Your Health


There is nothing automated about home repair. And today in Your Health, we have some safety advice for the do-it-yourself crowd.

(Soundbite of machinery)

INSKEEP: Nail guns, lawnmowers and ladders all can lead to emergency room visits. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how to avoid accidents when you take construction into your own hands.

ALLISON AUBREY: There was a time when nail guns were used only by skilled tradesmen - people who are paid to do construction. That's because the tool can be dangerous, as contractor Adam Dreyfuss of Frederick, Maryland, has seen. He witnessed a nasty accident last summer.

Mr. ADAM DREYFUSS (Contractor, Frederick, Maryland): The nail gun double fired, and he shot a nail through two fingers.

AUBREY: What did that look like? I'm sure it wasn't pretty.

Mr. DREYFUSS: No, it wasn't too pretty, especially pulling the nail out. I just couldn't believe he did it. It was just kind of shock and surprised.

AUBREY: Consumer nail-gun injuries - at least those serious enough to require a hospital visit - have increased 300 percent since 1991. This means each year, some 14,000 do-it-yourselfers using nail guns to install siding or hardwood floors are getting hurt. These days, people are also buying circular saws to build anything from shelving to bookcases to a tree house.

Mr. JAY SOMMERS (Frager's Hardware Store): So once you get your tool loaded, you want to make sure that you know how to do it, and you have to put the nail in the right side.

AUBREY: Jay Sommers overseas rentals at Frager's Hardware Store in Washington, D.C. He says some customers who come in have never even touched a power tool. Before he demonstrates how to use equipment, he tries to ask a few questions, such as:

Mr. SOMMERS: Have you used one before? Do you know anything about it? What are you trying to do? Sometimes these folks have a conversation at lunch one day in the office, or down at Starbucks, and then somebody will tell him, well, this is the tool that you need. They don't have any idea.

AUBREY: Meri-K Appy heads the Home Safety Council. She says that the prevalence of nail gun accidents is surprising. Consider the number of people who end up in the emergency room after falling off ladders. It's a surprisingly high number, and we thought the figure would resonate most with someone who is at risk of becoming the next statistic - someone standing at the bottom of the ladder, about to climb up.

Have you ever been up on a ladder, Misha?

Ms. MISHA GOODHUE (Resident, Washington, D.C.): Not really, now that I think about it.

AUBREY: Misha Goodhue is standing with her mother-in-law, Eve Goodhue. They've just bought a ladder to paint Misha's house in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. When we tell her that 136,000 people every year end up with fractures, sprains and breaks from ladder falls, she pauses.

Ms. GOODHUE: That's not exactly the statistic I wanted before we get up on a ladder.

AUBREY: The Home Safety Council's Meri-K Appy says if people are aware of risk, they're more likely to take precautions - the first rule of thumb that people often overlook.

Ms. MERI-K APPY (Director, Home Safety Council): You want to stay at or below the safe standing level, which for a ladder like this, would be the fourth rung from top or below, and for a step stool would be the second rung from the top.

AUBREY: Everybody has used the ladder at some point. Most people feel comfortable on them. But studies show that injuries from the lowest rungs can be just as bad as those from the higher ones. Eve Goodhue, who's 63 years old, has been climbing ladders and painting for years.

Ms. EVE GOODHUE (Resident, Washington, D.C.): I've been very conscious. I don't want to fall.

AUBREY: Goodhue says this time, she'll take it slow and try to get her son to help, but he's just not as excited about painting every room in the house.

Ms. E. GOODHUE: I don't think he's going to paint, do you Misha?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. M. GOODHUE: I think he's going to hide in the office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. E. GOODHUE: Let the women do it.

AUBREY: Actually, ladder falls are often associated with men and younger men. So it's an injury pattern.

This pattern holds steady across most kinds of home injuries, including one of the most common: lawn mowers.

(Soundbite of lawn mower)

Dr. DAVID BISHAI (Physician, Emergency Room, Johns Hopkins University): So I'm ready to go. I'm going to start mowing that first strip over there.

AUBREY: David Bishai has an acre and a half yard. He's also an emergency room doctor at Johns Hopkins University. He got interested in lawn-mower accidents after treating a 7-year-old girl whose foot was sliced off by a mower. That was a particularly gruesome injury.

But Bishai says the vast majority of the 80,000 lawn-mower accidents a year happened when the mower shoot sticks or rocks into the air.

Dr. BISHAI: I need to be worried about pots in the ground - branches that could come and hit me in the face. There you see, you just - you're actually getting a little bit of debris on the left.

AUBREY: And like all injuries, these happen in a split second. But Bishai says keep children and other people out of the yard, wear eye protection, and clear the yard of sticks before you mow. If everyone did this, there'd be far fewer accidents.

Ms. APPY: I think the frustrating thing is that there are injuries and even deaths happening that could easily have been prevented.

AUBREY: Meri-K Appy says when you use a tool or piece of equipment, take the time to get trained, as I learned when I tried a nail-gun at Frager's Hardware. It's not easy to use, at least not the first time.

Okay, so I'm going to put on the eye protection.

To fire the gun, you've got to strike the back of it with a mallet using a decent amount of force…

(Soundbite of banging sound)

AUBREY: …which takes confidence.

So, I didn't hit it hard enough. It didn't go all to the end.

Mr. JAY SOMMERS (Frager's Hardware): No.


Mr. SOMMERS: Not all the air pressure was release.

AUBREY: But the second time, things improved. With Frager's Jay Sommers helping me, the nail drove straight into the wood.

(Soundbite of nail-gun)

AUBREY: Oh, that felt better.

Mr. SOMMERS: Oh, didn't that sound much better?

AUBREY: Oh, it's (unintelligible).

Mr. SOMMERS: It only takes two to what to do one person job, here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Are you making fun of me?


(Soundbite of banging sound)

AUBREY: Sommers says just because a tool looks easy to use doesn't mean it's easy to use safely.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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