Voices of Forestry brings analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures across the forestry industry. This issue, Calum Duffy, owner of Duffy Skylining and an active chainsaw operator himself offers his personal thoughts on where chainsaw operators are now within the forest sector and the challenges they face.

HAVING been a chainsaw operator for 30 years I feel I have a decent understanding of the journey I have taken through the industry, seeing plenty of high points as well as low. 

When I first started there were very few harvesters and most chainsaw work was done by system felling for forwarder/skyline extraction or whole pole extracted by skidder and cross cut at roadside. It all seemed simpler then. There was a good training base and you were trained by experienced, knowledgeable operators to be productive as well as safe. These operators were compensated for their time spent mentoring you. This was one of the top-paying professions at that time. Chainsaw operators were held in high regard within the industry. 

READ MORE: Forestry Journal's Voices of Forestry: Neil Stoddart, Creel Consulting

The 'piece work' way of pay soon filtered out the ones who were just not good enough as they didn’t earn enough, but it rewarded the ones who were good by giving them a very rewarding wage. This seemed entirely fair to me and still does, though piece work is extremely rare nowadays and most operators are looking for hourly or day rates. There's nothing wrong with that, but as an employer I want to be sure I’m getting what I pay for. 

It’s undeniable that good, competent commercial chainsaw operators are becoming very hard to source. The average age of an operator is rising and the next generation of operators are not coming through fast enough. Not only that, the training has been refined to be much shorter, so newly certificated chainsaw operators are not as competent as they used to be. Trainers only have a very limited amount of time to get even the basics into someone before they are pressured to sit an assessment. Then they are qualified, but far from competent. This does not sit well with me and I’m sure a lot of trainers feel the same.

Forestry Journal: The felling of the Christmas 2021 parliamentary Christmas tree by chainsaw opertor Guy Van Der Borch. Kielder Forest, 15/11 2021.
Photo credit and copyright ©: Mark Pinder/FC England

More time should be given to this training process. Stop rushing into the assessment. I would like to see training take place, a certificate of training and a license to practice issued, then an allotted amount of consolidation of that training be recorded before a return for an assessment, very similar to the FMO system. I feel we are pushing this process too quickly and potentially losing cutters who are not quite ready for assessment, but with further consolidation would come at it. It also puts pressure on trainers/assessors to pass people they may not be comfortable with. We rely way to much on the 'tickets'.

I feel we are on the cusp of losing chainsaw operations from forestry. This would please a lot of people in the industry as statistically we would drop the serious injuries and fatalities by removing the risk. But this would not fix the problem. It would only drive it further into the shadows. 

READ MORE: APF Virtual Blog: Calum Duffy on chainsaw competence

To sustain the chainsaw operator, I think there needs to be a clear line drawn between professional commercial chainsaw operators and every other type of chainsaw operator.

Identify the operators who use chainsaws on a daily/weekly basis in the commercial workplace to a high standard. Engage the commercial industry to support these professionals – who are so badly needed – through financial gain in the form of appropriate standardised pay, recognition for their profession, continuity of work and by providing ongoing CPD in advanced felling techniques. Provide genuinely skilled, knowledgeable, time-served and practical commercial trainers to work alongside.

Next, create a place where these professional operators and trainers register themselves.

This would provide geographical cover that employers could reach out to when they require a competent chainsaw operator to perform certain tasks. That employer would know how much it would cost them to have a certain level of chainsaw operator on site and would be assured they get a competent operator for their money. This would remove a lot of the confusion about who has to deem the competency of a chainsaw operator.

Remove that responsibility from the contractor, who may not have the competence themselves to make that judgement. It would also help managers plan out chainsaw works. They could use the pool of professional chainsaw operators to get an independent assessment of the chainsaw works required if necessary. Not all management companies have the internal resources to do this competently. 

Basically, I think we need to start using the small amount of experienced operators we have left, encourage them to share their experiences and, if possible, get involved in bringing on the skill level of the less-experienced operators. If we narrow the audience down to the professional commercial operators only, then we may just have a chance of building credibility and professionalism back into this very highly skilled craft and technically demanding career. 

Now is the time to do this. Otherwise, it will soon be too late.