Making Nail Guns Safer

By Mary E. Alexander

A nail gun is an aptly named tool – it operates like a hand gun, but shoots nails instead of bullets. It’s a powerful device that enables professional builders and serious do-it-yourself home owners to work quickly on projects that require fastening, such as framing, decking, flooring, roofing and cabinet-making.

But speed and ease of use have consequences. According to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, injuries from nail guns have been rising. In 1997, there were an estimated 8,700 injuries attributed to nail guns or stud drivers. In 1998, there were more than 10,500, and by 2001 there were more than 14,600.

Many injuries involve nails fired into fingers and hands. Others include deep puncture wounds to the head and torso. “The unintended activation of nail guns causes serious injury,” said Scott Charnas, a Boston attorney who, for the past 13 years, has helped people injured by nail guns. “People using nail guns walk around holding the gun in the firing position. It’s the most comfortable carrying position – with your finger on the trigger. There is a spring-loaded device on the muzzle of the nail gun, and if it hits anything while your finger is on the trigger, the gun will fire,” he explained.

The vast majority of nail guns are sold with what is called a “contact trip.” That means regardless of the sequence of nail gun activation – trigger depressed first or spring-loaded muzzle device pressed first – the nail gun will fire. Through his work, Charnas learned about a safety feature called a “sequential trip.” The sequential trip requires that the spring-loaded device on the nail gun muzzle be engaged before the trigger is depressed. That way, if someone is holding the nail gun with the trigger depressed and the muzzle brushes against another person or object, the nail gun will not fire. Manufacturers have made the sequential trip an option, said Charnas.

“The International Staple, Nail and Tool Association (ISANTA, the trade group that represents tool and fastener manufacturers) has never required sequential trips on nail guns. Manufacturers say the safety mechanism makes the gun slower to use. It’s a little slower, but considering the risk to workers, [the mechanism] is worth it,” said Charnas. Recently, ISANTA took steps to improve tool safety. The trade group sponsored a revision of the nail gun safety standards published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The new ANSI standard affects nail gun safety mechanisms, warning language, safety labels, and safety symbols to be used on the tools. The standard affects nails guns manufactured after May 1, 2003. But, it is not mandatory and, according to ISANTA, there is no federal regulatory body that enforces compliance. “The new standard is not what we’d like it to be, but it’s better,” said Charnas, who wants the sequential trip safety mechanism to be mandatory.

According to ISANTA, “[M]ost of the larger tools will be sold with sequential [trip] systems.” But, the trade group also noted, some manufacturers “may include or provide means for converting these to other actuation systems.” Meaning, tool users likely will be able to bypass the safety system. Charnas believes trial lawyers and their injured clients have helped convince manufacturers that safety improvements were needed. He said, “There will be fewer people who will lose an eye – or even die – because of this small change.”