Making A Case for In-Tree Chain-Saw Protection

Injuries caused by chain saws are serious in nature, but the risk of injury can be mitigated with the appropriate training and PPE. All photos courtesy of Andrew Jones.

Another year has arrived, and once again the tree industry finds itself high on the list of America’s most dangerous jobs. Surprise! Tree work is dangerous – something about climbing 100-foot-tall trees attached to a 1/2-inch rope while wielding a high-powered chain saw really makes for a hazardous work environment. Fortunately, much of the risk we face can be mitigated, or altogether removed, with the proper training, safety education and the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The purpose of this article is to highlight the potential need for climbers to don chain-saw-protective pants to help reduce the risk of chain-saw-related injuries while aloft.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that approximately 36,000 people in the U.S. receive treatment in hospital emergency departments each year as a result of chain-saw injuries. In a 2014 article, “The Risks and Rules of Chainsaw Operation” (posted on incident-prevention.com), Ken Palmer, president of ArborMaster Training, Inc., stated that an average of 110 stitches are required for each chain-saw injury.

Palmer found the average cost for each incident amounted to about $12,000 in the year 2000, which is equivalent to approximately $20,000 today. This adds up to an annual cost of around $750 million for immediate medical care – and that’s not considering rehabilitation expenses, the value of lost production or increased workers’-compensation costs. Palmer also stated that a modest assumption of recovery times would likely approach four weeks.

The U.S. is one of the last major holdouts when it comes to requiring in-tree chain-saw protection.

Injuries caused by chain saws are serious in nature, but the risk of injury can be mitigated with the appropriate training and PPE.

When reading the ANSI Z133 (Safety Standards for Arboricultural Operations), it’s important to understand the difference between the meaning of “should” and “shall.” Any time we see the word “shall,” it denotes a mandatory requirement. When we see the word “should” used, it signifies a strong suggestion, or, according to Peter Gerstenberger, TCIA’s senior vice president for industry expertise, “The ‘should’ designation largely coincides with best available practice.” Keep the should-and-shall theme in mind as we press on!

According to Section 3 of the Z133, approved helmets, hearing protection, eye protection and clothing and footwear appropriate to known work-site hazards shall be worn when performing arboricultural operations. It further specifies that approved, cut-resistant leg protection shall be worn when operating a chain saw on the ground. Section 8.1 lays out the required PPE for climbers. Apart from cut-resistant leg protection, the PPE that a climber shall wear is identical to that of their co-workers on the ground. I’m going to “go out on a limb” and say that chain-saw use is a known work-site hazard, whether in a tree or on the ground.

The U.S. is one of the last major holdouts when it comes to requiring in-tree chain-saw protection. A significant number of our international counterparts, including those in England, Australia, New Zealand and Austria, require the use of chain-saw leg-protective garments for climbers. Canada’s standards are province specific, but most of them require chain-saw-protective pants while in-tree.

So why don’t we have a “shall” – or even a “should” – designation in the Z133 for in-tree chain-saw protection? Unfortunately, no one person was able to give me an answer, but the Z133 Committee members, both past and present, spoken with for this article shared five concerns about the implementation of a chain-saw-protection standard specific to climbers.

Concerns

  • Lack of ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)-approved garments
  • Lack of injury statistics indicating a need for in-tree chain-saw leg protection
  • Climber’s potential lack of mobility
  • Increased risk of heat-related injury or illness
  • Cost of outfitting personnel

While valid, these concerns may be alleviated when viewed through a different lens, especially considering the technical advancements seen with these garments. Manufacturing is dictated by market trends, so it should come as no surprise that representatives for all the major manufacturers of chain-saw-protective garments spoken with stated that they have experienced a considerable increase in sales volume for protective garments over the last several years in the U.S. market. The American marketplace is driving the demand for these protective garments, despite not having a standard requiring in-tree chain-saw protection. The assumption of those representatives is that climbers are responsible for a large portion of the increase now that there are pants specifically designed for their needs.

A selection of chain-saw pants with their various ratings. Today there are numerous manufacturers producing chain-saw-protective pants in accordance with ASTM F1897-20 and ASTM F3325-20.

“The safety of our customers takes precedent over everything else,” says Marcy Cope, director of product development for Arborwear. She verifies that Arborwear’s sales volume in protective pants has steadily risen in recent years. She attributes this to safety culture buy-in that companies are expressing in greater numbers.

Sebastian Viebahn, Pfanner’s international key account manager, also states that the demand in the U.S. has more than doubled in recent years. Lincoln Smith, founder and owner of Clogger, is considered an industry guru as it relates to chain-saw-protective garments. He says sales in the U.S. have risen steadily since 2016 and believes that, as the consumer market continues to be educated on the real dangers related to chain-saw injuries, sales of high-quality PPE will climb, propelling the advancement of even better products.

This rise in sales is a direct reflection of opinions held by many employers. Trumbull Barrett, president of Barrett Tree Service East, an accredited, 15-year TCIA member company based in Medford, Massachusetts, says he believes the innovations in these pants greatly improve the safety of climbers.

Solutions

1. Lack of ASTM-approved garments: Today there are numerous manufacturers that are producing chain-saw-protective pants in accordance with ASTM F1897-20 and ASTM F3325-20. Arbortec, Arborwear, Clogger, Husqvarna and WoodlandPro are a few of the manufacturers producing chain-saw-protective pants that carry the UL (Underwriter Laboratories) badge certifying they conform with ASTM ratings. Other companies, such as Pfanner and SIP Protection, produce high-quality protective pants that are rated for use in Europe. With the demand for these garments rising, we will likely see more of the EN-rated (European standard) pants become UL rated.

2. Lack of injury statistics indicating a need for in-tree chain-saw leg protection: Chain-saw-injury statistics are sorely lacking within our industry. Even when injuries are said to be work related, they are rarely classified as having occurred on the ground or in the tree. According to Dr. John Ball, in his article, “Chain-Saw Injuries: Us Versus Them” (TCI Magazine, May 2021), there is an alarming trend of chain-saw injuries affecting climbers as a result of idling chain saws contacting tree branches while the climber is traversing, causing the saw to activate the chain and leading to lower-leg injuries. We also have no solid information showing occurrences where chain-saw-protective garments prevented injuries. If they do their job, there won’t be an injury report!

3. Climber’s potential lack of mobility: Members of the previous Z133 Committee were accurate with their assertion that chain-saw-protective pants would adversely affect a climber’s ability to traverse through the canopy, but this issue has since been completely alleviated. Companies like SIP Protection, Pfanner, Arborwear and Clogger produce protective pants similar to their non-protective offerings. All these offerings, with extremely flexible fabric, will allow climbers the full mobility needed to safely traverse the canopy. They also include key design features such as crotch gussets, articulated knee padding and pockets designed to be easily accessible while wearing a climbing saddle. With so many U.S. climbers still rocking blue jeans or dungaree-style pants, chain-saw-protective climbing pants will afford them mobility they never could have dreamed of!

Travis Vickerson, CTSP, QCL, walks his audience through chain-saw- protective materials for pants and chaps at the TCI Magazine Trainer’s Test Kitchen, at TCI EXPO 2021. TCIA staff photo.

4. Increased risk of heat-related injury or illness: Heat-related injury or illness is a serious concern. Fortunately, manufacturers have responded to overwhelming consumer demand for garments that help mitigate the risk of heat-related issues. For starters, nearly every chain-saw pant marketed for arborists is equipped with leg ventilation ports and lightweight, breathable material in all the non-protective zones. Arbortech built their entire lineup of chain-saw-protective trousers around environmental-stress mitigation with their introduction of the Breatheflex Pro series a few years ago. Arborwear’s Dogwood pant, set to be released in time for summer, is equipped with oversized ventilation ports to increase airflow. It will be the lightest UL-rated chain-saw pant on the market at just under 2 pounds (for perspective, an average-size pair of men’s jeans are just over 1½ lbs.). The Clogger Zero line is built specifically to mitigate heat concerns for arborists, with tough, mesh air vents located on the outside of the leg instead of the inside like most protective pants. The Zero’s secret to heat mitigation is its use of Clogger’s Sensil Breeze fabric specifically designed to reduce surface body temperature and promote ventilation.

Ultimately, environmental factors such as heat will always exist, so it’s up to the industry to adapt our work protocols to combat this risk. Henk Morgans, president of the Queensland (Australia) Arboricultural Association, suggests scheduling physically less demanding jobs, such as ornamental pruning, during times of extreme heat to avoid overheating crews. Morgans says, “If we need to make a cut or two, we have our chaps.”

5. Cost of outfitting personnel: The purchase price for quality chain-saw-protective pants varies from approximately $150-$450 per pair, with an average around $300. Clogger, SIP Protection and Pfanner have a wide range of options that demonstrates the difference in costs. Pfanner Gladiators are widely regarded as the toughest pant around, so it should come as no surprise that the pant is in the higher price range. Clogger’s Ascend Gen 2’s and Zeroes are much more feature rich than their new Denim model or their upcoming revamped Defender Pro. The new Defender Pros will be about 30% cheaper than Clogger Zeroes, and Pete Senior, regional sales manager, ensures that they will offer improved protection and mobility, just with fewer bells and whistles. Arborwear’s new Dogwood pants will retail for less than $250.

Many climbers are already accustomed to spending upward of $200 for quality pants designed specifically for climbing, so for them, spending a little more for chain-saw-protective climbing pants shouldn’t cause too much sticker shock. Considering the financial burden of chain-saw injuries, Henk Morgans reminds us that “spending $6,000 annually to outfit three crews or nine crew members with two pairs of protective trousers each is way cheaper than even one minor workers’-comp claim.” Medical bills, workers’ comp, insurance modifiers and lost production time are all much more expensive than purchasing the best-available PPE.

Looking ahead

As of right now, OSHA does not have a standard specifically for the field of arboriculture. However, Peter Gerstenberger did say that, after six years of TCIA and others advocating for our own OSHA standard, it appears that OSHA will release a proposed arborist industry standard in June of this year. With OSHA joining the mix, we may anticipate a push for greater safety standards in the future.

Gerstenberger explains that OSHA is a very reactive agency by nature, so new implementations will likely follow workplace injuries. Now that OSHA will have its own regulation regarding our industry, they are much more likely to allocate manpower and resources to ensure these standards are met with the appropriate compliance.

There is a very good chance that over the next several years we are going to see many more comprehensive safety standards put into place. An industry as dangerous as ours can only operate so long without receiving attention from agencies such as OSHA. As top-level professionals, we should welcome any advancement in industry safety or best practices. According to Trumbull Barrett, not everyone can perform the services we can, so having policies in place to ensure “tree services” are adhering to our established best practices benefits everyone trying to do it right.

Obviously, we have concluded that our industry is dangerous. The risk of chain-saw injuries is real, and that is why ground personnel shall wear chain-saw-protective garments when performing ground operations. If a ground person suffers a chain-saw-inflicted injury, they are likely to receive immediate assistance from fellow ground workers, homeowners and descending climbers. Climbing trees is dangerous, chain saws are dangerous and using a chain saw while climbing trees can be catastrophic! As of right now, there is no “shall” requirement for in-tree chain-saw protection or a standard requiring the presence of a secondary climber able to perform an aerial rescue. Unlike their counterparts on the ground, if a climber suffers from a lower-body chain-saw injury, they are unlikely to receive timely aid. If a climber makes a mistake, or an off-chance accident occurs, the severity of the consequences is magnified immensely.

At some point, we are likely to see a “should” or “shall” statement regarding in-tree chain-saw protection, but until then, we have every reason to mitigate as many dangers as we can. The PPE is better than it’s ever been. We finally have garments specifically designed to meet both our functional and safety needs. There is reason for optimism about the shift we are experiencing toward a proactive safety culture, and I look forward to that momentum climbing into the canopy!

Andrew Jones is a CTSP, an ISA Certified Arborist and owner of Rooted Arbor Care in St. Charles, Missouri.

3 Comments

  1. The main issue that was not discussed at all is how to wash the chain saw pants? Like most pants they get dirty and require washing. How is this done so as to not ruin the pants and there effectiveness?

    1. Robert, we recommend checking with the manufacturer for washing instructions, as each material may require specific cleaning needs.

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