Photos by Brett McLeod.
The U.S. Department of Labor ranks logging as the second most dangerous occupation in America (after commercial fishing), based on a fatality rate of 102.4 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers. The chance of injury or death is even greater for farmers, homesteaders and weekend warriors, who are generally less experienced and tend to use equipment that is potentially more dangerous (i.e., open tractors instead of enclosed skidders; chain saws rather than mechanized feller-bunchers).
Fortunately, working in the forest can be relatively safe with proper training. Strict occupational safety requirements in Scandinavia throughout the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation and adoption of innovative safety techniques worldwide.
One of the earliest promoters of these new, safer techniques was a Swedish logger, Soren Eriksson, who offered an alternative to the conventional 45-degree notch for felling trees. The persistence of the conventional notch can largely be attributed to the use of crosscut saws in the 19th century, where the flat undercut was bisected by a 45-degree scarf using an ax. When loggers migrated from crosscut saws to chain saws in the first half of the 20th century, they continued to use the conventional notch.
Eriksson offered a new notch and an entirely new approach to timber harvesting that allowed the logger greater control and safety. Known as the "Swedish Felling Method," it relies on a wide, open-faced notch (70 to 90 degrees) that offers greater control, as well as a bore cut that allows for safe setting of wedges.
Conventional 45-degree notch.
While the open-faced notch and bore cut were seen as revolutionary, Eriksson approached logging as more than just tree felling; he insisted on proper safety equipment and efficiency in motion. Loggers noted that the marriage between safety and efficiency led to increased production and, ultimately, increased profits. With a small handful of indoctrinated loggers in the early 1980s, Eriksson launched the Game of Logging program as a way to promote friendly competition and also as a tool to stress the necessity of having a "winning plan" for safely working in the forest.
In addition to teaching proper techniques, the Game of Logging program also promotes the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE. For chain saw work, the following are considered essential: safety orange ANSI-approved helmet with full face protection and ear protection; chain saw chaps or cutting pants; leather gloves; and steel-toed boots.
Today, the Game of Logging program is active in 30 states. In the Northeast, courses are offered through six different training organizations using Certified Game of Logging Instructors. The Game of Logging consists of four levels of training and is open to professional loggers as well as forest landowners, natural resource agencies, or any other individual or organization wanting to learn safe woods skills.
Level one of the course focuses on precision felling techniques and includes topics related to PPE, emergency planning, chain saw safety features, notching techniques and the five-step felling plan.
Level two emphasizes saw performance, including maintenance, saw tuning and proper sharpening techniques. Level two also focuses on safely limbing trees, one of the more dangerous aspects of chain saw work. Finally, students learn how to safely cut "spring poles," which are smaller-diameter trees under tension that can pose significant danger to untrained chain saw operators.
The open-faced notch.
Level three teaches advanced felling and bucking techniques. This includes managing trees with side lean, as well as releasing hung trees.
Level four focuses on forest operations and addresses topics such as preplanning, harvest layouts and conservation strategies for minimizing environmental impact.
These hands-on courses generally have eight to 10 participants, with students receiving individualized instruction. While the courses have a classroom component, most of the time is spent in the forest, where students learn by doing.
In recent years, the Game of Logging program has seen increased participation from landowners looking to assume a greater role in the management of their forestlands, from trail construction to firewood procurement and maple syrup production.
Setting a wedge for directional felling.
Forestry schools have also noted the importance of Game of Logging training. Paul Smith's College, located in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, was the first forestry school in the Northeast to require all of its forestry students to pass Game of Logging training. The college is among the six certified training centers in the Northeast. Hans Michielen, forestry faculty and Certified Game of Logging Instructor at Paul Smith's College, describes how attitudes toward woods safety have changed:
"When I began teaching Game of Logging methods in the early 1990s, there was lots of pushback. People thought they didn't need to learn new methods, or safety gear for that matter. Today, students, professional loggers and forest landowners get it - they seem more open to learning safe techniques and understand the costs of cutting corners."
Michielen also describes how the Game of Logging has become more specialized: "In the beginning, the program was mostly used by loggers. Today, in addition to the standard four-level training, we offer courses that focus on ATV and low-impact logging; forest management, including forest ecology; and arborist training."
Regardless of whether you work in the woods daily or only pick up a chain saw a couple times a year, proper training will not only make you safer, but also more efficient. The myth that the tree, not the logger, decides where it falls is among the most satisfying of fallacies to dispel. Michielen gets a big grin on his face as he describes the art of felling difficult and potentially dangerous trees.
"None of this needs to be dangerous; we have techniques that allow us to remedy most any problem we encounter in the woods," he says. "Students are always in awe when they learn that the tools of physics can be used to overcome trees with extreme lean or, most dangerous of all, trees under tension. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing - to have a safe and productive day in the woods, where we feel good about what we've done and can return the next day to continue doing what we love."
The author is an assistant professor of forestry and natural resources at Paul Smith's College.