How to Totally Prevent Chainsaw Kickback

It is no secret that using a chainsaw is dangerous. In fact, logging is consistently the most dangerous profession in the United States due in no small part to the use of chainsaws (and of course the risks of felling trees). However, there is one part of chainsaw use that causes disproportionate fear among those untrained in chainsaw use: kickback. The prospect of a chainsaw kicking back toward the face and torso of the operator can be terrifying. The fear leads to half-truths and misguided advice to spread among novices, often advising the purchase of larger-overpowered saws because they are “less jumpy.” Here is the truth: You don’t need to fear kickback. You need to understand it. Properly understood, chainsaw kickback is easy to prevent, and statistics show that it is not even close to the biggest risk of chainsaw use. There are only three core rules you must follow: Avoid contact with the kickback zone, maintain a firm grip on the saw, and never cut above chest height. Here we will demystify the phenomenon and explain these rules so you can keep safe.

Understanding Chainsaw Kickback

The most important thing to understand about chainsaw kickback is that it is not random, and it is easy to prevent. Kickback is a known and nearly guaranteed reactive force that occurs when the top tip of the bar comes in contact with a surface. This area works as a high speed wheel that moves the saw up and toward you. That’s why we call this part of the saw the kickback zone.

Chainsaw Kickback Zone

Kickback is ALWAYS caused by contact and interaction with this reactive force. You can see a demonstration of kickback in the video below. Take note how the duration and severity of kickback is directly related to the length of travel along the point of contact. The saw will continue on its path until the contact between the kickback zone and surface is lost.

Luckily, the dangers of the kickback zone can be totally eliminated by following three simple rules.

Rule One: Do Not Allow the Kickback Zone to Contact Another Surface

The first rule to prevent chainsaw kickback is also the simplest. Don’t let the kickback zone come in contact with another surface. If one can avoid contact with the kickback zone, the saw will not kickback. Period. Of course, that is easier said than done. Preventing contact takes diligence and good situational awareness.

The risk is perhaps most pronounced when cutting in a pile of firewood when the bar may reach beyond the log being cut and contact other logs in the pile. If you are not careful, the kickback zone may come in contact when you are cutting wide open, and a particularly powerful kickback could result. In these situations, it helps to alter your technique in such a way that allows you to be more aware and in control of the bar’s location. For example, cut with the end of the bar instead of using the chainsaw dogs. This makes the bar tip less responsive to input (by making it closer to the fulcrum) and encourages awareness of the kickback zone’s position.

Alternatively, a good solution can be to use a shorter bar. Even though the conventional wisdom is to use larger saws and longer bars because they are less “jumpy,” the truth is more complicated. longer bars only stick out more and give you more opportunity to not be aware of how the bar tip is moving, and the extra horsepower just makes the reaction more violent. It is wise to use a bar length that is well-suited for your application.

Rule Two: Maintain a Firm Grip on the Saw

While the priority is always to prevent chainsaw kickback from occurring, the truth of the matter is that no matter how skilled of an operator one is, we can all get a little sloppy and accidentally let the kickback zone contact another surface. Luckily, the vast majority of the time, these slip-ups are going to be small and inconsequential–as long as we maintain control of the saw.

Key to maintaining control of the saw is to maintain a proper grip, which includes having your thumb UNDER the front bar so your hand cannot easily slip off. Your hands should be gripped firmly–not tight enough to fatigue your hands, but not loose enough to give the saw free reign. With a firm grip, any kickback can quickly be counteracted and controlled.

A firm grip on the saw can prevent chainsaw kickback.
Proper front grip

Rule Three: Do Not Cut above Chest Height

The final rule is the most crucial for keeping you safe: Never cut above chest height. Not only does cutting so high naturally make the kickback zone the most conveniently accessible part of the saw (a dangerous situation), but maintaining control of the saw at such heights is considerably more difficult. When you cut by your waist, kickback must work against gravity, but when raised above the chest, gravity gives the kickback a boost–a potentially deadly physical advantage.

Never use a chainsaw above chest height.
Never cut above chest height

In the photo above, you don’t need much imagination to see how a slight kickback in this position could be disastrous. Keep the bar below the chest!

How Much of a Risk Does Kickback Pose?

While kickback is often one of the most feared injury mechanisms of a chainsaw, it isn’t the most common–far from it. According to a 1994 report from the US Product Safety Commission, injuries to the head and shoulders (the most likely areas to be injured by a kickback) accounted for only 18% of total chainsaw injuries, and some of these injuries may have been spring pole releases.

Chainsaw injury locations.

So is kickback a real threat? Absolutely, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it is your ONLY threat. Too often novices buy large, heavy, and overpowered saws thinking the extra weight will protect against kickback, not even understanding how kickback occurs. In such cases, these saws are too powerful for the operator’s ability and inadvertently raise the risk of injury to the legs and feet–by far the largest risk of chainsaw use.

Get Chainsaw Training and Proper PPE

If you are serious about chainsaw safety (and you should be) get yourself properly trained with a chainsaw and proper personal protective equipment (including chaps, kevlar boots, and a face shield). Here at The Timberland Investor, we offer a tree felling course that covers chainsaw safety essentials as well as instruction as to how to fell your own timber. If you want to learn more to keep yourself safe, enroll now.

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