When Laborer Jose Urrea told his story (see video) at OSHA’s National Action Summit for Latino Worker Safety and Health last month, he drew attention to the epidemic of serious nail gun injuries in residential construction.

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“Nail guns are essential tools on residential work sites,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck, “because they allow workers to rapidly sink nails into dense lumber, vastly increasing production relative to traditional hammering. But, while they make work easier, fast trigger options and a lack of training can make nail guns dangerous – even fatal.”

Nail guns are designed to discharge nails at high speeds when the muzzle is touching a surface. Pneumatic nail guns do this by using compressed air. Because of the force at which these nails are launched, serious injury is always a possibility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 28,600 workers went to emergency rooms with nail gun injuries in 2005. They suffered puncture wounds, contusions from strikes by the gun or by the hose from the compressor and other musculoskeletal or eye injuries.

Manufacturer-built safeguards can lower the risk of injury. Typically, two types of trigger mechanisms are available: contact trip and sequential. Contact trip triggers allow a gun to fire when the nose element and the trigger are depressed at the same time. A worker can keep the trigger depressed and continuously press the nose element against a surface, a technique known as “bounce nailing.” However, in an American Journal of Industrial Medicine (AJIM) study, sequential triggers proved to be safer. They slow the firing mechanism – because the nose element must be depressed before squeezing the trigger – but the two-step trigger reduces the chance of unintended firings.

Whatever the mechanism, workers often put themselves in situations that increase their risk of nail gun injury. A study published in Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygienefound several circumstances that can cause an accident:

  • Working in awkward positions
  • Working overhead
  • Firing nail towards the body
  • Leaving a finger on the trigger while nail gun is not in use
  • Toe nailing

“Training is important and essential boost to nail gun safety,” says Borck, citing research which shows that accidents involving nail guns are directly related to the experience level of the workers using them. For example, in the AJIM study, 45 percent of almost 800 apprentices had been injured by a nail gun. “Those with no nail gun training or less than one year’s experience were the most likely to injure themselves,” Borck says.

An exhaustive investigative report in The Sacramento Bee provides additional information on nail gun safety.

Meanwhile, according to Urrea and other Latino workers who are fast becoming the mainstay of residential construction, particularly in the southwest, OSHA’s evident interest in boosting their workplace rights and protections is welcome news. Their plight is also bolstered by the organizing focus that LIUNA has placed on residential construction in that region. For more about the Summit, see New Beginning for Immigrant Workers in U.S. in this issue of LIFELINES ONLINE. More information on residential organizing is available at LIUNA’s website.

[Steve Clark]