Do-It-Yourselfer, Beware

June 1, 2007
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According to new statistics that would make Bob Vila cringe, the number of injuries from nail guns has almost doubled since 2001. And researchers say that more and more often it is do-it-yourselfers who are feeling the pain.

In fact, the number of weekend carpenters treated each year for nail-gun injuries in emergency rooms in U.S. hospitals more than tripled between 1991 and 2005, increasing to about 14,800 per year, according to an analysis by researchers at Duke Medical Center and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Nail guns typically use compressed air to drive nails into wood. First used by construction workers and professional carpenters, the guns now are sold routinely in hardware stores and home-improvement centers.

"These kinds of injuries are often seen as bizarre accidents, but they actually occur fairly frequently, and we know quite a bit about factors that contribute to them," says Hester Lipscomb, an associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine and author of the report. She has long studied nail-gun injuries among construction workers, but she says this is the first such analysis of injuries among consumers.

"The increases in injuries are likely related to availability of these tools on the consumer market and the steady decline in the costs of tools and air compressors," Lipscomb says. The frequency of injuries to professional workers has remained "relatively flat," she adds, but "the tools are now readily accessible to consumers, extending what has been largely an occupational hazard to the general public."

For her analysis, Lipscomb used data collected from emergency departments across the country by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. According to this data, injuries to consumers and workers largely involve puncture wounds to the hands and fingers, with wounds to the forearms, wrists, legs, and feet less common. About 96 percent of the injured consumers were male, with an average age of thirty-five. The findings appear in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the CDC.

Lipscomb says that many injuries caused by nail guns could be prevented by using tools that fire only when the nose piece is depressed before the trigger is pulled. These guns have a "sequential" trigger mechanism that is designed to prevent rapid, unintentional firing. But users seem to prefer tools that allow them to rapidly "bounce fire" nails.