Injuries Involving Handsaws and Pole Saws: Another Us Versus Them

Do not cut directly above the head. Instead, try to hold the saw at about a 60-degree angle, so the branch does not fall directly on the worker. Photo courtesy of John Ball, Ph.D., CTSP.

Handsaws and pole saws – what more basic pruning tools are there than these? Handsaws are mandatory for most tree crews. Every time their feet leave the ground, whether climbing the tree or flying the aerial lift, a tree worker must have a handsaw with them. Pole saws extend the radius of our reach. They permit a tree worker to prune branches beyond the reach of an aerial lift or on branches too small to support their weight. It is hard to find a tree crew without at least one handsaw, and many carry a pole saw as well.

You also can find both of these tools in many residential garages and storage sheds throughout the country. The do-it-yourself tree trimmers (DIYTT) find these two tools essential for performing shrub and tree pruning. I use the term “pruning” lightly, as I am not sure if that describes the work done by them on plants; chopping and slashing might fit better. Still, it is good that the public makes use of these tools when you consider the alternative. Chain saws, which many DIYTTs use far too casually, result in numerous visits to the local emergency department (ED) and, unfortunately, sometimes the morgue.

We also have seen falls each year as DIYTTs stand on ladders or free-climb to prune their trees. They also experience falls from lifts when DIYTTs overload rental equipment or fail to follow other basic safety requirements. A pole saw can eliminate the need to leave the ground, and pruning from the ground can reduce risk.

Reducing the risks is not the same as eliminating the risks. Every year, the DIYTTs arrive at their local emergency rooms with injuries sustained while using handsaws and pole saws. Tree workers are not immune to injuries from using these tools. We also see tree workers in the waiting rooms due to mishaps from the misuse of handsaws and pole saws.

Shown here employing a handsaw is Kyle McCabe, CTSP, Certified Arborist and owner of Northern Arboriculture, an 11-year TCIA member company based in Merrimack, New Hampshire. TCIA staff file photo.

So, what is happening out there and to whom – the DIYTT, or the tree worker? This is the third in a series of articles looking at incidents occurring to these two groups as they go about pruning and removing trees. The first two articles examined chain-saw and chipper injuries presented to the emergency departments at local hospitals. (“Chain-Saw Injuries: Us Versus Them,” TCI, May 2021; and “Chipper Safety – An Analysis of Wood-Chipper Nonfatal Injuries: Us Versus Them,” TCI, July 2021) This article will focus on two basic tools that are involved in fewer visits, but that still account for injuries.

The data was collected through the same sources as with chain saws and chippers, with databases from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and hospital emergency departments visited being the principal sources. And an important reminder, the term “tree worker” in this series of articles applies to anyone being paid to work on a tree. This means that landscapers and gardeners are included, as well as arborists.

Metal pole pruners and saws should not be used in trees with overhead power lines. Photo courtesy of John Ball.

Handsaw incidents

About 35,000 people with injuries sustained while using handsaws passed through emergency departments during the last decade. Most of these injuries happened while cutting boards with carpentry saws. Only about 18% of these injuries were from cutting trees and shrubs with handsaws. Most of these injuries from cutting trees and shrubs with handsaws happened while pruning branches (74%), though patients also mentioned they were trimming branches or the base off their Christmas tree (11%), and some were cutting down small trees (9%). About 6% of the injuries were from changing blades or carrying the saw without the scabbard, among other things.

The injuries associated with using a handsaw were generally less severe than those from chain saws. Fewer than 1% of the ED visits involving handsaws required admission to the hospital. However, there were some similarities. Lacerations, a deep cut or tear into the flesh, were the most common injury reported for handsaws. A little more than half the injuries presented to the ED were lacerations to fingers and thumbs, mostly on the left hand. Hand lacerations, again the left hand, were also common.

Finger, thumb and hand lacerations are, not too surprisingly, injuries associated with handsaws. The saw blades are sharp, and people often hold the branch they are cutting a little too closely to the saw. The third area for lacerations, to the legs, was from the user supporting brush on their leg while cutting, or from dropping a saw while walking and having it strike the leg (wearing shorts) or sometimes the foot or toe (wearing sandals). Other lacerations were to the arms and wrists.

There also were lacerations to the face, often when the saw kicked back when the cut branch swung. The “saw jumped” was a common patient statement in the incident narrative.

While lacerations were the most common injury, there were others. Nerve injuries were associated with some of the lacerations. There were also amputations of finger and thumb tips. Contusions, or ruptured capillaries, were noted in some reports. Debris and small splinters were responsible for corneal abrasions. There were also reports of strains and sprains. Considering the average age of the patients presenting to the ED with a handsaw injury was about 48, maybe the workout was a little too much for the DIYTTs. The age range was 8 to 81 years old.

There were also a few fractures. The saw did not cause the fracture, but it was a secondary source. The primary source was the ladder they were standing on when pruning with the handsaw. Sometimes the branch being pruned swung back, knocking the ladder away. Other times it was overreaching that caused the ladder to fall. The most common fractures from these falls were to the ankle and wrist.

Tree workers had many of the same injuries as the DIYTTs. Holding the branch too closely with the left hand while cutting with the right resulted in lacerations. Finger and thumb tips were prone to being snipped, so there were also some amputations. But tree workers had fewer leg injuries. They usually know to put the saw back in the scabbard (fewer leg injuries and you lose fewer saws on the job sites). But there was one different injury. It was related to the fractures from falls.

Yes, they also happened from ladders, though many tree workers know they must be secured before working from a ladder. But a few of their falls were from cutting the climbing line with a handsaw. We recently had a climber who severed the climbing line with a handsaw, and the fall resulted in ankle and wrist fractures. The Z133 American National Standards for Arboricultural Operations – Safety Requirements requires a climber to be secured with their climbing line and a second means (e.g., lanyard or a second climbing line) when operating a chain saw in a tree. There are no similar requirements for handsaws, but maybe it is not a bad idea.

Pole saw/pruner incidents

Pole saws can be powered, primarily through gasoline or electricity, or rely on muscle – the manual pole pruners and saws. Manual pole pruners and saws are coded under handsaws, while the powered pole saws are under powered saws (this code does not include chain saws). Manual pole saws accounted for about 2% of the 35,000 handsaw injuries. Powered-saw injuries resulted in about 130,000 visits to the ED during the past decade. Most of these injuries happened while cutting concrete, pipes, boards and tile. Powered pole saws were involved in far fewer than 1% of these injuries.

Manual-pole-saw injures to DIYTTs differed from those associated with handsaws. There were fewer lacerations, since the cutting blade on the pole saw is farther from the operator. There are also manual pole pruners, which avoid the problems with a blade, but their use is not injury free. Severed fingers or thumbs caught in the pruning shears of pole pruners were mentioned in some incident narratives.

Lacerations were still the injury reported for about half of the DIYTT incidents involving manual pole saws. Some happened when the operator grabbed the blade and cut themselves. But most of these lacerations were to the head and face when struck by the saw or cut branch, occurring when either the saw or branch fell back on the operator. Corneal abrasions also occurred when the face was struck by the saw.

Tree workers also suffered lacerations from manual pole saws, not usually to the fingers, but to the back and shoulders. They were not using the pole saw as a back scratcher. Rather, it was hung on a stub or branch above them and fell. Don Blair, in his classic 1995 book Arborist Equipment: A Guide to the Tools and Equipment of Tree Maintenance and Removal, mentions using a 3- to 4-mm nylon cord to make a lanyard to secure the pruning saw to the stub or branch. Not a bad idea. Tree workers also had lacerations to the head and face, not from the saw, but from being struck by the falling branch they had just cut.

Another common reason DIYTTs visited the ED after using a manual pole saw was chest pain. Holding a saw up and sawing can be a workout if the rest of the week the only thing you lift is a coffee cup. They also came in with complaints of sore shoulders, arms and necks. But some DIYTTs were not feeling much pain when they arrived in the ED. It was not mentioned very often in the narratives, but a number of reports stated the patient had been drinking at the time of the incident: “The patient reports having only three beers.”

There was one more nonfatal injury that happened to both the DIYTT and the tree worker. It did not involve lacerations, amputations, contusions or the other injuries already mentioned. It was electrical burns from indirect contact with an overhead power line. And a tragic difference between electrical contact and the other incidents involving handsaws or pole saws is that these were often fatal.

We had about two electrocutions a year over the past decade from tree workers touching a pole saw to an overhead power line. These almost all involved distribution voltages. These indirect contacts result in high-voltage (often defined as greater than 1,000 volts in the medical field) injuries. High voltages quickly overcome skin resistance, travel into the underlying tissue and result in deep, extensive burns. These burns, which may travel beneath relatively unaffected skin, can require specialized medical care – if you survive. Too often these injuries are fatal.

Manual pole saws accounted for about 2% of the 35,000 handsaw injuries during the last deade. Photo courtesy of Arborwell, an accredited, 21-year TCIA member company based in Newark, California, now a SavATree company.

Slightly fewer than half of the tree workers electrocuted through indirect contact with a pole saw were identified as landscapers, a few as gardeners. But about a third were workers for a tree care company. The average age of an electrocuted tree worker was 36 years old. The age range was from 20 to 52 years old.

Almost half of the tree-worker electrocutions involving pole saws happened to operators of mobile, elevating work platforms, from compact lifts to truck-mounted booms. About a third of the electrocutions occurred to tree workers standing on a ladder while holding the pole saw. The remainder were to climbers, mostly on spikes, and ground workers.

A common incident was a tree worker with an aluminum pole saw reaching out of the metal platform basket of a compact lift and touching the primary with the pole. Another common incident was a tree worker electrocuted while standing on an aluminum ladder holding an aluminum pole saw. This combination of lifts, ladders and poles can easily put the extended reach of the worker into overhead power lines. Aluminum and power lines are not words that should be used in the same sentence.

The pole saw was identified as either aluminum or metal in about two-thirds of the electrocutions. A couple were gas-powered, telescoping saws or unknown. There was a single fatal incident with a fiberglass pole.

Hydraulic saws were not exempt from this hazard. We had a tree worker electrocuted by contact with a primary through the hydraulic pole saw while standing in the basket of an extending boom of an aerial lift.

While tree workers represent most of the electrocutions involving the deadly mix of pole saws and power lines, some DIYTTs also suffered this fate. There were fewer incidents, less than one a year, but they happened while people were pruning their own trees or helping a neighbor with yard work. The difference was the DIYTT was usually reaching up with an aluminum (or metal) pole saw while standing on an aluminum ladder. Most of the powered pole saws have a maximum telescoping length of 8 to 15 feet, while manual sectionals can be extended to 25 or even 30 feet. It is not hard to reach an overhead power line from a ladder with a pole saw. There also were a few electrocutions of DIYTTs standing in a rental lift and holding a metal pole saw.

Final thoughts

Here are some simple tips for everyone, from DIYTTs to tree workers, for using handsaws.

First, whenever practical, do not support the branch with the other hand while cutting. If the branch must be supported by hand, hold the hand as far away from the saw as possible. Wearing cut-resistant gloves while using a handsaw can reduce minor laceration incidents. Puncture-resistant gloves are also a good choice. A recent tree-worker incident involved an amputation of a thumb infected by a cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crusgallii) thorn.

Safety glasses are a must, as is a helmet. These are also Z133 Safety Standards requirements, one of the “shalls” for workers during arboricultural operations. DIYTT should consider that if these are requirements for the professionals, it is a good idea for them as well. They also might think about wearing long pants and boots.

The same guidelines apply to pole saws – helmet, safety glasses, gloves, long pants and boots. Since being struck by a falling branch is a common injury for people using pole saws, do not cut directly above the head. Instead, try to hold the saw at about a 60-degree angle, so the branch does not fall directly on the worker. Look for overhead power lines, and do not use a pole saw near them unless you have an insulated pole saw designed to be used near lines and you have the skills and training to do so.

Also, for tree workers, don’t use the pole saw as a bat to knock away cut branches. I have seen aerial-lift operators who could put baseball batters to shame with their ability to knock falling branches out of the canopy. But there are not any overhead power lines near the batter’s box in baseball. A swing and a miss with a pole saw can result in contact with a power line.

Finally, for the health of the tree and the tree owner, the DIYTT, tree work might best be left to the professional arborist!

John Ball, Ph.D., BCMA, CTSP, A-NREMT (Advanced – National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), is professor of forestry at South Dakota State University and a Board Certified Master Arborist.

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