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Misused Power Tools: The Biggest Threat to Your Injury Rate

Two workers using hand tools together

Many small power tools are straightforward to use, which makes them appear deceptively safe. But every year, a significant number of workers are injured when using these tools.

Interestingly, the probability of an injury from some power tools is highest among those with a lot of skill as much as among those with no skill. This is because extensive experience can often lead to complacency and ignoring safety precautions, so learning to handle the tools is only the beginning. Safe use and caution need to become an ingrained habit. 

Revisiting the basics of power tool safety can actually be helpful to those with a lot of experience. As a reminder of the risks, here are some tools that are most commonly mishandled and cause the most injuries, and some advice on staying safe when using power tools. 

Power saws

Power saws of all types, ranging from small circular saws to stationary table saws, spin so fast that they can cause serious injuries or remove a finger (or even a limb) before the user has a chance to react (or sometimes even notice). Unsurprisingly, there are tens of thousands of injuries caused by power saws each year. 

And with power saws becoming more common in the hands of DIYers, safe handling and safe behaviors are something that needs to be transplanted from the workplace to the household. 

  • Always wear eye, face and hearing protection.
  • Never remove factory guards or safety controls.
  • Clamp materials rather than attempting to hold them by hand.
  • If using a table saw or a circular saw, reset the blade depth each time you’re working with a material of a different thickness. Make sure that the tips of the teeth barely protrude past the material being cut.
  • If using a handheld saw, clamp your workpiece and always keep both hands on the saw.
Nail guns

Nail guns are a simple tool, but even the smaller types are powerful enough to cause serious injuries. In fact, nail guns are responsible for almost 40,000 emergency room visits each year. One-third of these visits are DIY-related. Although most injuries affect hands and feet, some result in death and others cause serious injuries.

It’s important to remember that contact trigger nail guns pose a risk of injury that is twice as high as the one posed by sequential trigger guns. Paying attention to whether the gun is set to manual or to fire on contact can prevent many emergency room visits. 

Ricochets and misfires are also a common hazard. It’s easy to put faith in the tool, but sometimes the materials being used or the angle at which the gun is fired can have deadly consequences.

  • Wear eye and ear protection. 
  • Do not disable safety features. 
  • Make sure that the gun is in sequential mode as opposed to bump- or contact-trip so that you’ll have to pull the trigger instead of simply depressing the muzzle.
  • Consider the materials you are working with, adjust your grip on the gun and assume that ricochets and misfires can happen. For example, keep your hands clear of any place a misfired nail could make an unexpected exit.
  • Always disconnect the air hose when the gun is not in use.
Power drills

Puncture wounds and electrocution (caused by drilling into live wiring), as well as injuries caused by loose clothing caught in the bits are the most common injuries related to power drills. 

They are not as numerous as those caused by table saws, but power drill injuries can still be serious and they are mostly the result of inattention, inexperience, unexpected interruption, and overconfidence. 

Power drills can be found in many households and are used often for quick house repairs or DIY projects, but not everyone operates power drills safely

  • Wear safety glasses or a face shield.
  • Keep drill bits sharp.
  • Do not use drills in wet or muddy locations. 
  • Disconnect power supply before changing or adjusting bits or attachments.
  • Secure the workpiece being drilled to prevent movement.
  • Drill a small pilot hole before drilling large holes.
  • Do not use a bent drill bit.
  • Do not overreach. 
  • Do not use excessive force to drill into hard material.

Grinders can cause various injuries but the most common ones involve the users’ head and face. In general, grinder injuries affect mostly very young people or those who have been using the tool for many years, further illustrating the point that too much experience can actually lead to serious incidents, regardless of how safe the users think they are. 

Safe use guidelines are key in preventing injuries caused by grinders. 

  • Always wear eye and face protection. 
  • Never remove the guards or bypass any safety mechanisms. 
  • Do not use wheels that are cracked or those that vibrate excessively.
  • Do not operate grinders on wet floors.
  • Use both hands to hold the grinder.
Best practices

All tools require caution. This is especially true for power tools—they are so commonly used at work and at home that it’s no wonder they are involved in so many injuries and deaths. Their usefulness and size can belie their potential for misuse. So it’s important to never underestimate the chance for something to go wrong. 

Although each tool comes with its own safety requirements, there are some general rules that are worth remembering: 

  • Read your tool’s instructions and follow all security standards and usage requirements.
  • Use goggles, a mask, and safety shoes.
  • Don’t wear loose clothing.
  • Don’t work with power tools when fatigued.
  • Work with a partner.

It’s also vital to always use the right tool for the job in the way it was designed to be used. Repurposing tools is a dangerous habit that can lead to serious repercussions. 

Additionally, before any work begins, it’s necessary to scan the area for potential hazards and consider what could potentially go wrong. It’s best to be prepared even if nothing happens.

Eye protection

So many eye injuries are caused by hand tools that this subject deserves serious consideration. Eye protection is affordable, easy to find and even easier to use. And there are different types of eye protection designed for different conditions. For example, when working in dim conditions indoors, safety glasses with amber lenses can make things clearer. Conversely, when working outdoors, tinted lenses that block UV light might be the best option.

Electrical safety

With so many power tools relying on electricity, the potential for electrocution should never be ignored. But even hand tools such as screwdrivers, when used around wiring, can cause severe injuries. So when working with or around wiring, whenever possible it’s a good idea to turn off the power at the circuit breaker and use tools with UL-approved insulated grips.

  • Identify and be aware of all the wiring and power lines in your vicinity.
  • Make sure that your tool’s cables are not in the way (so that you don’t cut through them or trip over them by accident).
  • Never place a ladder or platform where it can fall against a power line.
  • If conditions are wet or damp, turn off the power or postpone your work.
Prepare to use power tools safely

Preparing for safe work is just as important as the work itself. The lack of relevant knowledge, or purposeful ignoring of safety instructions, can only ever end badly. 

Using tools according to their purpose while following the manufacturer’s instructions should be obvious, but people often make judgment calls in the moment. Handling tools is not something that should be influenced by the user’s state of mind such as rushing, complacency or frustration. It’s something to be considered carefully and done with caution. 

Finally, many hand tool safety incidents happen on ladders. Although this does not fall strictly under “power tool misuse”, it’s such a common occurrence that ladder safety should be considered in depth before taking any hand tools up on a ladder. 

The information in this blog post on power tool safety is by no means a complete and exhaustive list. But carefully reading and following manufacturers’ instructions, using PPE, and making sure that no hazardous work is performed when distracted (by others or one’s own state of mind) are a good basis for safe power tool use.

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