The air-powered nail gun has become a mainstay at construction sites across the nation. As the tool’s popularity surged during the building boom of the 2000s, nail gun injuries also took off despite decades of warnings from researchers and doctors that the guns are dangerous, especially those equipped with a mechanism that allowed automatic firing, in “contact trip” mode.
Driven by compressed air, nail guns can blast 30 nails a minute that travel up to 490 feet per second, qualifying the nails as low-velocity missiles. In contact trip mode, with one pull of the trigger, they fire those missiles whenever the muzzle makes contact with a surface – including heads, hands, eyes and even chests.
Yet the tool’s hazards have been largely ignored by regulatory agencies. Novice construction workers and journeymen carpenters, home do-it-yourselfers and even innocent passers-by are among those being shot.
A comprehensive national estimate found that 42,000 people with nail gun injuries – more than 100 a day – show up at U.S. hospital emergency departments annually. Others are treated at clinics or at home.
Treating the wounds costs the United States at least $338 million a year in emergency medical care, rehabilitation and workers’ compensation, according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission estimate. That’s 10 times the cost of treating jigsaw, power sander or band saw injuries, and double that for handsaws.
Injury victims and their relatives accuse manufacturers of sacrificing safety to boost the sale of the guns and the nails that go with them, which load into magazines or in coils. The faster the tool, the greater its appeal – and the more nails it uses.
Emergency room physicians, forensic engineers, attorneys and occupational safety researchers believe that a majority of nail gun injuries could be prevented by limiting the guns to a one-at-a-time sequential firing system.
Following repeated calls for safer firing mechanisms and millions of dollars in legal payouts to injury victims, the nail gun industry in 2003 started to make semiautomatic guns that require users to pull the trigger each time they fire.
The industry group also agreed to ask manufacturers that sell the larger framing guns to ship them with an even safer system, which shoots a nail only when the muzzle is placed on a target and the trigger is pulled – in that sequence – known as a sequential mode.
Yet many manufacturers continue to ship those guns with a kit to convert them back to the more dangerous contact mode. In addition, some companies have ignored ISANTA’s voluntary standard, continuing to ship only the contact trip systems.
In 1988, Eugene Doran, 40, of Andover, Md., became a quadriplegic while getting a haircut. A carpenter in a neighboring store had fired a 3-inch nail through a wall, severing Doran’s spine. Doran received a settlement of $15.35 million from the nail gun manufacturers Amca International Inc. and Desa Industries Inc., the company that had rented the carpenter the gun, and its franchisee.
In December a Connecticut jury awarded a $3.4 million verdict against nail gun manufacturer Stanley Bostitch Inc. on behalf of a man partially paralyzed after being shot in the head with a nail that had bounced off metal after being fired by a contact trip gun.
In an April 2007 report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lipscomb estimated that nail gun injuries seen by hospital emergency departments had increased more than threefold in a decade, from about 12,000 in 1995 to about 42,000 in 2005. Looking at just the nonprofessionals in that group, the trend was similar, with emergency room visits rising from 4,200 in 1991 to 14,800 in 2005. Since then, annual sales of nail guns and other pneumatic tools to nonprofessionals have exploded, hitting $1.3 billion in 2006, up from $850 million in 2001.
In Colorado, two recent incidents involved nail guns were reported by local media. Last December, a man was arrested after shooting self with nail gun, facing attempted murder and domestic violence charges after he shot himself while allegedly demonstrating how he was going to kill his companion. This past summer, a young mother, carrying her 3-month-old infant in her arms, visited a construction site Wednesday only to have a nail ricochets into infant’s head.