APPARENTLY, according to my consultant, I’m a miracle of nature. This assessment, he claims, is based on my ability to heal after suffering something like 40 independent fractures following an argument with a diseased ash tree. On my first visit, only a week after the incident, he was amazed I was walking, albeit with the help of a leg brace. Now, some five weeks on, he’s given me the green light to get on the pushbike and get the joints moving. 

According to him, the recovery of ligament damage is a difficult thing to predict, depending very much on the individual’s ability to heal, and can take anything from two to seven months. The consultant went on to add that occasionally someone appears who trashes the rule book and he seems to include me in this particular category. However, I won’t let all of this go to my head as I’m well aware of the consequences if I try to progress too quickly. You hear horrific stories of individuals who’ve tried to run before they can walk, so I’m just following advice and doing exactly what he proposes.


I’ve had a weakness in my knee for about 15 years, which I’d always put down to stretched tendons brought about by felling trees for processors prior to the arrival of harvesters. During this period my knees got a hammering, levering hundreds of trees a day. The problem, it seems, is not tendon trouble but arthritis, and so the advice to ‘keep moving’ applies more generally, which makes it logical to reintroduce the pushbike into my weekly routine. A near-death experience makes any individual evaluate their lives. It looks like my time in the woods is coming to a close. I can’t risk driving the old Cat as you have to steer with your feet and knees and having compounded the damage to that area of my body it looks like it’s the sawmill from now on. Of course, I’ll still be keeping my hand in trimming logs and cross cutting.

I returned to the sawmill only a week after the accident and only two days after coming out of critical care. The main reason for this was nothing to do with bravado, but as I’m the only person who can operate the main saw then further delays would probably have resulted in the staff losing their jobs. Thankfully, I operate the saw from the luxury of an armchair and I managed to work until 2 or 3 am each day, which provided enough material for the lads to process. I got through the first few weeks this way, until things began to improve and – can you believe it – just as I was beginning to hobble around on my leg brace, I received a visit from my best friends, the HSE!

Trying to keep the sawmill operational during this period, with so many personal injuries, has meant keeping any undamaged limbs or digits firmly crossed in the hope that nothing breaks down. The main saw is a fairly tall structure at five metres high and, like anything mechanical, it needs constant cleaning and maintenance. I have a well-practised routine which involves sawing for about 45 minutes, tidying for 15 minutes (removing bark and sawdust residues) while reloading sawlogs if required, then repeating. It’s never more than 45 minutes between tidying. If I ever get a visit from HSE they always accuse me of not tidying the vicinity of the saw, believing any accumulation is historical. I’ve learned that it’s pointless telling them the truth as they just don’t believe me. They seem to think I cut about two logs in a day, then hoover the premises without any understanding of just how much you need to cut to make a living. On the day they arrived we were busy moving a hydraulic control chest.

In order to maintain the sawmill’s carriage I have constructed quite a complex staircase and walkway which has been a real lifesaver. Prior to its construction I had to climb up the headriggs and then tip-toe along the rails the carriage runs on. This was a pretty risky process as not only was I high up, but the rails were very slippery.

In fact, I know of several instances where people have been injured carrying out maintenance on similar machines. The stairwell and walkway have meant that even in my current ‘delicate’ state I’ve been able to carry out one or two minor repairs.

Along the top of the carriage is a plastic pipe which is concertinaed and has a habit of getting in a tangle from time to time. It’s easily remedied, but on one occasion recently the same thing happened to an electrical cable also running along the carriage. Seeing the problem, a member of the workforce, believing I wasn’t up to the task due to injury, placed an aluminium ladder up against the carriage in order to resolve the situation. Fortunately I spotted what was going on and intervened. By using the stairwell and walkway I quickly fixed the problem – even in my condition!

Inwardly, I gave myself a pat on the back for having the foresight to make my life not only easier but also a lot safer.

Another area of the mill giving me some irritation is the log loader. I’ve spent a good deal of time in my recovery hours trying to work out how to make the machine easier to maintain and repair. The loader is a complex unit with a host of hydraulic pipes, valve blocks and complex wiring. All of these components are built-in in such a way that there are lots of bends and turns which create wear points which are extremely difficult to access. Imagine trying to locate a broken wire, let alone gain access to it. Basically, it’s a nightmare and now even the valve block is giving me problems. It’s located under the machine and is constantly being hit by chunks of bark falling off the sawlogs.

Another thing to consider when carrying out a repair is the risk of the log loader dropping while it’s being worked on. To this end I always make sure it’s blocked securely before venturing under to repair. So, for better or worse, in my current battered state I’ve decided to insert a new system where all the electric cables and valve blocks are well clear of the loader. Only the hydraulic pipes which power the loader will go under the machine. Instead of having pipes rubbing against each other they will go straight to the service points. Hopefully this will make maintenance a lot easier in the future and should make faults a thing of the past.

So, on reflection, having survived a truly life-threatening incident which could so easily have ended my life, I have tried to streamline and improve certain aspects of the business in order to make my life easier and even more safe. But then, just as I start to get my battered brain around things with a genuine desire to implement improvements I’ve being planning for years, in walks the HSE. They then proceed to hand out notices to block off what they call ‘access to dangerous moving parts’. To be fair to the inspector concerned, he’s offered a fair amount of discretion over how I comply and doesn’t have the bullying approach of previous people, nor the dogmatic, unrealistic and impractical ‘solutions’ to problems.

Forestry Journal: Inspectors pointed out several 'areas of concern' at our writer's sawmill Inspectors pointed out several 'areas of concern' at our writer's sawmill (Image: Voice)

It’s nonetheless particularly annoying when you spend so much of your time and money on practical engineering solutions applicable to this sawmill at this time and these so-called experts come along and almost ridicule things. 

Their idea is to spend hard-earned money on items which to me are simply for show – giant signs, high-vis everything and a multitude of hats. Banging guards on everything is a very simplistic solution and doesn’t tackle the real cause of most accidents. It’s merely a sticking plaster.

The trouble here is that the HSE regulations were drawn up back in 1974. Today’s machines are much more complex and greater access is needed. Rules on the installation of guards appear to have been drawn up during the age of spinning looms and steam engines, and I think it’s time for a grown-up conversation about such matters. The HSE seems to thrive on fear and confrontation, using these rules as a cloak to hide behind and a stick with which to beat you. I really believe these so-called rules are hugely out of date and would be interested in the views of others.