Christmas Day is not a day you expect to be in your basement taking shelter from tornados. But my family and I did just that last year. The Alabama Christmas Day tornado outbreak was not severe, as it turned out. But an EF-2 tornado (winds of 111-135 mph) did tear through one Birmingham neighborhood not 15 miles from my home.
That storm injured five and damaged or destroyed 72 buildings. Within a couple of days, I joined an Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief chainsaw team to clear downed trees. We were one of several chainsaw teams working through the neighborhood (we are the men and women in yellow shirts you may see on TV).
Working as a sawyer for Baptist Disaster Relief is challenging work. Tornado-downed trees are a tangled and compressed mess -- branches are loaded like springs and tree trunks roll without warning. When we cut, we are required to wear helmets with visors, ear protection, cut resistant gloves and chaps, plus over-the-ankle boots.
And yet ...
I was working on a big tree in a small backyard surrounded by chain link fence. People waited for me, and others to cut branches so they could drag them away. It was toward the end of a long day. I was tired and in a hurry.
Among all the safety rules we learn, one is drilled into our heads. Before you take a step with a running chainsaw, put the chain brake on.
I stepped across a branch with the saw idling. I did not put the brake on and the chain was turning. I didn't see that. As I brought my leg up to step over a branch, the saw went down and cut into my chaps.
You can see here (photo), that momentary safety lapse would have put a six-inch cut right into my upper thigh if I had not been wearing chaps.
The cut in the chaps, in fact, would have bisected the femoral artery in my right thigh. The femoral artery, one in each thigh, is about the size of your index finger. It feeds oxygenated blood to leg tissue. Given the location of the artery in the upper thigh and groin area, it is difficult to stem blood flowing from a deep laceration through the artery.
Without emergency treatment, blood loss from a severed femoral artery would prove fatal in five minutes or less.
The chaps did what they were supposed to do. I did not. I was not injured, but without the chaps I would have been seriously cut, perhaps fatally.
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As chainsaws begin to sing all across the country in this season of tornados and storms, take a minute to consider chainsaws and chainsaw safety.
Storm-damaged trees are bundles of conflicting pressures that, when wrongly relieved by an ill-placed cut, strike out with the lethality of a gunshot. Professional cutters take the time to decipher the forces of twist and compression. Most tree clearing deaths result not from saws, but by sprung branches, by falls and by electrocution. Most injuries are caused by the improper use of chainsaws.
Look, I get it. Few weekend cutters wear the safety gear. I see the guys on TV after storms cutting high over their heads, no gloves, wearing sandals and baseball hats. Of course, they are among the 23,000 who visit emergency rooms every year with chainsaw injuries.
The cost for an emergency room visit for an average chainsaw injury is a bit more than $20,000. Recovery time stretches about four weeks. Oh, and look forward to the special day when the doctor pulls more than a 100 stitches on average, from your inner thigh.
The most expensive chaps I found are $90.00. A bottle of water and 10 minutes of rest costs nothing.
Most injuries from chainsaws are to the hands and fingers, to the knees, legs and ankles. But one study also counted 139 amputations and 983 head injuries between 2009 and 2013.
Ninety-five percent of injuries are to guys -- because we know how to do everything.
Eighty-percent of all chainsaw injuries are lacerations, made by fast moving, oiled, dirty chains.
The cutting chain of a saw at full throttle rips across wood at 5,000 feet per minute, or 83 feet per second. More than 600 cutting teeth pass by a single point in one second. Raked across an unprotected leg, the damage caused in one second (the time it takes to say "600 cutting teeth") is sickeningly catastrophic.
"They are tremendously powerful tools," said Charlie Hoffman, a certified arborist out of Trevor, Wis. "But unfortunately, chainsaws are treated with the same respect as a household power drill." He added, "Statistically, you're not going to die [from a chainsaw accident]. But you are going to be maimed."
Mark Chisholm urged patience. He is a third-generation, certified arborist, a member of chainsaw manufacturer Team STIHL and a competitive tree-climbing champion.
"First thing," he said, "look up." Branches dangling up in the trees are called "widow makers." They drop to the ground without warning. Widow makers kill.
Second, look for power lines. If a power line is not still attached to the house or barn, where is it? Live wires kill.
Third, work from ground level. Better to lift trees from a house by a capable skid steer loader or a tractor with forks or grapples. Falls kill.
Fourth, ladders are a very bad idea. Consider: You cut a branch, it swings down as if on a hinge, knocking the ladder from beneath you, and now you're falling backward with a running chainsaw in your hand.
Cut slowly. Relieve the pressure in branches, slowly. Root balls are dangerous. If the chainsaw operator cuts through a trunk too close to the ball, the remaining trunk section and root ball can suddenly sit upright. Look for nails, spikes, sections of fence or other metal in the tree before cutting.
Never cut above your shoulder. Always cut with two hands. Never cut without two routes of escape, both at a 45-degree back angle to the work.
Be aware always of kickback, or the rapid, upward motion of the saw toward the operator's face. It accounts for a third of all chainsaw injuries. Hitting an obstruction with the top quarter of the running chainsaw or with the nose of the saw are two causes of kickbacks.
If you can spend a few minutes looking over some material on chainsaw safety go to: www.forestapps.com, run by my friend Tim Ard.
Also, we've produced a series of chainsaw and tree cutting videos with Tim. Find them at:
And, wear helmets, gloves and chaps.
As any sawyer knows: Chaps look cool.
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