Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Top-handled chainsaws: appropriate use and management

Author:  Paul Elcoat
  25/02/2019
Last Updated:  25/02/2019

In the course of my business I get to observe many contracting companies and climbing arborists performing their day-to-day duties. This is either in my advisory capacity helping contractors to get ready for the ARB Approved Contractor assessment or as a scheme assessor actually putting companies through the assessment.

As an advisor, I have found that taking a look at the ‘on site’ routines and practices can yield swift efficiency gains. Things that I tend to note are:

  • safe working practices
  • the efficiency of the observed working practices
  • the appropriateness of the observed working practices
  • concurrent activity among the team members or indeed the lack of it
  • anticipation of needs by the team members
  • effective use of equipment
  • further equipment needs
  • unproductive attitudes and relationships

I invariably find that my outlook is different from the arborists that I am working with in that whilst they are thinking about trees, personal income, going home in the evening and all of the other ‘look forwards’ that individuals have on their minds, I am thinking ‘commercial’: how can we do this more efficiently and safely? How can we get more paid opportunities into the day and maintain the effective fitness of our people?

At this point let us consider the following set of assumptions. They are sweeping generalisations, but I am sure that you will get my point:

  • Excellent tree work is the commodity that we sell to generate income.
  • Increased efficiency as well as increased sales yields increased profit.
  • Regardless of how professional we consider ourselves to be, to the domestic customer more often than not we are simply the people that take away the green rubbish.
  • Sadly, we are mostly judged on price and clean up rather than the quality of our pruning.
  • Accidents cost a lot of money.
  • A damaged individual is not productive.
  • A tired individual is not productive.
  • Ill-maintained or inappropriate equipment is not productive.

The bottom line, whether you are the owner of the operation or an individual arborist, is that you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take full advantage of the excellent tools and systems available to us nowadays and to adopt proven safe and efficient working practices as your standard operational procedure. Operating like this will ensure profitability, continued income, staff welfare and customer satisfaction. Additionally, of course, it will enable you to develop a good working relationship with your local enforcement agencies; it’s great to have these experts on your side.

This nicely brings me on to the subject of top-handled chainsaws and their appropriate use by competent arborists.

Feelings have been running high recently on social media following the article in Horticulture Week entitled ‘Arborist receives six figure pay out after chainsaw injury’ (12 December 2018, by Matthew Appleby). The piece was brought to my attention via the Association’s assessor network when Paul Smith, the Scheme Manager, circulated standard-setting guidance to assessors on the appropriate use and management of top-handled chainsaws.

The article describes how a tree surgeon ‘had his left arm almost hacked off’ with a chainsaw after his employer failed to provide adequate training and how, after years of suffering physical and mental pain, he has now received a six-figure pay-out. Apparently, he was using one hand to hold a branch and the other to use the chainsaw when the chainsaw kicked back and cut into his forearm leaving him with a severe gash. Following a four-year legal battle by personal injury firm it was found that his former employer had not provided him with adequate training: ‘Refresher training should have been provided to remind employees of the importance of using two hands while operating a chainsaw.’

I can’t comment on the case in the Horticulture Week article because I have not been involved but I sincerely hope that our injured colleague makes a full recovery. I shared the story on our Facebook page along with some advice, and to date the post has attracted more views and comments than any other. Typically for arborists, the comments were ‘passionate’. Several people have questioned how employees don’t seem to have to take care of themselves or responsibility for their own actions and how it is always the employer’s fault nowadays.

What is the problem?

This is a two-sided problem with arborists getting hurt due to inadequate training or misguided beliefs on the one hand and contracting companies cutting corners to save money or being molested by ambulance-chasing lawyers acting for insubordinate Muppets on the other.

An all too common observation is a climber using the ‘hold and cut’ habit. They hold the piece to be cut off with one hand and cut it off using a simple top to bottom cut with a top-handled chainsaw held in their other hand. This is regularly justified to me by climbers: ‘I know what it says in the guide but it is what these saws were designed for’ and ‘How else would you do it?’ One likely lad told me that this is the best way to ensure that the area below the tree remains undamaged. Once ‘cut and hold’ has become part of the climber’s existence they do it subconsciously all of the time. I regularly see people removing the last 200mm stub by holding onto it, cutting it off and then dropping it straight to the ground.

With mobile elevating work platforms becoming more popular, a whole suite of other horrible practices has developed. ‘Cut and hold’ whilst standing in the bucket or worse still, several people in the bucket – one person driving and holding the lump to be removed and one person cutting it off with a chainsaw. There isn’t enough room in this article to cover MEWPs so let’s get back to top-handled chainsaws.

There have been some well-reported tragic accidents involving climbers sustaining cuts from a chainsaw but to further illustrate the points made I have included some brief reports below.

The first two case studies are taken from ‘Tree Work Accidents: An Analysis of Fatal and Serious Injuries’, published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2003.

Case 1

A trainee arborist needed 35 stitches to his left arm after it came into contact with the running chain on a top-handled chainsaw. He had failed to position himself correctly in the tree. To steady his position, he placed his free hand below and in line with the cut he was making on the branch. When the saw completed the cut, it dropped through onto his arm.

Top-handled chainsaws should only be operated by arborists who have undergone specific training in their use. Where possible, top-handled chainsaws should always be held with both hands. Poor positioning in the tree is not an excuse for one-handed use.

Case 2

A self-employed arborist cut the tendons and artery in his forearm when he tripped while de-limbing a felled tree in a domestic garden. He was using a top-handled chainsaw one-handed.

Top-handled chainsaws are designed to be used up in trees. He should have used a conventional chainsaw when working on the ground.

The following reports were taken from the HSE website at the time of writing this article:

A 21-year-old self-employed contractor died when his neck was struck by his chainsaw. He was carrying out tree work from a rope and harness using a top-handled chainsaw. There were no witnesses. The chainsaw struck his neck lacerating the main artery.

A 27-year-old self-employed tree surgeon was killed by his chainsaw. He was reducing a tree when he somehow made contact with his chainsaw. There were no witnesses but the groundsman noticed blood coming from the surgeon’s neck and with the help of the other climber rescued him out of the tree. He was found unconscious and died from severe neck injuries.

A 28-year-old self-employed tree surgeon was found dead in a tree with severe laceration to his neck. He was in the process of pruning a multi-stemmed willow tree in preparation for felling it. There are no eye witnesses, but it is assumed that the chainsaw kicked back causing a severe laceration to his neck. He died from his injuries almost instantly.

The result of contact between a top-handled chainsaw and a lower left forearm. This damage was sustained from a chain that was ‘running down’. (© Paul Elcoat)

What on Earth is going on? 21 years old, 27 years old, 28 years old – young people with their whole life ahead of them killed trimming trees – it’s madness!

The photograph that I have included on this page shows the result of contact between a top-handled chainsaw and a lower left forearm. This damage was sustained from a chain that was ‘running down’ rather than being under power and subsequent investigation revealed that it was done by around ten cutters on the chain. They simply counted the teeth with meat on them! I feel for anyone that suffers an injury at work but I do get frustrated that these injuries are continuing to happen despite the fact that guidance and training on the use of top-handled saws has been easily available for at least the 27 years I have been in the industry.

What does it say in industry guidance?

The arboricultural industry is in the privileged position of working closely with several key stakeholders in the development of ‘standards’: the Arboricultural Association, the Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG), the Forest Industry Safety Accord (FISA) and training and assessment companies.

Standard-setting meetings are usually quite intense as the various issues are thrashed out and as each stakeholder argues their position. This has meant that our training, assessment and guidance material all largely reflects the same consensus opinion, is finalised to be a reasonable response to accident statistics and is credible throughout the industry.

The trouble is that, as stated earlier, many ‘arborists’, even those that have been trained and certificated, still think that there is the way to do it for the test and then how it is actually done ‘in the real world’.

AFAG 308: Top-Handled Chainsaws

This is the industry guidance leaflet which describes best practice in straight-forward terms. I have extracted the following guidance for your consideration:

  • Top-handled chainsaws have two handles.
  • To maintain proper control of the saw ensure, wherever possible, that you grip both handles.
  • Keep the saw well clear of yourself and your climbing equipment at all times.
  • Ensure you obtain the best available cutting position to minimise the risk of being struck by the saw (including kickback), or by severed pieces of wood.
  • Incorrect, one-handed use significantly increases the risk of injury from the saw if it kicks back, skates or bounces on contact with a branch, or drops through at the end of a cut.
  • Never ‘hold and cut’ a section.
  • Do not attempt to catch a falling section.
  • One-handed use should be restricted to circumstances where one hand is required to maintain a stable working position and the saw is used at extended reach with the other hand, e.g. while cutting at the extremities of limbs.
  • Poor work positioning in the tree is not an acceptable reason for one-handed use.

This and the other guidance leaflets can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/afag308.pdf.

NPTC 002108: Level 3 Award in Aerial Cutting of Trees with a Chainsaw Using Free-Fall Techniques

These are the standards used by NPTC Assessors when observing a candidate prior to the award (or not) of the certificate of competence. Again, I have extracted some key content:

Question State the circumstance when it may be necessary to use a top-handled chainsaw in the tree one-handed.

Expected Answers When working at the extremity of limbs and cutting is required while the other hand is needed to maintain the work position.

When normal working position cannot be achieved.

The climber must then go on to demonstrate the removal of limbs or limb sections using a variety of cuts. One of the 12 bulleted assessment points is:

‘Climber holding the saw using both the front and top/rear handles of the saw.’

The full assessor guidance document and the guidance for all other NPTC competence assessments can be seen at: www.nptc.org.uk.

A few years ago, the HSE was so worried about the level of reported accidents as a result of the use of top-handled chainsaws that there was a proposal to get rid of them all together! Bear in mind that this was reflection upon reported accidents and that it is acknowledged the vast proportion of accidents go unreported by the poor misguided fools that seek to cover the situation up.

‘For the past ten years the HSE has had concerns over the safety of the use of top-handled chainsaws. These chainsaws are of a fundamentally different design to conventional chainsaws in that the rear handle is positioned on the top of the machine. This allows the chainsaw to be used one-handed. It is the expressed opinion of the HSE that this design ignores one of the fundamental design aspects of conventional chainsaws, namely that they should be held with both hands when being operated. One-handed use can result in the operator having less control over the chainsaw. In one-handed use the saw may skate, bounce or kick back on contact with the material being cut, or may come into contact with the operator’s free hand/arm if used incorrectly.’

HSE, 2001

‘For the past 10 years…’: so since 1991 the HSE has been concerned and yet we are still killing and disabling people with top-handled chainsaws!

Rather than take the draconian step of a complete ban, research into safe, effective and appropriate use was commissioned. The research was undertaken by the very well-respected training company Treevolution. Again I have extracted the same message from that report:

‘Only in extreme situations should the chainsaw be used one-handed. Top-handled chainsaws should not be used one-handed either in place of poor work positioning or in preference to a handsaw whilst cutting smaller material at branch tips.’

The full report can be downloaded for free at: www.hse.gov.uk/research/crr_htm/2001/crr01402.htm.

What do climbing arborists need to do?

There are many accidents that are due to negligence on the part of the employer but be under no illusion: there are also many accidents caused by a climber ignoring the guidance, the training and the clear instruction of the employer.

There have been many times when I have completed an investigation and my overwhelming thoughts are:

  • What did you expect to happen doing it like that?
  • Why didn’t you do it like you were told to in the first place?

Sometimes accidents are your own daft fault despite everything that the employer has done to protect you. Do yourself a huge favour and get some income protection insurance just in case.

I have seen, investigated and heard of enough accidents to be able to give the following advice about the inappropriate use of a top-handled chainsaw with one hand:

  • Don’t do it.
  • It is very dangerous.
  • You will seriously hurt yourself.
  • It will happen to you.

Among the instructor, assessor and standard-setting community, inappropriate use of a top-handled chainsaw is considered to be unprofessional and simply a demonstration of an inability to achieve a good work position and to make appropriate cuts. You might think you look great, but we think you look stupid (‘having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense’ Oxford English Dictionary).

What do employers need to do?

Follow industry guidance carefully, seek competent advice and do as much as you reasonably can to make sure that nobody hurts themselves or others whilst at work – and make sure that you can prove it.

I hate to sell what I do based upon defence; our priority is always to make sure that everything is excellent so that no one gets hurt and our colleagues win the contracts, but for the last couple of years I have insisted that clients gear up for the inevitable top-handled chainsaw accident. Even if the accident was someone’s own fault despite everything that had been done, they are likely to seek compensation by trying to lay the blame on the employer. What else can they do? They now have no income, they can’t work and they may never be able to climb a tree again. It is highly unlikely that they have had the presence of mind to arrange their own income protection insurance, so they have to turn on their former friends and try to get what they can by whatever means.

When we meet a new client company they tend to be a group of nice people with a sincere desire to improve and be the best. They produce good tree work and they may already have a few things in place: a health and safety policy, a risk assessment system – often an outdated pirate copy of the Arb Association’s system or even ours given to them by a mate. The key thing that separates them from the rest is that they understand that getting things right leads to winning better customers and a massive umbrella of protection in the event of an accident. But until we have had a chance to get everything taken care of, the thing that unites them with everyone else is that they would not be able to demonstrate that they had done everything to prevent an accident.

This is the all-important point – the ability to demonstrate that everything had been done to prevent the accident using documentary means.

Even the employers with the sincere desire mentioned above are at the mercy of chancers because the legal profession knows how difficult it is for a company to demonstrate that it could not have done anything else to prevent an accident. An employer must keep records to prove that they were not negligent (negligent here means not doing what a reasonable and prudent person would have done – or doing what a reasonable and prudent person would not have done).

There is a formula to follow which will give a reasonable chance of an employer defending themselves in the event of an accident which was someone’s own fault.

Induction training: the new employee or self-employed operator must be briefed against a set agenda before they are deployed to work. Our template includes a clause that use of a top-handled chainsaw with one hand is not allowed. The briefing must be signed by the employer and the employee.

PPE issue records for employees or PPE check records in the case of a self-employed operator: again, these must be signed by the operator and Type C protective trousers must be included for aerial use.

A file of all recent industry guidance in the truck for reference. It is also good if everyone has been briefed on the contents and purpose of the file. The briefing must be signed by all in attendance. With this in place, the company can argue that industry best practice is intrinsic to the way things are done around here and if there was any misunderstanding, the operator could have checked the guidance in the file.

A job sheet/site-specific risk assessment which states exactly what is to be done and exactly how the estimator foresees it being done. It must be briefed before work starts and signed by all in the team to agree they understand.

Training: everyone must have evidence of training in their personal file, including certificates of competence for chainsaws. Aerial tree rigging is a gap in a lot of companies with operators undertaking complex operations on the back of an old ‘use of the chainsaw from a rope and harness’ or as it is now known, the ‘Level 3 Award in Aerial Cutting of Trees with a Chainsaw Using Free-Fall Techniques’, which of course only includes free-fall sections and not roping techniques.

Update training: employers must also be able to show that operators are kept up to date on industry practice. Update and refresher training includes many things such as specific courses, toolbox talks, industry events, demonstrations and group practice sessions in-house, as long as the company can prove that they happened.

Minutes of briefing meetings or company certificates are great for this. Why not hire a local instructor/assessor for a day once or twice a year to run through current industry thinking and they can issue certificates from their company?

Supervision: this is site checks by a manager where practices such as single-handed use would be picked up and dealt with. The records of ‘dealing with’ would be great defence in the aftermath of an accident.

Publicity: make a poster which clearly states the organisation’s policy on single-handed use and put it on the notice boards. Matt Prince of Prince Arboriculture Ltd sent me a good one following the Facebook post. He has said that I can give it away so if you would like a copy please let me know.

Hopefully this brief review of the top-handled chainsaw situation and the opinions expressed will stimulate debate. I expect many a discussion to ensue as a result of what I have written, but then isn’t that the point? Professionals must question, reflect and self criticise; that is what defines us as professionals.

Let me restate: you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take full advantage of the excellent advice, guidance, tools and systems available to us nowadays and to adopt proven safe and efficient working practices as your standard operational procedure.


Paul Elcoat runs Elcoat Ltd who specialise in helping arb businesses get things right and win work. Paul would be happy to take questions or comments from readers by email: paul@paulelcoat.co.uk or telephone: 020 7193 5611 or 07800 615900.


Article taken from The ARB Magazine Issue 184 Spring 2019. As a member you can view The ARB Magazine online, simply Log In and view the 'ARB Magazine' tab in your Account Area.