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Safe timber harvesting practices

27 September, 2011

This safety alert highlights the dangers of manual tree felling and provides information on safer timber harvesting practices.


Since July 2001, 22 workers have been fatally injured in tree felling operations. Fifteen of these fatalities occurred during manual tree felling operations. Three deaths have also been attributed to mechanical harvesting operations. This safety alert follows two recent incidents where timber workers were struck and fatally injured by falling branches or nearby saplings while conducting manual tree felling operations.

Because these fatalities occurred on private property during native hardwood harvesting operations, this alert is specifically directed at private property forest harvesting operators. However, because it highlights the potential risks of manual tree felling and mechanical harvesting operations in general, the alert is also relevant to Forests NSW hardwood harvesting operations.

Action required

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 requires employers and those in control of workplaces to take all necessary steps to ensure that safe systems of work are implemented and maintained, and that workers are provided with adequate information, training, instruction and supervision to ensure their safety.

Clauses 5 and 11 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation 2001 provide general information on dealing with risks in workplaces. Clause 5 requires employers to deal with a risk to health and safety by either fully eliminating it or, where this is not reasonably practicable, by minimising it.

If you’re an employer who needs to minimise a risk, you must take the following measures to minimise the risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level.

  1. Substitute the original hazard with a hazard of lesser risk.
  2. Isolate the hazard from the person put at risk (eg use a mechanical harvester that isolates the operator from the tree, falling branches, saplings, stags etc).
  3. Minimise the risks posed by the hazard through engineering means (eg use a mechanical harvester instead of a manually operated chainsaw).
  4. Minimise the risks posed by the hazard through administrative means (eg establish safe work practices, training, instruction and supervision, and ensure that workers are trained and accredited to operate a mechanical harvester or in manual tree felling).
  5. Ensure that chainsaw operators use personal protective equipment (ie hard hat, face shield, hearing protection, high visibility clothing, cut resistant trousers or chaps, lace up boots that provide good ankle support).

To reduce the risk of fatal incidents during tree felling operations, WorkCover NSW recommends that private property contractors use mechanical harvesting machinery, where it is reasonably practicable to do so. Otherwise, where manual chainsaw operators are required to fell trees, workers are to be trained and assessed according to recognised industry training programs.

When mechanical harvesting operations are conducted, the following is recommended.

  1. Safe operating procedures are developed for the use of mechanical harvesting equipment.
  2. Mechanical harvesting equipment is appropriate for the type and size of timber harvested and the type of terrain it is used in.
  3. Operators of mechanical harvesting equipment are competent and trained/accredited by an accredited trainer/assessor to the Forest and Forest Products Industry Training Package unit FPIHAR3214A – Operate a single grip harvester; or trained/assessed to an equivalent training course.
  4. Mechanical harvesting equipment is maintained and serviced to the manufacturer’s specifications by competent persons and records are kept of inspections and work completed.
  5. Safe operating procedures are implemented, supervised and enforced for mechanical harvesting operations.
  6. When harvesting, processing, snigging, log loading or on site transport operations are in progress, appropriate safe work procedures, inductions, signage, communication systems and emergency procedures are implemented to ensure the safety of all personnel on site.

When manual tree harvesting operations are conducted, the following is recommended.

  1. A documented risk assessment is completed for the manual tree felling operation and it details why mechanical tree felling is not practical for the harvesting operation (eg the type of timber, the type of terrain, environmental factors, and/or cost factors may mean that mechanical tree felling is not appropriate).
  2. Safe operating procedures are developed for manual tree felling operations.
  3. Manual chainsaw operators conducting tree felling operations are competent and trained/accredited by an accredited trainer/assessor to the Forest and Forest Products Industry Training Package unit FPIHAR3202A – Harvest trees manually (intermediate) or FPIHAR3212A – Harvest trees manually (advanced).
  4. Manual chainsaw operators are provided with and use all appropriate personal protective equipment (eg hard hat, face shield, hearing protection, high visibility clothing, cut resistant trousers or chaps, lace up boots that provide good ankle support).
  5. Manual chainsaw operators carry an axe and two wedges at all times when undertaking tree felling operations. Wedges can be used when felling trees that stand up. They can also be used to fell side leaning trees, when cross cutting, to prevent the saw jamming or to remove a jammed saw.
  6. Manual chainsaw operators conduct a thorough visual assessment of each tree before felling it. Assessment should include the lean of the tree, weight distribution of the crown, intergrowth with adjoining trees, hang ups, direction of fall and defects.
  7. Manual chainsaw operators are adequately supervised and regularly audited to ensure they are using safe felling techniques, which include:
    • making appropriate scarf cuts that intersect to control the direction of the tree being felled
      ensuring there is no overcutting or undercutting of the scarf cuts, which will prevent the tree standing up and not falling, as well as preventing the trunk from splitting, – this will ensure control of the tree as it is falling
    • ensuring the back cut is horizontal and placed above the scarf approximately 50mm for each 500mm of the trees diameter
      ensuring there is adequate holding wood – approximately 10 per cent of a trees diameter – to maintain control of the tree when it is falling (holding wood will need to be thicker for defective trees)
      establishing a clear escape route at 45 degrees from the stump to ensure a safe and quick escape for the chainsaw operator as the tree is falling
    • removing saplings that are in the direction of a tree’s line of fall to prevent branches/trunks from being broken off and thrown back in the direction of the chainsaw operator
      establishing good directional felling to prevent injury to the chainsaw operator, or damage to other trees and environmental areas
    • ensuring appropriate assessment and management of stags (ie dead, burnt out, rotten or storm-damaged trees) so that the chainsaw operator is not injured by them if they inadvertently fall because of vibrations from machinery, or from the impact of other trees hitting the ground. Management of stags may include their removal or isolation from the falling area.
  8. Manual chainsaw operators conduct appropriate risk assessments of the area before any tree felling takes place (ie consideration of factors such as the terrain, weather conditions, holes, hung up trees/branches, stags, operation of machinery in the fall zone).
  9. Manual chainsaw operators ensure that their chainsaw and all other equipment is in a safe condition and regularly maintained.
Source: WorkCover