Nail Gun Accidents – Is OSHA Missing the Point?

With a recent spike in nail gun injuries, some researchers say that many tragedies could be avoided if federal authorities would ban the fastest—and most dangerous—of the devices.

Sitting in a pickup truck with a 2½-inch nail lodged in his chest, Manuel Murillo was able to call his wife on his cell phone and tell her he loved her.

Murillo’s friend and co-worker was frantically driving him down an isolated mountain road to a waiting ambulance, but Murillo stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. The Modesto Bee reported that Murillo was resuscitated briefly, but he didn’t make it.

Murillo was one of a growing number of casualties from accidents caused by pneumatic and power-actuated fasteners such as nailers and staplers. 

And now, with nail gun injuries rising at an alarming rate, some researchers say that many of these tragedies could be avoided if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would step in and ban the fastest—and most dangerous—of the devices.

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The speed and ease of use of nail guns have made them a popular tool for both professional contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike. Nail guns typically use compressed air to drive nails into wood, and they are now sold routinely in hardware stores and home improvement centers.

But the increased popularity of nail guns, combined with technological advances in power and speed, has resulted in a huge spike in nail gun-related injuries and deaths. Between 1995 and 2005, hospital emergency rooms saw a more than threefold increase in nail gun injuries, from 12,000 to 42,000, according to Hester Lipscomb, an occupational epidemiologist at Duke University.

In a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lipscomb and her colleagues found that while 40 percent of nail gun accidents occur among home consumers, 60 percent occur while the devices are in the hands of professionals. Either way, the results are grim.

“Among 1,500 workers hospitalized for nail gun injuries in 2005 … approximately 60% had foreign-body injuries and 35% had puncture wounds …. Wounds requiring hospitalization included embedded nails in the trunk, head, joints, or bones; fractures from nail penetration; and infected puncture wounds,” according to the Duke study.

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The most common type of nail gun firing mechanism is called a “contact-trip” trigger, which requires that the manual trigger and nose contact element both be depressed for a nail to be discharged. However, once the trigger is depressed, the gun will fire whenever the nose comes into contact with a surface, whether that is construction materials or a human body.

A safer, although slower, firing mechanism is called the “sequential-trip” trigger, and it requires the nose contact to be depressed before the manual trigger, rather than simultaneously with the trigger, in order to discharge a nail. This makes the unintentional discharge of nails less likely.

“Injury surveillance in the residential construction industry has indicated that approximately 65 to 69 percent of injuries from contact-trip tools likely could be prevented through use of a sequential-trip trigger,” according to the Duke study.

Lipscomb has urged federal officials to use the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause to ban contact-trip guns, The Modesto Bee reported. That clause says employers have a duty to provide a workplace free of known hazards that may cause death or serious injury.

Nail gun manufacturers say injuries do not result from any design or manufacturing defects, but rather from misuse. A spokesman for Connecticut-based Stanley Bostich, Inc. told the Bee that sequential-trip guns have a safety advantage over contact-trip guns, but that most customers prefer the latter.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll look at some steps you can take to safeguard your workers from the dangers of nail guns and other powered fasteners.