Construction worker unknowingly embeds 4-inch nail in skull

Hand-held pneumatic nail guns can often be as dangerous as those that fire bullets – just ask 23-year-old construction worker Patrick Lawler. He unknowingly embedded a 4-inch nail into his skull Jan. 6 after his nail gun backfired on a jobsite in Breckenridge, Colo.

Lawler survived the accident – and a four-hour surgery – with what his doctors and wife said was luck. He didn’t even realized the extent of the injury until six days after it occurred, thinking it was a minor toothache instead.

An X-ray taken at the dental office where Lawler’s wife Katerina worked proved otherwise.

Sadly, construction site accidents – including skull punctures by nails – are probably more common than many people think. Most of those incidents are the result of workers not using equipment in a safe manner, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

OSHA reports that of 39,798 federal safety inspections, nearly 58 percent were in the construction industry. And more than 71 percent of those inspections revealed violations through which there was a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm.

A glance at OSHA’s accident search page on its website reveals more than 50 nail gun-related accidents – some resulting in death – at jobsites nationwide from 1984 to 2000. More current nail gun accidents were not listed.

Mark Lillemon, who works with the Associated General Contractors of America Colorado Building Chapter as vice president of risk management for Olson and Olson insurance agency, said there are many opportunities for contractors to arrange for and conduct safety-training courses.

The Associated Builders and Contractors and OSHA maintain a partnership called the Construction Leaders Agreement for Safety that is recognized by OSHA as one of the best such programs in the country. More than 30 ABC regional chapters have this partnership in place.

AGC has a similar partnership called the Construction Health and Safety Excellence program.

Joe Visgaitis, director of safety with ABC, said despite his organization and others’ excellent safety programs, preventable accidents still happen. “The challenge is always to get people to buy into safety,” he said. “That never ends.”

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OSHA suggestions for nail-gun accident prevention


  • Pneumatic tools that shoot nails, rivets, staples or similar fasteners and operate at pressures of more than 100 pounds per square inch must be equipped with a special device to keep fasteners from being ejected unless the muzzle is pressed against the work surface.
  • Pneumatic tools must be checked to see that they are fastened securely to the air hose to prevent them from becoming disconnected. A short wire or positive locking device attaching the air hose to the tool also must be used and will serve as an added safeguard.
  • If an air hose is more than half an inch in diameter, a safety excess flow valve must be installed at the source of the air supply to reduce pressure in case of hose failure.
  • In general, the same precautions that are recommended for electric cords should be taken with air hoses, as the hoses are subject to the same kind of damage or accidental striking. An air hose also presents tripping hazards.

Flying Objects

  • Compressed air guns should never be pointed toward anyone. Workers should never “dead-end” a pneumatic gun against themselves or anyone else. A chip guard must be used when compressed air is used for cleaning.
  • Eye protection is required, and head and face protection is recommended, for employees working with pneumatic tools.
  • Screens must be set up to protect nearby workers from being struck by flying fragments around chippers, riveting guns, staplers or air drills.


  • Hearing protection should be worn at all times.

Patrick Beeson can be contacted at [email protected].