require employers to consider their purchasing protocols: buying the right tool for the job: the maintenance of that tool and providing necessary training to permit it to be used correctly. Other legislation that must also be considered, and will coincide with other provisions, include PPE regulations, Noise and Vibration regulations, CoSHH and the general Management of Health and Safety Regulations. All these combine to help create the safe working environment in which a chainsaw should be used.

Chainsaws are noisy machines driven by petrol engines (that need fuelling with flammable substances), producing emissions and creating vibration. Any chainsaw purchased for work use must be suitable for the purpose it is intended for. Do you really need a petrol driven machine? Battery technology is improving and these machines have reduced vibration and noise signature. Vibration and noise can be two big drivers in deciding which chainsaw to purchase. Both can have serious long term health implications for workers. The employer is required to undertake regular health screening to ensure employees' health is not put at risk over time. Depending upon the place of use, reducing noise may be important for others not directly involved in the works.

Chainsaws come in two basic formats. Rear handled saws have the throttle and trigger arrangement behind the engine on a backward projecting handle. They are designed to be used with two hands on the machine at all times and come in a variety of guide bar lengths and engine sizes. In general, you should choose the saw with the shortest guide bar suitable for the work you are undertaking, and are competent to do. This reduces weight, vibration and risk - to some degree. Top handled saws have the throttle trigger arrangement above the engine and must only be used by trained and competent arborists for aerial tree work. They should not be used for ground-based operations and are not applicable to any general grounds-maintenance operation.

Any chainsaw used must be suitable and fit for purpose. It should comply with all the current safety protocols and CE marking. Guidance in the form of FISA (Forestry Industry Safety Accord)1 leaflets give clear guidance on all aspects of chainsaw use, and are corroborated by AFAG, Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group2 leaflets where arboriculture specific issues are considered.

FISA 301: Using Petrol Driven Chainsaws: covers the safe working practices to be followed when using a petrol-driven chainsaw. It advises what checks should be made of a chainsaw before it is put into service and refers to the safety features of a chainsaw as part of a risk assessment process to be carried out prior to operation. Whilst this leaflet relates specifically to petrol saws, most features will apply to battery driven models. Further advice is also found in Chainsaws at Work (INDG317) from the HSE.3

What must be operational on a chainsaw?

  • the stop switch works and is clearly marked;
  • the front hand guard/chain brake, chain catcher and anti-vibration mounts are undamaged and functional;
  • the throttle opens only when the throttle lock is depressed;
  • the exhaust system and silencer are in good order;
  • it is fitted with a chain type recommended by the manufacturer and is designed to reduce kickback,
  • there is a mandatory hearing protection symbol on the machine;
  • a scabbard must be available to guard the bar and chain during transport or when not in use.

Pre-start checks should be carried out to ensure that all the above features are in place and working correctly before a chainsaw is issued for use. Periodic recorded checks should be made and details of those retained by the employer to demonstrate this checking is taking place (particularly as pre-start checks are normally devolved to the operator). Records of maintenance and repair should be retained to demonstrate good practice. On the assumption that we have now purchased, and have, a machine that is fit for purpose. The next question is 'Who is going to use it?'

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to provide health and safety training for workers throughout their working lives. Initially, when they first start work, i.e. induction training. Then when they are exposed to new or increased risks, they require refresher training - this is recommended at specific intervals for certain high-risk activities, eg operating machinery, including chainsaws. Also, when a supervisor identifies specific weaknesses in an operator's abilities. This is reinforced in the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. The Approved Code of Practice, Safe Use of Work Equipment, supporting Regulation 9 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER 98) sets a minimum standard of competence for people using chainsaws in treework: 'All workers who use a chainsaw should be competent to do so. Before using a chainsaw to carry out work on or in a tree, a worker should have received appropriate training and obtained a relevant certificate of competence or national competence award, unless they are undergoing such training and are adequately supervised. However, in the agricultural sector, this requirement only applies to first-time users of a chainsaw.' It is likely that any chainsaw work in the grounds maintenance sector relating to trees would be classed as "treework".

Training needs to be carried out by suitably qualified instructors. External providers able to offer appropriate training include independent training providers, instructors and colleges. Where training is being consolidated through workplace-based experience, the trainee should be supervised by a person competent in using a chainsaw for the type of work being done by the trainee. The supervisor should hold the relevant competence certificate or award. All chainsaw operators should undertake regular refresher/update training to ensure they work to industry best practice and maintain their levels of competence. The suggested intervals for refresher training as recommended in INDG317, are:
  • occasional users - every two to three years;
  • full-time users - every five years.

It is vital to remember that a certificate of competence relates solely to the basic level of achievement and does not necessarily mean that your employee can be sent to any task. True competence , possibly better described as 'proficiency', is a combination of training, qualification and experience.

All chainsaw operators must be provided with training as part of their work time duties and at company expense. They must also be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE will not guarantee to prevent harm and should be used in correct combinations to ensure that individual items do not prevent others being effective. For example: safety glasses can break the seal of hearing protection and render that ineffective. All chainsaw operators should be provided with CE marked PPE suitable for the operation that they are being asked to carry out. PPE must fit and suit the user and be personal to that user. It should not be shared with other operatives.

PPE for chainsaw use will include:

  • Safety helmet (complying with EN 397)
  • Eye protection (mesh visor complying with EN 1731 or safety glasses to EN 166)
  • Hearing protection (complying with EN 352)
  • Gloves* The type of glove will depend on a risk assessment of the task and the machine. Consider the need for protection from cuts from the chainsaw, thorny material and cold/wet conditions. Where chainsaw gloves are required these should comply with EN 381-7
  • Leg protection* incorporating chain-clogging material (complying with EN 381-5). Chainsaw trousers come in two forms. Type A with front protection only. Type C with all round protection. Occasional users are generally advised to be issued with Type C trousers for added protection. All climbing arborists should wear Type C trousers
  • Protective boots* with good grip and protective guarding at front vamp and instep (complying with
  • BS EN 20345)
  • Non-snag outer clothing. The use of high-visibility clothing may also be appropriate. The use of upper body protective chainsaw jackets may also be appropriate for occasional users

* The items must be recognised as chainsaw protective items and carry the shield and chainsaw logo and be marked with the chain speed level of protection. This is referred to as the "class" of protection and is as follows Class 0 - 16m/s, Class 1 - 20 m/s, Class 2 - 24 m/s and Class 3 - 28m/s. Class 1 is the minimum acceptable standard with the exception of chainsaw protective gloves often found at Class 0.

All sole operatives of chainsaws, or teams involved with chainsaw use, should have suitable First Aid training and this should be relevant to the type of injury likely to be experienced. In the case of using chainsaws this could include major bleeding and potentially crush injuries. It is worth ensuring that your First Aid provider can include these elements in any First Aid course. A number of First Aid training providers include a "+F" element thereby designating that training has been amended to include forestry specific elements. Suitably stocked First Aid kits should be available for workers and these may include a higher number of large wound dressings to cope with potential emergencies. For example, "bloodstoppers" (bandages impregnated with coagulating substances) may be provided, but if they are then specific training must be included concerning their use.

It is vital that any chainsaw-related operation is preceded by a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. This must include an assessment of the competencies of operators on site to ensure that they are "competent" - rather than just certificated - to carry out the operation being considered. All significant findings must be recorded and should include all aspects of the operation. The risk assessment has to take account of the working environment including the terrain; slip, trip and fall risks; identify access points, and control measures to prevent other, non-related personnel (or the public) entering any work site. It should ensure a safe system of work is planned and agreed to maintain separation distances between the chainsaw users and others on site. This is at least 5m, or twice the length of the product, whichever distance is greater. This should be at least two tree lengths from any direct felling. Escape routes should be planned and kept clear at all times. Emergency procedures must be considered and agreed as part of the Risk Assessment. This must take account of site access. Locked sites, or gated sites, can prevent or impede the Emergency Services and therefore require a particular response from on-site personnel. This also applies to sites with multiple access points, or large sites where it may be unclear where any casualty is. Time is of the essence in these situations. Therefore, clearly instructed and understood 'meeting and guiding' procedures for Emergency Responders is vital to secure speedy action for a casualty.

This may require consideration as to how many people attend any site where a chainsaw is in use. Lone working must be avoided. On sites where there is the need to arrange access, and meet and guide emergency responders, then it may be that the minimum number of workers on site has to be three to allow care of any injured party, whilst that access and guiding is carried out.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that chainsaws are very effective pieces of machinery. They are designed to cut fast and efficiently: they do that very well. In the wrong hands, they are potentially lethal. Even in trained hands there is the potential for a very nasty injury… or worse. One handed chainsaw use should never be necessary on the ground, cuts should not be made above chest level and certainly never above head height. Use of a chainsaw off the ground should never be carried out unless full training and risk assessments, including a full Work at Height assessment, are in place. Professional tree surgeons, ideally Arboricultural Association Approved Contractors, should be employed for specialist aerial tree work4. They will have all the necessary training and certification, be able to supply appropriate Risk Assessments and should provide a quality service.