Portable Sawmill Safety

Sawmills have a well-deserved reputation as being one of the most hazardous places a person can work. My first experience was with an old Bellsaw circle mill, which in its day, was typical to find in small sawmills scattered throughout the Ozark hills. The power source was an old Massey Harris tractor, which powered the 52” diameter blade and feedworks. There were no guards or safety devices on the drive belt or the blade, which threw sawdust and golf ball-sized wood chips in random directions. Offloading the lumber and shoveling sawdust often put me within inches of the spinning blade and the belt occasionally whipped off the pulley. By the end of the day, every muscle ached, my ears were ringing, and my every nerve was on edge. Looking back, it amazes me that I kept all my fingers and toes intact. Many mill workers were not so fortunate. However, that was more than 30 years ago. Fortunately, portable sawmills have changed a lot since then.

Thin kerf band saw mills are as different from those old circle mills as a Toyota Prius is from a Model A Ford. The blade and drive belt are safely tucked behind a guard, the engine is as quiet as a yard tractor  and the operator works from a location safely behind the blade. At first glance, it would appear there is very little which can go wrong, but it is still very important to realize it is a machine designed to cut wood. Human flesh is, of course, a lot softer and easier to cut than any log. In my experience, the chances of being cut by the blade are slim, but if it happens, the consequences can be quite serious. Here are some general safety rules to keep from being cut by a sawmill blade:

safety around a sawmill blade1. Keep ALL shields and safety gear in place and in working order. Many portable sawmills, for example, have a safety switch to shut off the engine if a shield is not in place as well as an emergency shut-off switch. The mill may also be equipped with a sliding shield in front of the part of the blade, which is exposed while cutting. Other safety gear may include a brake to stop the blade when the engine is idling.

2. Wear leather gloves, especially when changing portable sawmill band blades. Even “dull” blades, when handled improperly, can cause a deep gash. Simply handling a new or freshly sharpened blade is like grabbing onto a piranha. It will bite you if you grab the wrong end.

3. Wait a reasonable amount of time to allow a blade to cool after cutting and before removing to sharpen or replace it. A recently used blade will be a hot blade.

4. If a blade happens to break or comes off the bandwheel, wait for the blade to come to a complete stop before removing the shield and shut off the engine.

5. If running a manual mill, wait for the blade to come to a stop before turning or loading a log.

6. Keep a sharp blade on the mill. It will take less force to cut the log and you will have better overall control during each cut.

With your attention on a spinning blade, it is easy to forget about other hazards. If you have help or spectators, don’t let them become distractions. It is human nature to want to help, but sometimes other people don’t use good judgment around machines; particularly those they don’t have experience with.

1. Explain the safety zones around the mill and emphasize the importance of respecting them.

2. Set up clear boundaries and make sure spectators keep out of the danger areas. This should include an area at least 10 feet from the mill and 30 feet from the sawdust exhaust side of the mill. Spectators will no doubt appreciate not being in the path of sawdust.

3. Before you start milling, make sure everyone is out of the danger area.

With the focus on a spinning blade, it is easy to forget what the log itself can do to you. A log can roll off the bed of the mill or a cant hook can slip. If loading with a winch and ramp, the winch can accidentally free-spool, dropping a heavy log back down with more than enough force to crush a leg. In any event, you should definitely be wearing steel-toed boots.

1. Make sure everyone (including you) is clear of the path the log would take if it broke loose and rolled back down the ramp.

2. If you have to adjust the angle of a log while it is being winched up a ramp, work from the end of the log not in the path the log would take if it suddenly rolled back down.

3. Keep people clear of the backside of the bed when loading or turning a log, in case it rolls off. This is especially important if using hydraulic log handling equipment.

Without question, the absolutely most dangerous thing you will do around a sawmill is running a chain saw. People who cringe at the thought of running a sawmill think nothing of starting up a chain saw and whacking away at a piece of wood. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all aspects of the safe operation of a chain saw, but here are a few of the main points.

personal protection equipment1. Wear PPE (personal protection equipment) when using a chain saw. This means chaps and a logger’s helmet, which has head, face and hearing protection. You are already wearing steel-toed boots and leather gloves, right?

2. Make sure the saw is in proper working order; including chain catcher and chain brake.

3. Use a sharp, properly tensioned chain.

4. Engage the chain brake when starting the saw and when walking with the saw while it is running.

5. Shut off the sawmill engine, while using the chain saw, to avoid unnecessary distractions.

6.  Don’t cut with the kick back part of the bar.

The second most dangerous thing you will do with a portable sawmill is hauling it down the highway. All safety issues related to trailers apply to sawmills.

1. Make sure you have the right ball/ hitch combination. Don’t use a 1-7/8” ball to tow a mill with a 2” hitch.

2. Check your trailer lights, including turn signals.

3. Make sure the trailer’s safety chain is secure.towing a portable sawmill trailer

4. If the sawmill is equipped with electric brakes and/or a breakaway breaking system, be sure to check it.

5. Make sure all jack stands on the mill are all the way up and secure.

6. Check the trailer’s tire pressure.

7. It is not advisable to haul lumber or other material/equipment on the sawmill bed, but if you do, be sure it is strapped down securely. 

Finally, there are some general safety considerations for your working environment and conditions.

1. Maintain a clean and tidy work area. Be sure to keep it clear of any debris you might trip or slip on.

2. Be prepared. There is generally little to no time to get a fire extinguisher, rake or first aid kit when you really need one. A fire extinguisher should in close proximity to where you are working and should be rated for all types of fires.

3. Don’t push yourself. If you’re tired, be sure to take a break. It is often tempting to saw one more log, even when your body is telling you not to. Fatigue can result in poor coordination and poor judgment, which can lead to accidents and injury.

4. Adapt to the weather. Stay warm, hydrated, and dry for the same reasons noted above.

5. Have a way to contact help (cell phone, CB radio, walkie talkie), especially if you are working alone or in a remote area as portable sawmills are handy to use under these circumstances.

6. Don’t even think about running a sawmill, chain saw, or heavy equipment if you are impaired by alcohol, medications, fatigue or other negative conditions.

7. Use good judgment.  Assume anything that can go wrong will and that anyone around the mill will use poor judgment at any time.

This short article does not contain every possible safety concern related to portable sawmills or other forestry equipment, but we’ve tried to hit the major points. Be sure to let us know if we’ve missed any precautions you take. There is one additional word of caution. Once you get a taste of sawmilling, you’ll very likely contract a condition known as “getting sawdust in your blood”. Once it is there, there is no known way of removing it. The only cure is to go out to the sawmill and make more sawdust! As long as you are careful, pay attention and use a common sense, it will be a safe, enjoyable and maybe even profitable affliction.

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