Steps to Prevent Nail Gun Injuries

By Roy Maurer June 28, 2013

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently published an illustrated safety guide to remind employers and workers to take caution when working with nail guns. The guidance is directed at residential home builders and construction contractors.

Nail guns are used every day, especially in residential construction. They boost productivity but also cause tens of thousands of painful injuries each year. NIOSH reported that two out of five residential carpenter apprentices suffer a nail gun injury during their four-year training period.

These tools can shoot a three-inch nail more than 100 miles per hour and cause serious damage to hands and fingers. One-quarter of these hand injuries involve structural damage to tendons, joints, nerves and bones. After the hand, the next most often injured body parts are the leg, knee, thigh, foot and toes. Severe nail gun injuries have resulted in paralysis, blindness, brain damage, bone fractures and death.

Know Your Triggers

Nail gun safety starts with understanding the various trigger mechanisms.

All guns have two basic controls: a finger trigger and a contact safety tip located on the nose of the gun. Trigger mechanisms can vary based on the order in which the controls are activated and whether the trigger can be held in the squeezed position to discharge multiple nails or if it must be released and then squeezed again for each individual nail. Some nail guns have a selective trigger switch that allows the user to choose between two or more trigger systems.

You can squeeze the trigger on bump-fire or automatic nail guns before you push in the safety tip, allowing the firing of multiple nails as you bump or bounce the tool along the work object, which may cause you to shoot a nail accidentally.

“The safer gun forces you to push the safety tip against the wood and then pull the trigger to shoot one nail,” the guidance states. Called a sequential-trigger gun, this type forces the user to release and activate both the safety contact tip and the trigger again to fire a second nail. “It takes a little more skill, but there’s very little chance of shooting a nail by accident.”

Know the Risks

Understanding the major risk factors that can lead to nail gun injuries will help you prevent them on your jobsites. Injuries commonly occur when:

  • Workers double-fire the tool. A second, unintended firing can happen more quickly than the user is able to react and release the trigger, NIOSH said. Double fire can particularly be a problem for new workers, who may push hard on the tool to compensate for recoil.
  • Workers keep the trigger depressed and accidentally push the safety contact tip into an object or person by mistake, causing a nail to fire. Construction workers tend to keep a finger on the trigger because it is more natural to hold and carry the gun that way. NIOSH, however, cautions against this practice.
  • Nails penetrate lumber. Nail penetration is especially a concern for placement work for which a piece of lumber needs to be held in place by hand. If the nail misses or breaks through the lumber, it can injure the nondominant hand holding it.
  • Nails hit a hard surface and ricochet, becoming a projectile.
  • The user misses the work object. Injuries may occur when the tip of the nail gun does not make full contact with the work object and the discharged nail becomes airborne.
  • Nailing in awkward positions where the tool and its recoil are more difficult to control.
  • Workers bypass the safety mechanisms. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) strictly prohibits users from removing the spring from the safety contact tip or disabling or modifying any of the tool’s safety features.

Steps to Prevent Injuries

The guidance lays out steps that contractors can take to prevent injuries:

  • Use sequential-trigger nail guns. “The full sequential trigger is always the safest trigger mechanism for the job. It reduces the risk of unintentional nail discharge and double fires, including injuries from bumping into co-workers.”
  • Provide training. OSHA requires employers to provide nail gun safety training for new users.
  • Establish nail gun work procedures. The guidance recommends that contractors develop their own nail gun work rules and procedures to address risk factors and make the work as safe as possible.
  • Provide personal protective equipment. Safety shoes, which help protect workers’ feet from nail gun injuries, are typically required by OSHA on residential construction sites. In addition, employers should provide hard hats, as well as eye and hearing protection for workers using nail guns.
  • Encourage reporting and discussion of injuries and near misses. According to NIOSH, many nail gun injuries go unreported. Reporting helps ensure that employees get medical attention and allows for teachable moments that can improve crew safety.
  • Provide first aid and medical treatment. Employers and workers should seek medical attention immediately after nail gun injuries, even for hand injuries that appear to be minimal, NIOSH said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.​


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