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  • Paul Kirkley

    Article: Kickback – the thoughts of a victim’s father

    At 16:35 on a Friday in February 2016 at the end of a working week, only a few weeks after his 32nd birthday, my son Alex was killed close to home in Oxford, by the kickback of a top-handled chainsaw.

    After three years as an arborist in New Zealand, Alex had recently returned to the UK, was glad to be home and life was good. And just a few days previously he’d said that he was happiest when working up in trees.

     

    Alex was known for safe working, was well-secured, weather and light conditions were good and the Health and Safety Executive’s report to the Coroner on the chainsaw revealed nothing wrong.

     

    However, the chainsaw cut through almost to his spine, severing the jugular vein and artery in the right of his neck, resulting in catastrophic blood loss and then heart failure. He dropped the saw and reached instinctively for his neck, but had no time even to cry out before slumping into his harness, unconscious. Within seconds, his aerial-rescue colleague was up the tree (un-roped) attempting to stem his blood.

     

    The tree in which Alex died

    A free-climbing paramedic soon joined them but, without first lowering Alex 20ft to the ground, could do little except find a pulse. The ropes jammed, so had to be severed to drop him the last 5ft without further delay.

     

    The autopsy later revealed that the cut ends of Alex’s blood vessels had retracted – making both maintaining circulation and adequate fluid replenishment impossible.

     

    This was not obvious immediately and, as he was young and fit, paramedics and hospital staff worked tirelessly to try to save him until he was certified dead at 18:30.

     

    At the site next morning I was shocked by the amount of blood around the tree. His sister and her fiancé were similarly affected by the sight three days later. Both are doctors and recognised that survival of such a wound was impossible. Professionalism again took over when we went to identify his body and, amidst tears, they even checked the size of his wound.

     

    They said that, even if Alex could have been saved, loss of blood to the right of his brain would have caused a stroke down his left side and a severance of nerves would have paralysed his right arm. That would have been a terrible future for any arborist keen on active outdoor life.

     

    It took me some weeks to understand that Alex fell unconscious almost immediately, so thankfully could not have suffered. Messages of condolence conveyed what an inspiration Alex had been to many people both in UK and NZ so, even whilst grieving, his family and friends found much joy in how he had lived.

     

    Alex was single, with no children. Tragically, just one year on, Greg Bulbec died in similar circumstances, at the same age, leaving a partner and child. My thoughts are with them.

     

     

     

    Alex held by his climbing rope for his only ride in the car I found for him

    Alex held by his climbing rope for his only ride in the car I found for him

     

    Alex was laid to rest, in woodland, by fellow arborists. And trees have now been planted or dedicated in his memory in many places. However, I would like his lasting legacy to be prevention of at least one death each year from kickback, although we can never know whose.

     

    Aiming to reduce deaths from kickback might seem ambitious. However, it will be worth trying if this also results in far fewer crippling injuries and near-death experiences. We can do this through awareness-raising, training and further improvements in the design and use of top-handled chainsaws.

     

    We should already be well on the way, as older equipment is gradually superseded or adapted to take advantage of recent improvements. Unfortunately, some of those developments, such as lightweighting, might have increased the risk of kickback by inadvertently overtaking current safety measures.

     

    For example, the original standards for non-manual (‘inertia’) chain-brake operation were developed for rear-handled chainsaws, whereas none are written specifically for top-handled chainsaws which kick-back faster than the standards suit.

     

    In comparison with rear-handled chainsaws, top-handled chainsaws are smaller, lighter, have a low moment of inertia (so kickback faster) and can be used in confined spaces much closer to the body.

     

    When using a rear-handled chainsaw, especially with a locked left elbow, the force of kickback might knock you off your feet, but it should throw the machine in a wide arc above your head, giving the ‘inertia’ chain-brake plenty of time to operate.

     

    The standard requires manual chainbrakes to stop the chain within 0.150 (3⁄20th) sec.

     

    And while a non-manual ‘inertia’ chainbrake is triggered differently, it uses the same braking mechanism, so must take a similar time to stop.

     

    Saw chains typically run at 45mph (66ft/s), so will cause kickback at about this speed.

     

    For top-handled chainsaws, the designed ‘hands together’ position (one-handed or not) ensures that your grip cannot prevent it pivoting around your wrists during kickback. So the saw-tip MUST hit you, unless you adopt a safe working position.

     

    At 66ft/s, with a 12-inch chain-bar, kickback tracing a small 3ft arc would reach your neck in about 0.050 (1⁄20th) sec.

     

    If that happens, I can guarantee that you won’t have seen kickback coming, because that’s just half the human reaction time (as used by Highway Code braking tables).

     

    And, even if fully compliant with chainbrake operating standards, the chainsaw could continue to cut through to your spine for a further 1 ⁄10th sec before the chain stops (longer if the functioning of the ‘inertia’ brake operation is not confirmed frequently, or the chainsaw is inadequately maintained).

     

    If your chainsaw has a tip-guard, so cannot kickback, it might seem a bit less adaptable in use, but it would be much safer. If it doesn’t have a tip-guard, never use a top-handled chainsaw while the chain bar is aligned with your body unless you are fully trained and alert to the imminent danger. Even then, your family might prefer you to consider using a hand-tool. I would.

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    16 hours ago, ArbMish said:

    I would just like to add something that isn't exactly about work positioning but I think is relevant. This is not specific to this very sad case but may prevent others.

     

    I think the training/development of new people to Arb' work needs to change. Not in terms of tickets but when people start work with companies. I'm still relatively new to arb work so I'm talking from personal experience and that of others I know who are still relatively new in the industry. Very often you are pushed hard and expected to work quickly..which often leads to rushing..this then leads to corners being cut..one of which is often work positioning. I have found myself many times about to cut because I feel I need to be faster only to check myself and realise my positioning is not adequate. The amount of times I've also heard 'just one hand it' or for small branches in awkward positions when I'm using a silky because honestly when it's that awkward for me it's actually faster. I'm often asked, why I didn't just use the saw?

     

    I am lucky to work with some pretty great people now, who don't have ridiculous expectations, who do push me to work harder and better but don't push me to stupid limits. They are also excellent at explaining things to me throughout the job, regardless as to whether it effects me at the time or not. However as the above probably suggests this has not always been the case. My best (or worst as it were) example of this is this incident:

     

    The first company I worked for we were worked hard and fast and on the job training rarely seemed to happened. One day I was sent to fell some trees behind a barn at the yard because brash was needed for new guys chipper tickets. The boss asked me to fell a tree in 60 seconds. He told me I should be able to... I'll put this in perspective, despite having the relevant ticket I had rarely been given the opportunity to fell anything. This tree was bigger than the bar length of my saw, something I had never tackled AND it was down a very steep bank (the kind you slide down rather than walk), the barn wall was a couple of meters or so behind the tree so my escape routes were over a small drainage/stream that was down a foot/half foot drop behind the tree. Because of this drop finding footing behind the tree was also very difficult. 

     

    Now given my inexperience, the tree positioning and the boss standing at the top of the bank telling me to get it done in 60 seconds I was under a lot of pressure. But it took me shouting at him to get him to explain how I should make a gob cut when the tree is bigger than bar length. Altogether he was not very happy with me. Perhaps you find the acceptable behaviour. But to me it's actions like this that put 'newbies' at a higher risk and this can be when bad habits develop as well. I feel that this is something that needs to change in order to prevent future accidents.

     

    This has turned into a longer post then intended but I hope I've got my point across.

     

    Good honest post.

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    So its the second company you have worked for and untill this unsettling episode no one has let you cut down a Tree?

     

    During which you were unable to understand how to do it as presumably you had never seen a Tree felled during your time at this,your previous company,during training or on the internet?

     

    Gotcha.

     

     

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    All too often I see terrible work positioning , absolutely shocking , some from apparent training vids from people being assessed ... with a decent landyard set up for work positioning the saw or bit being rigged should never put a climber in the danger zone, it’s just pure laziness or the fact that the climber is too scared to trust there spikes and lanyard putting them in danger. .. maybe both , good work positioning is what it’s all about.

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    Just a reminder to anybody posting on this thread; Please remember the sensitive subject, show some respect for the original poster and don't turn this into a peeing competition.

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    Just a reminder to anybody posting on this thread; Please remember the sensitive subject, show some respect for the original poster and don't turn this into a peeing competition.


    Good point felix. I had only intended to add to the discussion on work positioning. I’m sorry that it seems to have gone another way.
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    RIP Alex and to his dad my heart goes out to you.
    My eldest Son is also called Alexander, he is 12 and I can’t imagine what you and your family must be going through.

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    Heartbreaking story and a frightening one. Maybe not practical but here goes.

     

     I've never used a top handle but i know that it's primarily used for Limbing the small stuff. Couldn't someone design some sort of guard that runs the length of the top of the bar and around the tip. It's obvious that when kickback happens it's the top or tip of the blade/chain that strikes you unless you lose full control and the saw becomes airborne. Just a suggestion.  

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    Edited by Stevie777

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    2 minutes ago, Stevie777 said:

    Heartbreaking story and a frightening one. Maybe not practical but here goes.

     

     I've never used a top handle but i know that it's primarily used for Limbing the small stuff. Couldn't someone design some sort of guard that runs the length of the top of the bar and around the tip. It's obvious that when kickback happens it's the top or tip of the blade/chain that strikes you unless you lose full control and the saw becomes airborne. Just a suggestion.  

     

    Not practical unfortunately.  The You need to be able to use both the top and bottom sides of the bar in use, just like you do on the ground.

    I personally don't think theres any modifications that can be practically made.  The only option is respecting the tool, and doing everything you can with regards work positioning to minimise the possibility of an accident.

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    9 hours ago, Steve Bullman said:

    Not practical unfortunately.  The You need to be able to use both the top and bottom sides of the bar in use, just like you do on the ground.

    I personally don't think theres any modifications that can be practically made.  The only option is respecting the tool, and doing everything you can with regards work positioning to minimise the possibility of an accident.

    Having watched videos of both kickback and guys using a top saw, one-handed, It scares the beejeebus out of me.  We all switch off now and again in the workplace and in everyday life. 99% of the time we get away with it. So sad and should have been avoided.

    In reply to the guy on the first page talking about employers putting on the thumbscrews. That's fine for less hazardous rolls when the only thing that's going to get hurt is your feelings, but not for potential deadly jobs such as tree felling.

     

    For what it's worth I would have rammed the saw up where the sun doesn't shine, fat end first.

     

     If you're not confident doing something, don't do it...And don't cut corners to meet anyone's target. EVER!!!

    Edited by Stevie777

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