How to use a chainsaw safely? Here are the rules you should follow

Work safely, work better

Inspirations / How to


Estimated reading time 6 minutes

Chainsaws come in handy whenever there is wood to be cut: for gardening, restocking the woodshed or doing DIY projects. Professionals use them to fell large trees and to carry out pruning while secured to a harness. The fully exposed cutting bar makes chainsaws dangerous; then there is the risk of kickback (which we will explain later on), being injured by flying wood chips, and so on. Even using one to carry out small jobs in the back garden is no less risky.

So how can you use a chainsaw safely? First of all, it is essential to know how they work, the safety devices they are equipped with and the rules for using them correctly. It is equally essential to have suitable personal protective equipment (PPE). This applies to all chainsaws, regardless of the type, power rating and power supply. The starting point is therefore the user and maintenance manual, which we recommend you read together with this good practice guide, to ensure safety while working.

Chainsaw safety devices

Using a chainsaw firstly means familiarising yourself with the controls and safety devices. The chainsaw safety devices, which are required by law, must be fully functional and never tampered with:

  • Bar cover: for safe transport and storage of the chainsaw.

  • Chain brake/hand guard: when pushed forward it stops the chain from moving, and it engages automatically when kickback occurs; it also protects the left hand and forearm from the chain, branches etc.

  • Chain catcher: this component on the underside of the chainsaw restrains the chain if it breaks or becomes derailed.

  • On/off button: instantly switches the engine off.

  • Muffler cover guard (for petrol chainsaws).

  • Throttle lock lever: this is located on top of the rear handle and, when pressed, it releases the throttle lock (which prevents the chain from being driven accidentally).

  • Handguard: located on the underside of the rear handle, it protects the operator’s right hand in case of a chain breakage.

The rules for safe use of chainsaws

So, here is how to use a chainsaw safely. Before starting:

  • Make sure the working area is clear, well-lit and free from electrical cables.

  • Reschedule the task if it's raining or the work area is damp, especially if you have a battery-powered chainsaw or an electric chainsaw.

  • Use petrol chainsaws only outdoors or in well-ventilated areas (the exhaust fumes are toxic).

  • Keep people and pets at least 10 m away (this safety distance is increased in the case of tree felling).

  • Wear the personal protective equipment necessary for chainsaw use (see the previous section of this article).

For petrol chainsaws, refuelling must be done with the engine switched off and cold. Be sure to clear up any fuel leaks and move at least 3 m from the place where you refuelled before starting the chainsaw. If you have a battery-powered or electric chainsaw, make sure the on/off switch is in the OFF position before connecting it to the battery or mains. Regardless of the chainsaw’s power supply, the chain brake must be engaged when starting, and released only when you are cutting.

How should you hold a chainsaw safely when working? Firmly and with both hands, with the left hand gripping the front handle and the right hand on the rear handle (the same also applies for left-handed users); maintain an encircling grip with your thumbs and fingers wrapped completely around the handles. It's the best way to stay in control of the machine, especially in the event of kickback. There is a (very risky) exception to this hard and fast rule: when professionals use a pruning chainsaw one-handed while climbing.

We have referred several times to “kickback”. This is when the guide bar is suddenly thrown up and back towards the operator. It can happen when the top part of the tip (nose) at the end of the guide bar contacts something. Whenever you use a chainsaw, take all possible precautions to prevent kickback:

  • Don’t cut with the tip of the guide bar.

  • Cut wood from top to bottom, i.e. with a “pulling chain”: this is the safest and most controlled way to use a chainsaw.

  • Avoid sawing from the bottom up, i.e. with a “pushing chain”, because this can push the chainsaw back towards you.

  • Don’t use a chainsaw above shoulder height, instead keep it below waist level.

  • Make sure that the tip of the guide bar does not hit the ground or objects such as branches, the trunk, tools, etc.

When working, adopt a stable position and be careful if the ground is wet, slippery, sloping, bumpy, littered with branches, and so on. Keep your back straight and, if necessary, straighten your legs instead of bending the knees. Work at a leisurely pace and don't cut while balancing on a ladder.

When the chainsaw is running, never hold it with the rear handle only (your right hand might inadvertently activate the throttle). Instead, hold it from the front handle and with the chain brake engaged. Activate the chain brake if you move around while working. Never leave a running chainsaw unattended; if you need to stop briefly, lock the chain with the chain brake, otherwise turn off the engine.

Before cutting with the chainsaw make sure that:

  • The wood to be sawn is in the correct position (e.g. securely fixed to a sawhorse if you are cutting up firewood).

  • The blade doesn’t get stuck in the kerf.

  • The wood isn’t under tension (which can happen with a branch or trunk).

  • No twigs are blocking or caught in the chain.

  • The chain doesn’t strike the ground or anything else after cutting through the wood.

When the job is done and the machine is switched off, to transport the chainsaw safely you should engage the chain brake, refit the bar cover, grasp the machine by the front handle and carry it with the guide bar pointing behind you.

Did you know that chainsaw maintenance and safety go hand in hand? A sharp, well-tensioned chain, together with good chain and guide bar lubrication, makes work safer and less tiring. A blunt or incorrectly sharpened chain may actually increase the risk of kickback, while a loose chain can easily derail itself from the guide bar. On this subject, you can read our articles on how a chainsaw oil pump works and how and when to sharpen the chain, together with our lowdown on chainsaw maintenance.

Does your petrol chainsaw fail to start first time? It may be a carburettor problem, so find out why a chainsaw gets flooded and how to prepare fuel mixture properly. Before taking your machine for a service, check what you can do if a chainsaw stalls immediately after starting.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) for chainsaw users

You need to wear suitable clothing in order to work safely with a chainsaw: overalls aren’t sufficient by themselves, you also need suitable personal protective equipment. Don’t wear baggy clothing, scarves, bracelets and anything that can get caught in the machine.

Basic PPE for chainsaw users includes:

  • Face shield or protective spectacles

  • Noise filtering ear defenders or earplugs

  • Chain-resistant jacket

  • Chain-resistant trousers (or alternatively, anti-cut protection dungarees or leggings)

  • Chain-resistant gloves

  • Chain-resistant boots

To guard against falling objects (branches, pieces of wood, etc.) it is essential to wear a protective helmet. All PPE should bear the CE mark and an indication of the EN standard with which they comply.

Chain-resistant clothing is identifiable by a label depicting a shield containing a chainsaw. Cut-resistant clothing, footwear and accessories are subdivided into different protection classes based on the maximum chain speed they can withstand: find out more here in our article on chain-resistant forestry clothing.

Don't have a chainsaw yet? Here is a guide to help you choose a chainsaw and related accessories.

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