Powerful skill: Local women learn how to safely, effectively use chain saws at workshop


SHEFFIELD >> Liz Allen has a lot of land and a lot of trees on her Canaan, Conn. property. Up until now, whenever she needed dead or rotted trees trimmed or cleared, or wanted them cut up for fire or landscaping wood, she said, "I had to ask someone to do it for me. It defeated the purpose of knowing you have firewood and having to pay someone for it anyway."

So when she saw that The Trustees of Reservations was holding a "Chain saw Skills for Women," workshop on June 5 at their Bartholomew's Cobble property, Allen decided to give it a go.

"I've always thought it would be a skill I'd enjoy having but was too afraid to just do it without being properly trained," she said.

The idea of holding something with a chain of sharp cutting teeth rotating on a bar backed by a range of 2 to 8 horsepower can intimidate anyone. We've all heard of accidents and seen horror movies to know how chain saw use can take a terrible turn on the flesh and bone. But for women, who have been historically discouraged from the fields of tree felling and using heavy duty power tools, the task of using a chain saw can be particularly challenging.

To teach the class, The Trustees enlisted veteran certified arborist and tree safety professional, Melissa LeVangie, and her tools of the trade, to give a group of women from the region the "opportunity to gain greater confidence with these powerful machines."

Enrolled in the class along with Liz Allen were Alex Tinari of Sandisfield, Pam Rooney of Amherst, Carol Terry of Lee, Zaviere "Za" Drumm of Stockbridge and Becky Ferguson, superintendent for the Trustees' Stockbridge Management Unit. Each woman had her own reasons for taking part in the training, but the common goal among them was to become more skilled do-it-yourselfers.

"The idea is that when you leave here, you know what you're doing," LeVangie said.

The arborist said the best ways for beginners to approach the use of a chain saw is with respect, patience and with the knowledge of how to use such a tool safely.

While chain saws are a hand-held tool, LeVangie said, "most of chain saw injuries are done to the leg and foot area."

Personal protective equipment is essential for tree workers and anyone operating a chain saw, according to the International Society of Arboriculture. According to the ISA's October 2010 edition of "Arborist News," the number of chain saw injuries from all users, including professionals and homeowners, ranges anywhere from 40,000 to 90,000 each year for severe, non-fatal accidents, with deaths occurring in another 40 to 60 accidents.

Article authors John Ball and Donald F. Blair wrote, "Safety is an effective combination of skills and equipment; not just one or the other."

LeVangie showed her students how to gear up properly from head to toe: helmets to protect from falling limbs, specialize earmuffs and/or communication headsets to protect hearing from the loudness of the saw engine and friction noise; eye protection and mesh face guards to protect from wood chip particles and any swinging branches. Gloves are less necessary, but can protect hands while cleaning or sharpening a chain or when fueling the saw.

Based on the injury statistics, protecting the lower extremities of the body is most important and most effective in terms of safety. Specialized logging chaps or industrial fabric pants protect the legs from kickback — what happens when the guide bar that the chain and saw teeth rotate on unexpectedly jerks upward if the tip of the bar hits an object in a way that causes the chain to snag. Sturdy steel-toed boots help the user maintain a steady stance and protect the feet from anything that could fall on them.

"I feel like Gumby," said Terry after putting on a pair of heavy duty bright orange chain saw chaps that widened her stance.

LeVangie said snug-fitting gear, with no loose threads, no hanging straps and no extended cuffs is important in reducing the chance for clothing getting snagged in the chain and leading to injury.

Chain saw handles and other mechanisms are designed for right-handed users, which means lefties might need some extra practice learning how to manipulate the tool. The other major skill areas are learning how to turn the saw off and on, how to hold it while in use, and how to plan and follow through on cuts.

For some, starting the saw can be the hardest part. Most homeowner and lightweight chain saws weigh in a range between 6 and 12 pounds, and are fairly easy to heft and move. Electric and battery-powered saws are the lightest and the easiest to start, requiring the power and safety mechanisms to be operated in a specific sequence to operate. But the more commonly used gas-powered saws work somewhat like a lawn mower. If being started cold, they have to be choked, primed and fired up by use of a pull cord, which require a bit of oomph on the user's behalf.

The two main ways of stabilizing the body of the saw while pulling the starter cord are doing a ground start, where the user gets down on one knee and anchors the saw handle by the toe of the opposite foot, or by clenching the body of at top handle saw in between the knees and thighs anchored by the grip of the left hand, while pulling the starter cord with the right hand.

LeVangie had the women drill practice each step, to get them more comfortable with it.

"It's awkward," said Pam Rooney at first of the posturing.

Some women in LeVangie's class found their preferred stance with minimal effort, while others worked themselves into a bit of a sweat with frustration.

"Yeah, this is isn't working out so well," Terry said, after struggling with a ground start. She has a bad knee.

"Just take your time and try not to get frustrated," LeVangie coached.

Becky Ferguson also struggled with pulling the starter cord, in a swift and sweeping motion.

LeVangie urged the women to unleash their strength when handling the saw, particularly in using the starter cord. "All I can say is pull like a banshee," she said. "For you ladies, it is about getting in the right body position to give it the right chutzpah to get it to go."

But by the end of the day, the whole group was able to get at least one kind of saw going, to get comfortable with the throttle and cycling the chain through neutral to top speeds, making that signature "brum-brum-brum-brum-brrrrrrrrrrm" sound. They also took turns slicing rounds from branches and logs.

"This is fantastic," said Za Drumm, who aspires to become a certified arborist. She's a landscape craftswoman and team leader with Nature Works Organic Land Care in Stockbridge, and sees chain saw skills as an form of empowerment in her trade.

To keep Drumm motivated to stay with it, LeVangie, who nicknames her various Husqvarna and Stihl brand saws, named one of her newer trees saws "Za" after her student. LeVangie also named a newer and fickle saw, "Stinky" during the program.

Asked toward the end of the day how she felt about using a chain saw on her own, Alex Tinari said, "I think it was wise to get training. Melissa's been a phenomenal teacher and I feel less intimidated by the saws. I definitely feel more comfortable and able to pick one up and use one on my own."


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