By Michael Tain
Professional tree care personnel deal with a vast amount of organic debris, brush, branches, and wood on a regular, if not daily, basis. And although some clients may provide the pleasure of simply leaving the mess in place, most of them expect all of a tree’s pieces and parts, not to mention the sawdust, leaves and chips, to have disappeared before the big trucks leave the driveway.
Any tree person who has had the pleasure of “slicing and dicing” brush in the back of a pick-up truck to fit as much as possible, or loading individual pieces of wood by hand into a dump truck can appreciate the availability and use of chippers. This motorized equipment performs the “magic trick” of making all the debris disappear much more efficiently. Yet, as with the addition of any piece of equipment to a work site, the safe and effective operation of it is a vitally important skill for all crew members to have.
The obvious first step for safe operation in any tree care activity is the use of all required and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). The minimum requirements for chipper operation include a hard hat or helmet, eye protection and hearing protection — this is of course in addition to the operator’s appropriate work clothing and footwear. Although chain saw-resistant lower body protection is not required for chipper operation, its use can certainly be beneficial and increase efficiency. The additional layer afforded by chaps or chain saw pants can offer some protection and padding from thorns, limbs, and branches as brush is fed into the chipper. Should chain saw operation be required, the already-worn chaps will save a step and time, thus increasing efficiency.
Face screens, typically part of an integrated forestry hard hat or helmet system, can help shield the face from whipping branches and limbs as the chipper consumes debris. However, users should remember that wire mesh face screens do not qualify as eye protection under the ANSI Z133.1-2006 requirements, so appropriate safety glasses or goggles must be worn in addition to the screen.
Among other personal apparel safety concerns that chipper users should be aware of are items such as dangling jewelry, loose or torn clothing, long unsecured hair, and gauntlet-style gloves. All of these can, and have, become entangled in brush during chipper use; and have sometimes led to not only serious injuries, but also fatalities.
Curbside or roadway chipper operation will also require the use of appropriate high-visibility clothing/headgear and the establishment of a properly marked safe work area. In general, the use of high-visibility clothing/headgear is an excellent idea in tree care operations, as it helps increase the visibility of all crew personnel to one other, regardless of individual work location.
A wide variety of chippers are available from numerous manufacturers, and all are equipped with features intended to make their use as safe as possible. All crew members should be aware of, and trained in, the particular safety and operational features of their specific brand of chipper — and use them appropriately and as intended by the manufacturer. Being unaware of, untrained on, ignoring, or even disabling chipper safety features has led to more than a few injuries and fatalities in the industry. Additionally, crew members should ensure that all safety features and equipment are regularly inspected and maintained by qualified personnel for proper operation.
Efficient chipper operation is by no means exclusive or separate from safe chipper operation. In fact, the two topics must go hand in hand. And a case could be made that efficiency at the expense of safety is a losing proposition — one that will, sooner or later, lead to an accident or injury that wipes out any perceived savings in time and money.
Chipper operators must never reach into the feed area or attempt to kick brush or pieces of wood into the feed wheels. A chipper is designed to take woody debris; crush, cut and digest it; and then spit it out at a high rate of speed. Chippers do not distinguish between branches/wood and flesh/bone, and will treat both materials in the same manner. Reaching or kicking into the feed area is an excellent way to end up as part of the chip pile or landscape. Should a smaller piece or branch need to be pushed into the feed wheels, operators must use a push paddle, if present, or a longer limb or piece of wood to maintain a safe distance.
Users should feed brush and limbs into the feed wheels while standing off to one side or the other of the table, and move away from the chipper once the wheels have gripped the piece. The curb or right side of the chipper, where most operational controls are located, is preferable, particularly in a roadside work environment.
The feed wheels, depending on the model of chipper, may be oriented horizontally or vertically; and crew members must be aware of, and prepared for, violent movement of the end of the piece as it is seized by the wheels. Vertically mounted wheels most commonly produce movement from side to side, while horizontally mounted wheels will generate an up and down motion. Although it is certainly acceptable to move brush or logs to the chipper under each arm, feeding them into the wheels in this manner is quite unsafe, as the hapless brush hauler will either be squeezed between the ends of the logs or branches by a chipper with vertical feed wheels, or lifted violently up and down by ones horizontally mounted.
Operators using chippers that do not have an automatic feed system, one that senses and automatically adjusts feed wheel speed in conjunction with engine rpm or other factors, should take a safe position at the feed bar and control the speed of “bite” of the chipper accordingly. Failure to do so can lead to a variety of jams, blockages and stoppages with the chipper. Those using chippers without a mechanical feed system must be aware of how quickly and violently, dependent on rpm, the piece may be removed from their grasp — and act accordingly.
Larger brush chippers are often equipped with integrated winches that can greatly increase the ease and efficiency of feeding their insatiable appetites. But users must be aware of the limitations and load limits of not only the winch itself, but also the cordage or cable it uses. Operators should also ensure that the winch line is properly stored out of the way prior to chipping the piece hauled by it. “Dirty” brush; limbs with sand, mud or gravel on them; and rakings should not be fed into the chipper, as these will all degrade chipper operation and performance extremely quickly, often leading to unsafe operating conditions.
A general examination of the work site and its challenges/obstacles and a work plan developed accordingly will usually lead to fairly efficient chipper use. Often, the easiest steps to take will be the most efficient. The largest consumer of time when chipping is typically the distance the brush must be hauled, whether manually or by equipment — so the closer the chipper can be safely located, the better. A common combination on some jobsites is an aerial lift mounted on a truck with a chip body or forestry package, and also towing the chipper. This particular set-up often leads to less-than-perfect placement for both the aerial lift and the chipper, as the crew tries to compromise for both operations. Greater efficiency might be gained in some cases by placing the aerial lift in the best spot for its use, and either using rigging techniques to reduce the haul distance to the chipper, or simply deferring chipping altogether until all the brush is on the ground, and the chipper can be most advantageously positioned.
Some companies and organizations do not allow chipping operations at the same time a climber or aerial lift operator is aloft due to noise levels and their effect on communications. Whether this policy exists or not in a particular work group, communication between crew members is a key factor for safe chipping operations, and should be part of everyday work practices and procedures. When attached to a truck for towing, safety chains from the chipper to the vehicle should be attached correctly and crossed beneath the chipper’s tongue. Conversely, when detached from the truck, chipper tires should be chocked, or the chipper somehow secured in place.
The amount of chips likely to be generated when the job is first examined or bid should be considered and planned for accordingly, as a chipper sitting idle with a huge pile of brush waiting for an empty truck to return is a sad sight indeed. Additionally, larger clearing jobs or significant removals may require multiple chippers and trucks, if possible, for peak efficiency. Even the simplest tasks, such as raking up small twigs and leafy debris, can benefit from an examination with an eye toward efficiency. The use of brush tarps to collect and haul smaller items, or simply raking toward the chipper whenever possible will save small amounts of time individually, but large chunks collectively over the course of numerous jobs.
The use of a handheld or backpack blower can be quite advantageous in chipper clean-up operations; but as many crew leaders have discovered, some personnel may have an overwhelming urge to use it far too early or far too often. Blowers are best suited for the final “finishing touches” of the clean-up process; and should rest safely in the truck until then.
Brush chippers have evolved and manufacturers have implemented many time-, back-, and life-saving features into their individual models. This is a process that will most assuredly continue. But, just as with any piece of equipment, the best engineering and design accomplishes little or nothing if there is not a well-informed, appropriately trained, and safety-conscious operator at the controls. Hopefully, the information discussed here, albeit basic and general, will assist in the process of developing just those users and operators.
Michael (House) Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.