July 26, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 13Comment

[Updated 9/21/11: see below]

Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk……is the familar sound around house framing and roofing jobs of the pnuematic nail gun. !Expletive! Expletive! Argh….Expletive!….is the cursing yelps from guys whose fingers, hands, and other body parts are punctured by nails inadvertently shot from these construction tools. An estimated 37,000 individuals in the US are treated annually in hospital emergency rooms for nail gun injuries. Moreover, nail guns are responsible for the most tool-related hospital admissions for workers in the construction trades. About 98 percent of the cases involve males, and it’s a 60-40 split between workers and consumers (e.g., weekend do-it-yourselfers) who sustain the puncture injuries. Kane Guthrie at Life in the Fast Lane offers some gruesome photos of nail-gun injuries from his emergency department in Australia.

Hester Lipscomb, PhD and colleagues have conducted numerous studies examining risk factors for nail gun injuries (here, here, here, here. ) The latest is a qualitative assessment of the hardware store sales personnel’s understanding of both the injury risk for nail gun users and the safety differences between the two trigger mechanisms. (The most common—a “contact” or “bump fire” trigger—allows the nail to discharge anytime the nose and the trigger mechanism are both depressed. The newer “sequential” design requires the nose be depressed before the trigger is engaged which makes it more difficult to unintentionally discharge nails.) Sixty-eight percent (68%) of nail-gun related emergency room visits involved those with “contact-triggers,” according to an analysis by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The researchers approached sales people in 217 stores (building supply, home improvement, lumber yards, tool outlets) in six States as if planning to buy a nail gun. They gave the sales people a chance to provide information about the tool’s safety features, and if it wasn’t offered, the researcher asked questions like:

“I have heard there are differences in the triggers on these tools. Can you tell me anything about those?”

The authors report their findings “Buyer beware: Personnel selling nail guns know little about dangerous tools” in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Overall, only 41 percent of the 217 salespeople provided the shopper-researcher with any safety information and only 24 percent mentioned any difference in the trigger mechanisms. Sixty-two percent of the sales people indicated they’d used a nail gun, and those individuals were nearly three times more ilkely to provide safety information to the shopper-researchers. The researchers report on the full-range of good and bad advice provided by the store employees. In the category of appropriate safety information, the researchers heard:

“brace parts to be nailed without putting body parts in the line of fire,”

“use only nails designed for tool being used and the job being done,”

“avoid speed when working with the tool,”

“avoid knots in the wood, other nails, or metal attachments (such as joist hangers) as we were nailing since they could cause nails to ricochet”

It was more common however for the sales people to provide incorrect information; it happened with 74% of them. The authors heard the following:

“No training is necessary; you just have to get used to how it feels.”

“You would have to be an idiot to shoot yourself with one of these.”

“No way you can hurt yourself with these. They don’t fire like a gun. You have to have the nose pressed down to fire so there is no way you can shoot yourself.”

The authors note that this latter comment

“fails to acknowledge that a tool with contact actuation held with the trigger depressed will fire a nail into anything the nosepiece touches whether that is a board, the user’s thigh or another person.”

The authors’ conclusion is that at the present time, contractors, do-it-yourselfers, and other users of pneumatic nail guns should be cautious about relying on the typical sales person to describe accurately the safety risks of this popular piece of equipment. They suggest, however, that points of sales (and rental) locations for construction tools could serve as “excellent potential venues to influence” the tools selected and the safety attitude conveyed to customers (users) of it.

[9/21/11 Update: OSHA and NIOSH issued a publication “Nail gun safety: a guide for construction contractors.” ]

13 thoughts on “Buyer beware when purchasing nail guns, salespeople know little about safety risks

  1. I’m glad I’m the first to let you know that there will still be accidents. My brother-in-law, an experienced carpenter who put the fear of God into me about triggering nail guns was the one who attempted to staple his wrist to the side of a house. We were on scaffolding and took a few minutes to get down, and by the time we got to some pliers the swelling precluded my playing doctor and yanking it out. The hospital was close by, but the emergency room personnel said they see this type of injury all the time, so they didn’t treat it with any urgency.

    My brother-in-law missed a day of work (no sick days, no pay) and went back to the nail gun.

    I have many air tools. I only cringe using the ones with brads, staples or nails. Ouch.

    My advice is to never buy a dangerous tool until you have used one somewhere else.

  2. Wow! those statistics are shocking, even if the research results aren’t. I’m not sure from reading the abstract whether they were testing professional construction sales people or hourly workers at Home Depot, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if the people at Home Depot aren’t the best resources for tool use information. But either way, its unfortunate that they aren’t providing good safety information. That said, I’m not sure its fair to hold them responsible for providing this information: their job is to sell tools not to scare people out of buying them.
    I just hope there are some good safety instructions included in the packaging – not Ikea instructions, but actual helpful instructions with more than stick figures and actual words. Maybe even some videos. It sounds like they’re needed.

  3. Safetv,
    Here’s more from the authors about the sales personnel: “It may not be surprising that sales personnel we talked with did not know much about nail guns they were selling. These are not highly paid or trained individuals, and they typically sell lots of tools and pieces of equipment. ….Outlets selling primarily to contractors were more likely to offer safety information and understand trigger differences; still only half of these vendors offered safety information and less than half had appropriate knowledge of trigger differences, which we found surprising.”

    The authors also noted: “…a number of the sales personnel who were not familiar with the tools were willing to open up boxes and dig for [the safety] information. Making this information more recognizable on the box could be of assistance to sales personnel who are likely to be selling hundreds of different tools.”

  4. Thanks, Celeste! That is nice to hear.
    I’d be interested in future research dealing with how many people who want to buy nail guns and other such tools even ask about the safety information. One of my major concerns as DIY gets to be more popular is that people purchasing power tools are unaware of how hazards are associated with the tasks they are looking to do.
    Its partly why I really support the congressional push for Table saw Safestop/Safety Break features. Most people purchasing inexpensive saws are probably not well educated in using them safely. A real protective feature would likely do a lot of good.

  5. Do the nail guns come with a manual? Do folks bother to read the manual? I suspect the manual contains detailed instructions for use and safety warnings. Part of the issue is that before you use a tool you should read the manual and also go to the web to get safety information. For another example, how many folks use eye protection, a safety cap and leg chaps with a chain saw as safety rules require. I just checked and there is lots of safety info on the web. Note that perhaps the pull the trigger for each nail models are safer than the hold the trigger and bump the nose models. Actually the insurance companies could fix the issue by charging higher premiums for the continuous fire models, in their workmans comp mode.

  6. We did not need a study to let us know that staff at Home Depot know little about nail guns. How much do they know about chainsaws, lawn mowers, circular saws, drills,the list is endless. You cannot expect them to know these things. As a consumer you have the responsibility to review the owners manual and all warnings that are on the box and tool and follow them. RTFM read the frieking manual safety is al over the document. Stickers are on the tool with symbols even an idiot can understand this. Safety covers the first pages. I have three nail guns from framing to staples. Once again the Nanny society at work. If people are to stupid not to read the frieking manual they should hot be using a nail gun or any other tool. Many workers bypass the spring at the tip. I find this all the time on my job sites. The workers using nail guns make a decision to remove the spring, they claim it is faster. This disables the bump mechanism. Not acceptable we fine and kick them off the job. I do agree that the number of injuries is high. Additional analysis needs to be conducted to find out more about these injuries. But shooting nails inadvertenly??? Come on, you pull the trigger and bump and the nail comes out. Learn how to use the tool. Keep your finger off the trigger and do not bump into the tool. Know where your fingers and body parts are at all times.

  7. Reading the manual is indeed something everyone should do, but it’s generally something you do *after* having purchased the product. When it comes to deciding whether to purchase a “contact” or “sequential” nail gun, you probably haven’t seen the manual and don’t know that one is less risky than the other. It would be helpful if salespeople could tell potential purchasers the difference before they buy.

  8. More and more you can get a copy of the Manual online before purchase if you so desire. Look under the support or equivalent tab on the manufactures web site. (Done so folks who loose the manual can’t say they did not have a way to get one).
    Note that in addition for most tools one can look for safety information on the class of tool involved (nail gun, chain saw, lawnmower, ladder…)
    Generally you can look for type of device safety tips as a start.

  9. Does the research indicate that it is safer to use a sequential type nail gun? Are there less injuries using a sequential type nail gun? All manufacturers offer a kit to make it sequential. If it is sequential or contact and you pull the trigger and you are pressing the tip against something the nail is going through it. Operator error. Learn how to use the frieking tool. Are we going to have to put labels similar to the ones you see on hair dryers not to drop it in water, or trigger mechanisms to make it idiot proof. Again the Nanny society at work.

  10. safemba,
    If you reread the article, it does seem that there is a lot of evidence indicating that sequential nail guns are safer (less injuries, less opportunity for unintended firing).

    I agree that people should learn how to use the tool, but there is always a learning curve, and none of us want the purchaser of a new tool to be injured as they try to learn the quirks of their new machine. And nail gun neophytes asking about ‘which is safer’ should likely be steered toward the safer type of tool… whether by some simple signage in the stores explaining some of the differences in different types of tools or by knowledgeable salespeople.

    I don’t think this is about the nanny state, I think its about creating environments that promote safety, even for people who aren’t experts.

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