Construction can be a dangerous business. Without the right
combination of training, experience, good judgment, proper
equipment, and old-fashioned good luck, the chances of
incurring a work-related injury are significant. Here are the
war stories of nine JLC readers who didn't beat the odds
— and the lessons they learned as a result
Just a 4-Foot Fall
My misadventure happened late last year while I was working on
a new porch ceiling. I was no more than four steps up my
stepladder when one of the ladder's back feet worked its way to
the edge of the porch and slid off (I hadn't yet installed the
Though the drop was only 4 feet onto grass, I didn't want to
tangle in the ladder, so I jumped back, away from the edge, and
landed outstretched on the porch on my left side and arm.
Immediately, my left arm went numb; as I got up I could see my
forearm was bent in a new shape and looked about an inch
shorter. But it wasn't until I took off my toolbelt —
one-handed — that I realized some arm bone was stuck in
my sweatshirt at my waist. I knocked on the door and asked my
client to take me to the hospital.
When I finally spoke with an orthopedic surgeon at the ER, I
explained through clenched teeth just how important it was to
have my arm back quickly — I was still figuring I'd get a
cast on and leave before lunch. But he told me I had a compound
ulnar fracture (the bone sticking out below my wrist) and
multiple distal fractures of the radius, along with a
In addition, the ulnar (or funny bone) nerve had damage; within
a few days I would discover I couldn't move my fingers
laterally, or grip with my thumb and forefinger.
A cast was indeed possible following surgery, but only after
several days of waiting for the swelling to subside.
However, if I could live with a few extra scars and an odd
structure called an "external fixator" attached to my arm, the
doctor was willing to reassemble my wrist and set the bones
The fixator was a jointed metal beam clamped to pins screwed
into solid bone on my arm and hand; it rode a few inches above
my arm. It proved to be a huge conversation starter,
particularly since I had to keep the incisions exposed, with
all the metalwork and sutures and swelling out in plain
Luckily, there was drafting and design work to do that I'd been
putting off, so I was able to get back to productive —
though one-handed — work on the computer later that same
Since the fixator allowed some forearm rotation (the
screwdriver motion), I tried to keep my arm moving as much as
possible during my convalescence, using some stretching and
strengthening exercises I found on the Net.
Still, I wasn't able to move my ring finger and pinky at all.
The pinky stuck out laterally from my hand and kept catching on
door frames, and I couldn't even squeeze toothpaste. For a
while, my doctor thought that perhaps the ulnar nerve had been
severed, which would mean five to six months for regrowth and
After only 39 days, the fixator and pins came off, and the
doctor made another large incision on the inside of my wrist to
determine the cause of the continuing ulnar palsy. Fortunately,
it was scar tissue (which was removed) that was pinching the
nerve, not a severed nerve. Afterward, I continued with my
exercises, slowly gaining strength and feeling in my
As I write this five months later, my hand and arm function is
almost normal, although a few odd conditions — an old
broken middle finger that now locks closed when I make a fist
(I have to use my other hand to snap it back straight); my
inability to get my wedding ring back on; and my five suture
scars — serve as reminders of my 4-foot fall.
So what did I learn from my $26,000 tumble from such an
To check my ladder each time I climb it, and to wear the right
shoes — I had been wearing gardening slip-ons, and I
think they contributed to my fall.
But most important, I learned to be more respectful of all
construction activities, not just the ones that seem
Forrest McCanlessis a designer and general contractor in
A Shocking Prescriptionby Joe Tedesco
Early in my career as an electrician, I had nearly completed a
small side job at a drugstore when I noticed that the stockroom
was lit by only a 4-foot-long, two-lamp fluorescent fixture
hanging from the ceiling. I checked with the druggist to see if
the lighting in the room was adequate, and he asked if I could
raise the fixture just a couple of links before I left.
"Sure, no problem," I replied, pulling out my link pliers and
pushing my stepladder into position.
But when I opened up one of the links and separated it from the
rest of the chain, I instantly felt as though I were being
kicked in the head by a horse. A fault in the fixture —
which was supplied by just two wires and had no equipment
grounding conductor — had energized the chain; I'd
received a potentially fatal shock.
Fortunately, the druggist was nearby and shut off the wall
switch when I yelled out — with this kind of shock I
couldn't let go of either the chain or my pliers.
Shaking and sweating, I had to rest for quite a while after
that close call. And in the years since, I've never forgotten
to respect the power of electricity. I de-energize circuits
that I'm working on and use safety gloves, insulated pliers,
and other personal protective equipment whenever
By the way, in recognition of the serious shock hazard present
when splicing the grounded (neutral) conductor of a ballasted
fluorescent light fixture, a provision has been added to the
2005 NEC; it requires a local disconnecting means for indoor
fluorescent fixtures that use double-ended lamps and that can
be serviced in place .
The provision takes effect January 1, 2008; for more
information, see 2005 NEC 410.73(G).
Joe Tedescois a licensed master electrician, an
IAEI-certified electrical inspector, and moderator of JLC
Online's electrical forum.
Wrist Managementby Ken Gaumond
I quit work early one day so that I could get some work done on
my own house. I was in the middle of a porch project that was
moving along far more slowly than I would have liked; I figured
I had just enough daylight left to set up saws, ladders, and my
compressor and to nail up some 2-by subfascia to the rafter
After cutting the first board to length, I scrambled up my
6-foot stepladder and tacked the first section of subfascia in
place, then began nailing it off with my framing nailer. For
balance, I reached up with my free hand to grab on to the same
rafter I was nailing the subfascia into.
But as I brought the nailer up into position, the nosepiece
caught just enough of the top edge of the board to depress; it
fired a 16d framing nail over the top of the board, through my
watchband, and into the underside of my wrist. When I looked at
my hand, only 1/2 inch of the 31/4-inch-long nail was still
My first thought was to pull out the nail immediately. I feared
that the glue on the nail would set up quickly, especially if
it had penetrated the bone. But I also realized the nail might
have perforated a vein and could be cutting off the flow of
blood. What to do?
Without further thought, I grabbed hold of the clipped-head
nail and gave a quick, steady tug. Out it came, followed by a
frightening stream of blood. Scenario B — the vein!
— had come true.
Holding my hands high, pressing my right thumb into my left
wrist and squeezing as hard as I could, I yelled for my
co-worker to call 911.
After an ambulance ride and four hours in the emergency room, I
left the hospital with a very sore wrist from my small puncture
wound, a couple of stitches, and considerably more respect for
my pneumatic tools.
The incident did have a silver lining: When I returned from the
hospital, all of my cords and hoses had been coiled up and my
tools neatly put away by the supervisor of the roofing crew
that had also been working on my house that day.
He's been my business partner ever since.
Ken Gaumondis a general contractor in Auburn,
Knee a Poor Substitute for Sawhorseby Mark Parlee
While framing an apartment complex, I was in the process of
cutting plates for closets, but my mind wasn't really on the
job. I was going through a divorce at the time and was supposed
to leave around lunchtime for a child custody hearing.
Outwardly, though, I was in cutting mode: I'd grab each board
from a stack of 2-bys, prop it on my knee, and quickly cut off
the marked ends.
Clearly I was operating on autopilot, because as I brought my
saw down to make a cut I missed the 2-by altogether. Instead of
plunging into wood, the spinning blade plunged full depth into
my leg, leaving a 2 1/4-inch-deep, 8-inch-long kerf clean
through my kneecap, through leg muscle, and into bone.
I don't remember feeling any pain at first, but I do remember
worrying about ruining my favorite pants and wondering how many
stitches it would take to sew up my leg.
When I looked up and saw the stunned face of my boss, then
looked back down at the injury, I realized that stitches
wouldn't be an option, and that the pants were the least of my
worries: My leg was opened up so wide I could have put my fist
in the gash.
The wound required two surgeries — one to clean it up and
another a couple of days later to stitch everything back
together once it was clear there was no bone infection —
plus a long period of recuperation.
Then I began physical therapy. I spent 100 painful 21/2-hour
sessions just trying to break up scar tissue and regain my
leg's range of motion. When I was able to start riding a bike,
I worked my way up to 100 miles of roadwork a day to help heal
and strengthen my leg and regain flexibility. After seven
months, I was able to go back to work.
Since then, I've recovered virtually normal function in my leg.
And while I admit that I still occasionally prop a 2-by on my
knee, you can be sure that I now remain completely focused on
what I'm doing when I'm using my circular saw.
Mark Parleeowns Parlee Builders in Des Moines,
Caught Beneath a Rolling Tractorby Rick McCamy
Almost 20 years ago, I was working as a foreman for a small
landscaping firm. We were at a site with a large, steep hill in
the backyard, which we intended to plant with ground cover.
Three-quarters of the way up the hill was a grade break, with
the steeper section of the hill below and a gentler rise
Although I don't recall the hill's actual pitch now, it seemed
obvious to me at the time that we would have to amend the
entire slope by hand, with picks and shovels. But the owner of
the firm had a nice tractor, and he wanted to use it on this
Large by residential landscape standards, his John Deere 760
was equipped with a roll bar and a seatbelt, but not a full
The boss felt we could save time by driving the tractor around
the back and working the top quarter of the slope with the
tractor's tiller. I thought this was risky and told him so
repeatedly; still, I allowed myself to be convinced to get up
on that tractor.
Our technique was to back the tractor up to the edge of the
grade break, lower the tines, and till uphill. After four or
five passes, I was thinking I had been a weenie for voicing my
But when I backed up to make the last pass of the day, gently
applying the brakes to stop the tractor as I came to the top of
the break, the tractor kept on moving. An uneasy glance down at
the wheels confirmed that it wasn't rolling, but sliding on
As the tractor dropped backward over the break, my first
thought was to jump clear, since I wasn't wearing the seatbelt.
Then I remembered that there was a house below me, and tried to
control my descent by steering the rig down the hill. One twist
of the wheel, though, and the John Deere flipped into a roll,
moving sideways across the face of the slope.
Co-workers later told me that I rode through one roll in the
seat, holding on to the steering wheel. I was catapulted off
the tractor and hit the ground hard, knowing that something big
was following close behind.
Looking uphill, I was terrified to see the tractor tumbling
toward me, with blue sky showing underneath. It was completely
airborne. "This is gonna hurt!" was my first thought, followed
by, "Maybe it will miss me." It didn't.
Out of breath from the blow to the ground, I had begun to
scramble away on my belly when the falling tractor stopped me
and knocked me onto my side.
My face was pushed hard into the dirt and I felt the pressure
on my body build up until the weight required every ounce of
strength to resist. I was 35 and in excellent shape; I flexed
all the muscles in my body and wondered, "How much of this can
Pop, pop, pop … my ribs were breaking … pop, pop
… five in all. Another pop! as my left shoulder
dislocated. Snap — like breaking a 2x2 — my left
arm broke at the ball joint.
Suddenly the pressure was gone and sunlight came flooding back
as the tractor rolled off me and on down the hill. After taking
out 16 feet of welded wire fencing, the machine came to rest
upside-down with the seat impaled on a 4x4 post — one of
those rare situations where the operator survives because of
not wearing a seatbelt.
As for me, I slid down the hill and came to rest near the John
Deere. Within moments, I heard the siren of the ambulance
coming for me.
Five days later, I was released from the hospital. Today, at
age 54, I take 2,400 to 3,000 mg of Motrin a day and am a
candidate for a steel shoulder replacement — yet for most
of the last 19 years I've enjoyed the use of my natural
shoulder, thanks to the work of an excellent surgeon.
That was the last time someone convinced me to do something I
felt was unsafe. Since then, I've never operated equipment
anywhere near a slope without a full protective cage. When I
think a task is dangerous, I try to subcontract the work out to
a specialist with more experience.
And I encourage all employees to protect themselves if they
believe an assignment is too dangerous. Contractors need to
reexamine their methods and not simply dismiss employees'
concerns when they have misgivings about the safety of a
Rick McCamydesigns and manages residential remodels
in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Vanity Thumbby Bill Wise
For more than 50 years, I've built custom cabinetry in my
basement workshop, and while I've made my share of stupid
mistakes, none have resulted in a serious injury — until
I'd just finished making the final cuts for a piece of
furniture that had gone through a number of client revisions,
and I decided to clean up some of the sawdust while the vacuum
system was still running.
My table saw has a shelf under the blade with a pan for the
vacuum collector, but some sawdust always clings to the pan and
needs help getting to the collector's center hole.
Thinking that the saw was off, I reached in with my left hand
to clear the sawdust, felt a strange sensation, and quickly
jerked my hand back out of the pan. My thumb was almost
completely sawn off at the joint; it was held in place only by
a 1/8-inch-wide piece of skin attached to my index
I've always worn hearing protectors when running shop
machinery; in this case, I'd forgotten to switch off the saw,
and with my earmuffs on I couldn't hear that it was still
running. I was lucky I didn't cut my entire hand off.
My wife, a registered nurse, was on the first floor when I
shouted out, "Let's roll! I've sawn my thumb off!"
While she ran to get the car started, she told me to stop in
the bathroom and wrap the thumb in a wet towel. Then we were
off to the emergency room at the nearby teaching hospital,
where she'd worked for 18 years.
Not 20 minutes after the accident, I was getting anesthesia as
the doctors prepared to reattach my thumb.
After his accident, the author equipped
his table saw with a clearly visible running light; now he
knows if the saw is on even when he's wearing hearing
protection. Note the absence of a blade guard between the
underside of the saw's blade and its dust-collection
Today, three years later, almost no one notices that my
‘vanity thumb' is about 1/4 inch shorter than my working
thumb; the color is fine and the nail is normal. It doesn't
bend except as a fixed unit on that side of the palm, and it
has limited feeling.
It's not very strong, either; since both tendons are connected
just below the fixed thumb joint, it doesn't grip
I still work in my shop. But because most shop machines don't
have an "on" light to indicate that they're running, I have
equipped all my equipment with clearly visible, red-bulbed
porchlight-type lamps wired into the power switches.
Bill Wiseis a retired electronics technician and a
lifelong woodworker in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Hard Way to Learn About Radial-Arm Sawsby Thomas Dickey
My dad was a union carpenter. Beginning at age 9, I accompanied
him on many of his side jobs and learned how to safely use
circular saws and table saws. I never used radial-arm saws,
though, so of course my first job in the trades involved
cutting with one of them.
My boss was strict, and when he gave me the cut list and said,
"No waste! This stuff is expensive," I paid attention.
I started cutting the longest pieces first, leaving several
foot-long lengths from which to cut some 4-inch mitered
returns. While making my second cut on the smaller pieces, the
piece jerked, drawing my left thumb into the blade.
It took 150 stitches, a skin graft, and a year of mental
recuperation before I touched a power tool again.
Even after 20 years of carpentry, my working but deformed thumb
reminds me daily of my three personal rules for working with
these saws — three rules that I broke that day: 1) Never
cut anything from a piece less than 2 feet long; 2) Keep hands
at least a foot away from the blade, and use a clamp if you
can't; 3) Always use a blade guard.
Thomas Dickeyis a project manager for Case Remodeling
in Clinton, Mass.
Nearly Nailed in the Eyeby Jason Seltin
When I install fiber-cement siding, I fit vinyl siding blocks
around building penetrations; to carve them into shape, I use a
utility knife. During one job, it occurred to me as I wrenched
the blade through a curved cut for an electrical entrance that
the tensioned blade tip could snap off and strike me in the
So I put on my safety glasses.
Since I need prescription glasses for everything except
up-close work, I don't usually wear safety goggles. But in this
case, I left them on when I started installing the
About an hour later, I stumbled while standing up after firing
a nail into a section of siding; I fell against the house and
painfully twisted the wrist of my hand holding the nail gun.
When I tried to push off from the house, I inadvertently pushed
the nosepiece into the side of the house and pulled the
trigger. At that point, the gun was about 8 inches away from
— and aimed directly at — my face.
I felt a slight bump, but no pain. I checked for blood, but
found none; the only sensation was a tickling in my eyebrow.
Thinking that there was a nail sticking out of my head, but
that I should not remove it, I ran inside to check in the
bathroom mirror. Once I'd flicked on my flashlight, I could see
the chisel point of the nail in the beam, the very point
tickling my eyebrow hairs. I pulled off the safety glasses and
rubbed the spot. Relieved, I found nothing: no bleeding, no
brains leaking out. And there, embedded in the lens of the
safety glasses I normally never wear, was the nail from the
Since then, I've made a habit of wearing safety glasses
regularly. And whenever the local high-school building program
is having trouble getting students to wear their safety
glasses, I loan them my pair.
Jason Seltin is a builder in St. Johns, Mich.
A Devastating Fire Caused by Oily Ragsby Steve Malcom
It was about 2 a.m., just before Thanksgiving, when I got a
call from the alarm company indicating that there was a problem
in one of our company buildings.
These calls usually turn out to be irritating false alerts, but
this time, the alarm was real: Our custom paint and finishing
shop was on fire and the fire department was already on the
When I arrived 15 minutes later, most of the building was in
flames. Apparently, one of our employees — despite the
availability of approved containers — tossed a handful of
oily rags into an open trash can, where they spontaneously
combusted and started the blaze.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the fire department prevented
the blaze from spreading to our other buildings and to the
But our paint shop was totally destroyed. This same building
had housed our design department and provided storage for many
of our tools, including expensive items like laser levels and
It had also contained a variety of specialty hardwoods we'd
been saving for just the right application.
Everything was a total loss.
This experience taught us something besides the obvious. Yes,
it's important to dispose of solvent-soaked rags in a sealed
container designed for that purpose and to continually train
employees in matters of safety.
But it's equally important to make sure your insurance coverage
is kept up-to-date.
Our insurance settlement covered only about half the cost of
rebuilding and replacing our lost equipment; it took more than
a year to get our building rebuilt and get back to where we
were — a painful lesson both personally and
Now we review our coverage regularly with our agent and make
necessary adjustments to our policies as our business
Steve Malcomowns Boothbay Homebuilders in Boothbay,