Nail Gun Injuries Surge


For die-hard do-it-yourselfers, the nail gun aisle at any major hardware store is almost impossible to ignore.

Dozens of these plastic and metal contraptions, holstered in rows and arranged according to size and power, evoke the feel of an armory or a toy store. Or perhaps something in between.

For most amateur carpenters, the temptation to pick up and cradle these tools is all but irresistible.

However, a new Duke University study in the current issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly suggests that inexperienced users may want to take pause before adding a nail gun to their home tool kit, as using these high-powered nail guns may be risky business for amateur carpenters.

Researchers looked at hospital reports and government statistics and found that the number of weekend warriors treated for nail gun injuries in American emergency rooms has more than tripled over the past 16 years -- a rise mirrored in the increasing availability of nail guns to the average consumer.

In total, doctors went from treating about 4,200 home users for nail-gun related injuries in 1991 to about 14,800 in 2005. Moreover, the study shows that 40 percent of all nail gun injuries were sustained by those not professionally involved in construction or carpentry.

"It was actually a surprise to me that consumers made up 40 percent of the emergency room visits for these injuries," says lead study author Hester Lipscomb, associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "What has been historically an occupational hazard is now a hazard to consumers as well."

Anatomy of a Nail Gun Injury

Dr. Corey Slovis, professor and chair of the department of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is no stranger to nail gun injuries.

"On Monday, I treated a gentleman who had a nail gun injury in which the nail just missed the optic nerve," Slovis says. "It did not cause any permanent damage, but it was within one-tenth of an inch from vital structures."

Slovis says his patient was a construction worker by trade. But he adds that consumers who use nail guns are just as apt to receive similarly ghastly wounds if they handle nail guns improperly.

"Some of the people who use these nail guns get rid of the safety so it can be fired rapidly," he says. "Occasionally, people sit on them. Occasionally, they'll go off in the holster and hit a leg. "In general, these are deep puncture wounds, though the nail occasionally embeds in bone," he says.

But why do so many of the patients injured by nail guns, such as Slovis', walk into the clinic with nails in their heads? The answer, as it turns out, comes down to teamwork.

"Often, a person is on the opposite side of the wall, and their partner or coworker misses the stud, and the nail goes straight through the wall into their head."

Are Nail Guns Unsafe?

Telephone requests for comments from spokespeople from four major nail gun manufacturers -- DeWalt, Stanley, ITW and Senco -- were not immediately returned.

However, most would agree that no power tool is completely safe if used improperly. On this point, Lipscomb agrees.

And she adds that the availability of these tools in most major hardware stores makes it much more likely that consumers will be able to get their hands on one -- and possibly hurt themselves.

"I don't think these tools have gotten any more dangerous," she says. "It's more an issue of easier access."

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