On the Edge of Reason: Replace Your Steel Sawguides with Aluminum

POST DATE Jun 16, 2016


I remember many years ago visiting the Pacific Northwest to meet with the Head Sawfiler at a local sawmill. The first thing we saw when arriving at the mill site was an ambulance. Safety is a huge concern in sawmills and seeing an ambulance is obviously not a good sign. As we pulled up to the entrance of the mill, we saw the first responders put a gentlemen into the ambulance and drive away. We approached someone who looked like a supervisor and asked for directions to the head filer’s office. The man indicated that directions would be useless for us since the person in the ambulance was the head filer. We were shocked, and asked the supervisor what happened. He replied, “Hurt his back exchanging steel sawguides in the edger.” So we left the sawmill without seeing the filer.

That particular story ends here, but this occurrence is not an isolated incident. In the years since, I have heard of more and more filers and their coworkers sustaining an injury from lifting heavy sawguides. Many edgers — both old and new — make it very difficult to move sawguides in and out. People need to get in awkward positions to remove and replace sawguides. These awkward positions coupled with some of the very heavy steel sawguides out there in the industry can and will cause back injuries. To make matters worse, many sawmills are using a lot of lubrication on the edgers, so the areas around the edger are very slippery. Combine awkward positions with heavy sawguides and slippery surfaces and you have the perfect recipe for potential back injury. 

The latter issue of lubrication causing slippery surfaces can be easily overcome by keeping areas clean and perhaps finding out why so much lubrication is being used. We sometimes laugh when we say what a mill needs is a good Lubologist. All fun aside, many mills should probably look into why they are using so much lube. Resolving this could easily increase safety while decreasing costs.

My main concern is with the sawguides themselves. Many sawguides today are very heavy because they are thick and made of steel. Steel was used in the past because many companies felt that this would make them last longer than if they were made from other materials. This may be true, but people carrying heavy steel sawguides tend to throw them around a lot more because of the frustration of carrying these heavy objects. Throwing them around or dropping them in frustration due to their weight greatly decreases the life expectancy of any sawguide.

For this reason, many sawguides today are made of aluminum. Aluminum is about one third of the weight of steel which can be a very significant difference. Going from a 50 lb sawguide to a 17 lb sawguide is very noticeable when you lift them. Think of that difference if you had to exchange sawguides in and out of sawmill edgers all day. I know what choice I would prefer.

Aluminum sawguides are not as durable as steel sawguides, but if manufactured correctly, they are a really good substitute for very heavy steel sawguides. You have to be careful as there are some really inaccurate aluminum sawguides being made out there. 

Using aluminum instead of steel makes even more sense when considering the cost of a back injury. Avoiding one back injury can literally pay for a lot of new aluminum sawguides. In addition to the cost of materials, many sawmills are having a difficult time finding saw filers for their mills. Having one of your most precious employee resources injured is not good when no substitutes are available.

It’s time for sawmills to consider replacing their very heavy sawguides with aluminum. Aluminum will not replace the thinner steel ones, but those are not the problem because they are much lighter then their thicker cousins. So the next time you consider new heavy steel sawguides, think about the potential effects just one injury could have on your mill. Think about that, and make sure you have a good lubologist to reduce the amount of coolant you use to decrease the slippery surfaces around your edgers. 

Think aluminum and save your back.


Author: Udo Jahn

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