Safety Precautions When Working in the Woods, Part II: Mechanized Logging Operations

By Ellen S. Gibson

Logging is at the top of the list of dangerous occupations. The profession has become increasingly mechanized. Working for large landowners requires knowledge of how to operate and maintain heavy machinery and continual attention to safety protocols.

Donald BurrDonald Burr is the Safety and Training Coordinator for the Professional Logging Contractors (PLC) of Maine. The primary mission of the PLC is safety. A close second to safety is training. Burr was a mechanized equipment operator on large logging operations for over 20 years. He knows heavy machinery and teaches new operators how to run equipment, maintain it, and be safe around it. Burr’s philosophy is, “Be safe and keep your paddle in the water.”

Age is a factor in any discussion on safety concerns for logging contractors, just as it is for farmers. According to Burr, the average age of logging contractors is over 50 years of age. This is similar to the average age of farmers (57 years of age). Studies on aging show that the potential for injuries increases with age:

  • Bones become more brittle
  • Reaction time is slower
  • Less flexibility
  • Less balance
  • Vision impairments increase
  • Hearing impairments increase
  • When injuries occur, recovery time is longer

I spoke with Burr about safety on mechanized logging operations.

EG: What do you advise when contractors work alone?

DB: Generally, our crews are 2-3 people. The jobs for large landowners use big mechanized equipment, and it takes several people working simultaneously (on different machines) to keep things moving on the job site.

EG: With the advent of GPS technology, there’s less need for walking to survey the job site. At the same time, we’re learning that too much sitting is unhealthy. How do you address spending a lot of time sitting in the cab?


  • Stop and get out every two hours for bending, stretching, and moving.
  • Use getting in and out of the machine as a chance to stretch.
  • Going from 0-100 (being at rest to immediate ACTION) is a prescription for injury.
  • Hydration is a must. Drinking plenty of water means contractors have to stop to eliminate the water taken in.
  • Contractors stop midday to grease the machinery and are encouraged to take 20 minutes to walk around and stretch.
    • When he stops, even if it’s a routine break and not an emergency, an operator sends out a call to alert other operators. If for some reason he doesn’t return, other operators will come and check on the situation.

EG: What is the biggest potential for injuries in mechanized logging operations?

DB: For logging contractors, the number one way to be hurt is getting struck by something. Second is tripping and falling. [ed. note: We addressed slips, trips, and falls in a blog posted on February 1, 2021.]

We teach six guidelines to be safe when working in the forest:

1. Pay attention.

  1. Know what’s happening in front of you.
    1. If you need to be looking up, STOP. It isn’t safe to walk along looking up. You should be looking ahead and down.

2. Set yourself up for success.

  1. Keep the area clear where you are working.
  2. Be aware of the walking surface when you disembark from a machine.
    1. Is the area oily because there was a leak?
    2. Is there ice?
    3. Potential tripping hazards: uneven terrain, branches, roots, rocks, etc. require solid, steel-toed footwear.

3. Distraction is dangerous. 

  1. Cellphones, texting, etc.

4. Know your machinery. 

  1. Where is the embodied energy?
  2. De-energize it so that it isn’t going to be dangerous to you
    1. If springs are part of a mechanism, and the mechanism needs to be fixed, how do you release the energy in the spring?
    2. Hydraulic pressure
    3. Air pressure

5. Understand the force of gravity. 

  1. Is equipment balanced? How is it held in balance?
  2. When stopped, keep any appendages, like the bucket or the legs, resting on the ground.

6. Lock out/tag out.

  1. This is a procedure that operators are required to follow when they are working on their equipment. It’s an OSHA standard and protects operators as well as equipment. This is a good procedure for anyone working on a project or piece of equipment, whether it is a house, a barn, or a tractor.
    1. There are two steps: communication and de-energization.
    2. Communication: Leave a note or a tag on the machine that says “Do not operate,” and is signed by the operator or mechanic. Sometimes there will also be an announcement over the radio to alert the crew.
    3. De-energization.
      1. Provide a barrier that prevents the machine from starting. This can be as easy as locking the cab so no one can get in.
      2. Make sure all the embodied energy is taken out of the machine. This could be high pressure hydraulic, air pressure, or gravity. Gravity means making sure the bucket of the machine, or its legs, are resting on the ground. (See “know your machinery” below.) 
    4. Getting back up and running once the machine is fixed.
      1. Remove the sign.
      2. Call the dispatcher to announce the piece of equipment is back in operation.

EG: What about hard hats, which protect the head from falling objects as well as eyes and hearing?

DB: Hard hats are not required in the cabs, and hearing protection is not required unless the windows are open. Steel-toed boots are not required inside the cab. When outside of the cab, steel-toed boots, helmets with eye and ear protection, and a high visibility vest are standard safety equipment.

Safety Starts with ME

You can find more information about the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, and specifically safety trainings they are offering in 2021.

Thank you, Donald, for the work you do and for sharing this important information with Maine AgrAbility readers.