Experienced Timber Cutter Killed While Felling Sapling



On a pleasant spring afternoon in the Appalachian Region, a timber cutter was preparing to cut a large, sawlog-sized beech tree. It appears that as he surveyed the drop zone, he realized that a small, 5” diameter sapling, located about 50 feet from the beech tree would be caught up in the top of the beech tree upon felling and would create a spring-pole hazard when he would be limbing and bucking the beech tree. He decided to eliminate that hazard by felling the 5” sapling.

Personal Characteristics

The 33-year-old timber cutter had been felling trees for all of his adult years working in the woods. He had taken a professional chain saw safety/cutting course in the distant past, and he was considered by the owner of the business that contracted with him to be a safety-conscious timber cutter. He was working alone in the woods, but another adult was sitting in a vehicle approximately 200 yards from where the timber cutter was working.

The timber cutter was wearing all appropriate personal protective equipment except a hard hat. (Although he apparently had a religious exemption from the OSHA hard hat requirement, the medical examiner stated that a hard hat would not have made a difference in this incident.)

Unsafe Acts and Condition

There was a 10” diameter, dead hickory snag in the drop zone of the 5” diameter sapling, about 25 feet away. Apparently the timber cutter figured the sapling would miss the snag or slide off it. He cut the 5” sapling, and as it was falling, he turned and started walking towards the beech tree.


As the sapling fell, the top of it brushed against the dead hickory snag. The hickory snag apparently flexed under pressure, and when it rebounded, broke loose at the base of the tree, where the side facing towards the timber cutter was decayed. The hickory snag fell toward the timber cutter as he was walking, with his back turned towards the beech tree. He was only about 15 feet from the base of the felled sapling when the hickory struck him.


The hickory snag hit the timber cutter squarely in the back of the head, neck, and shoulders, crushing them and pinning him to the ground. He was killed instantly.

Recommendations for Correction

  • All workers operating a chain saw should take a professional chain saw safety and felling course or receive equivalent, documented training.
  • Always make a complete risk assessment of all possible hazards in the work area.
  • Don’t become complacent with risk assessment due to the small size of the tree(s).
  • Take appropriate actions to eliminate or reduce the risk from identified potential hazards. Remove “danger trees” by mechanical means before beginning manual felling operations in the immediate vicinity.
  • Choose and clear a retreat path diagonally rearward from the tree’s intended direction of fall. During retreat, watch all trees being felled until they have fallen and come to a complete state of rest. After the tree is grounded, look up for hanging limbs and broken tops which may fall and look down and around for “spring poles” and other dangerous trees.
  • Timber cutters should wear hard hats and all personal protective equipment.