“It’s always dangerous work. There is no part of that work that’s easy. And yes, the fact is, every day that I climb a tree I do risk my life,” says Shawn Michaels, as he shrugs at the fact.
The 52-year-old father has been in the forestry industry for 36 years. He’s worked on the ground as well as in the trees.
“I’ve been involved with forestry since I was 16. I first became a faller when I was 16. I would say I first operated a chainsaw when I was 11.”
His leg was also cut by a chainsaw at the age of 16. Given his background and experience, Michaels always wanted to create a safety vest for arborists.
“From the very first day that I climbed, it’s one thing getting over the fear of climbing, but then that constant realization that I’m at a greater risk because my chainsaw is always around my head and my shoulders and I have no protection.”
According to Michaels, chainsaws run at almost 70 miles per hour and the kickback from the chainsaw is strong enough to have the blades cut the arborist.
“If you consider out of 8500 professional chainsaw operators that 150 of them died, that suddenly becomes a significant number,” says Michaels. “If you have the misfortune of being part of any one of those you realize that percentages and numbers don’t adequately describe the impact that that has on individuals and families.”
A chance meeting at the Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University helped Michaels realize his dream.
“I had no intentions of reattending school. In fact, I had turned down previous opportunities to re-attend school with the idea, I’ve done that, I’m good.”
Michaels attended an open house at the design school with his daughter who was interested in programs at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. As they were leaving, they were approached by the department dean who offered to give them a tour.
“By the time we got home that afternoon I had totally changed my life,” he says. “I realized I was going to go back to school.”
Michaels was going to start as a student in the Technical Apparel program. He received financial help from the Métis nation and support from his family.
But he was walking into a cohort of mostly young students as a mature student.
“For me directly the challenge really was technology. I didn’t even think of that at the time in the period of making the decision of coming back to school, I didn’t fully understand what the implications were.”
Michaels’ youngest daughter and fellow design student stepped in.
“All the instructors here dialed in on my circumstances and helped me focus on my strengths. They really helped me with my weaknesses, either to help me accomplish it or if I couldn’t accomplish it, how can I replace it?”
“He was 100% committed to solving that problem and producing something that could become commercially available,” says tech apparel instructor, Dan Robinson. “That focus was different than most students who have broader aspirations for a career in the outdoor apparel industry, but less specificity on what they want to design.”
As he got down to work bringing his vision to life, Robinson decided to help him make it more than just a school project. He helped Michaels get a grant as part of WorkSafe BC’s Innovation at Work funding competition.
“It was a “no-brainer” to go after funding to support those next steps. His success is also KPU’s success. That is why we teach.”
Although he’s graduated, the grant helps Michaels continue to work on the project and hopefully bring it to the forestry industry in BC.
“I’ve made a liner and a shell and put Kevlar panels between the two in strategic places to better protect the operator.”
The project has gone through 23 ideations and is now headed to the lab and destructive testing.
“I’m designing upper body chainsaw to make the use of a chainsaw safe and dare I say enjoyable. Because I actually do enjoy operating a chainsaw…I like putting on my gear, I like that challenge.”
Story by Sucheta Singh