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Solvent in the Eye: Could Have Been Worse

by Kenny Hart

About 25 years ago, I spent a morning with an insurance agent looking at business insurance plans. When we got to the topic of workmen's compensation, the agent pointed out that plumbers had a high incidence of eye injuries.

Later that afternoon, I stopped by a job site to check on the progress of my men. I walked up to my head plumber, who was working off a ladder at the time, looked up at his work — and bam! A drop of PVC glue splashed into my right eye. The insurance guy was right.

As soon as that glue hit, it felt as if someone had stuck something sharp in my eye. Thanks to the pain and the tears now streaming from both eyes, I ran into a wall on my dash to flush out my eye at the nearest sink. Later, the ophthalmologist did a more thorough job of flushing out the eye and gave me drops; thankfully, there was no permanent damage.

At the time, our company was small, with no formal safety policy. But ever since that incident, I keep a pair of safety goggles on hand, and so do my employees. Better yet, we use them whenever we think there's any possibility of getting an eyeful.

Kenny Hartand his father operate Hart's Plumbing and Heating in Virginia Beach, Va.

Nailed by My Own Gun

by John Wilder

As a fencing contractor, I drive hundreds, even thousands, of nails in a day's work, so I depend on my nail guns. On one particular job, I was face-nailing stringers to 4x4 posts when I got a little careless. While holding the stringer with my left hand a bit too close to where I was nailing, my nail gun double-fired and kicked back, sending the second 16d ring-shank nail through the fleshy part of my left hand between the thumb and index finger. I was fortunate I didn't nail my hand to the post, because I was working alone at the time and freeing myself would have been tricky.

Since it was a ring-shank nail, I couldn't just pull it out of my hand, so I called my wife and asked her to meet me at the urgent-care clinic. There wasn't much blood, apparently because the hot-melt glue on the Bostitch nails I was using cauterized the wound. And, except for the shotlike sensation when the nail went in, there wasn't a lot of pain. Still, I was careful not to snag the nail on anything as I drove the five miles to the urgent-care facility.

I arrived before my wife and showed the receptionist my hand with the nail protruding from both sides. Fascinated, she called the other nurses and doctors out to see it before sending me to an exam room to wait for the attending physician. In the meantime, my wife arrived, and while the receptionist couldn't identify me by name, she quickly remembered me when my wife asked for "the guy with the nail in his hand." Later, the doctor deadened my hand with a shot of Novocain, unscrewed the nail, and sent me home with a dressing, antibiotics, and some painkillers.

Usually, the result of a nail-gun misfire in my line of work is a hole in nearby vinyl siding. It's easy to get careless and complacent when you're shooting lots of nails day after day. Now, whenever my left hand strays too close to the line of fire, I quickly remind myself that a pneumatic nailer is a serious weapon as well as an indispensable tool.

John Wilderis a fencing contractor near Daytona Beach, Fla.

Buried Alive

by John Vastyan

Aaron Wentz is one of the lucky ones. Though buried twice by tons of soil during a trenching accident, he managed to survive an ordeal that kills more than 100 construction workers each year. And he emerged with few physical or mental scars; frequently those who survive a trench collapse have to deal with a lifetime of disabilities caused by the accident. When you consider that the weight of a cubic yard of soil is comparable to that of a midsize automobile, and that a typical trench-wall collapse involves 3 to 5 cubic yards, it's not hard to see why trench work can be so dangerous.

A 29-year-old plumber in Kearney, Neb., at the time of the accident, Wentz was working 13 feet below grade while tapping into a main sewer line. Dug by a skilled backhoe operator, the work area at the bottom of the trench measured 6 feet by 6 feet, and the trench sidewalls were sloped back per OSHA guidelines so that the top of the trench was nearly 21 feet wide. But, shortly after being inspected and approved by a city building inspector who was on the job site that day, the trench walls collapsed, burying Wentz and covering his head with more than 20 inches of soil. Hearing the rumbling of the soil as it began to move, he had just enough time to lean against the opposite side of the trench and throw an arm up over his head, forming an air pocket that probably saved his life.

Wentz's father, Orlin, was working on the job that day, and with help from co-workers and onlookers he was able to uncover Wentz's neck and shoulders after about eight minutes, pulling the soil away with bare hands and shovels. But as rescuers uncovered Wentz's chest and were attempting to remove him from the trench, a second avalanche of soil — a common hazard for rescue workers that often causes multiple fatalities in a trench collapse — buried Wentz again.

No other workers were buried, but this time more than 2 feet of soil covered Wentz's head, and with one hand pinned behind his back and the other fractured from soil pressure, he was able to create only a small air pocket near his mouth with his hand. Though it took nearly 15 minutes to uncover him after the second collapse, he was still conscious as workers pulled him from the trench, and he managed to walk to the ambulance under his own power.

OSHA declined to conduct a safety hearing into the accident, but a subsequent review by safety consultants identified few obvious flaws in the trench's construction. Instead, unpredictable soil conditions caused by an unstable mix of sand and clay, the vestiges of an ancient river, would have probably caused a collapse even under ideal conditions. Wentz's company went back to finish the job a week later, and had to widen the trench to nearly 40 feet to reach soil that hadn't been disturbed by the accident. They no longer take on any work in that area of the city.

Does Wentz still get down in the trenches? Yes, though he admits that some days are easier than others. It's harder on his father, who can no longer comfortably go near a trench. But, as Wentz notes, sometimes accidents just happen, regardless of how safely you work or what precautions you take.

John Vastyanis a freelance writer covering the construction industry from Manheim, Pa.

Unexpected Frost Makes Slippery Slope

by Fernando Pagés Ruiz

One brisk winter morning in Los Angeles, I arrived on the job site before anyone else. I walked upstairs and stepped through a second-floor window onto the roof to check the sheathing. Confident working at heights, I didn't notice that the night's dew had frozen into a thin coating of ice. One step, two steps … and then I slipped and skated down the 6/12 rake as if barreling down a water slide. Time slowed enough for me to remember that at the end of the slope came a two-story drop and, at the bottom of that drop, a pile of construction trash filled with rebar, jagged plywood, boards with nails, and welded wire mesh.

In the movies, the hero is always able to grab and hang on to something at the last second. But this was real life, and I realized that I would land in the debris and quite possibly never get back up again.

I slid off the edge, but as the ground approached, I experienced a nearly religious appreciation for my trashman. He must have come by the job even earlier than I did to haul away the heap. I landed on my ass, bruised and humiliated but not impaled by rebar or punctured by 16-penny nails, a newly converted believer in the merits of a clean and trash-free job site.

Fernando Pagés Ruizis a general contractor who keeps his job sites spotless in Lincoln, Neb.

Taking Care of the Injured

by Bill Robinson

Before becoming a building contractor, I worked offshore for nearly 15 years, a truly dangerous working environment where safety is taken seriously. One day, one of my co-workers on the drilling platform where we were based fell about 8 feet onto steel grating. We rushed to his aid, moving him to a more comfortable position out of the way so work could continue while we waited for the medevac helicopter to arrive. Fortunately, he was okay, and returned to work the next day, but I was written up for moving a fall victim before medical assistance arrived, which could have seriously complicated his condition.

Later, I was working for a land-based contractor doing remodeling. About half the crew were Spanish-speaking laborers, so communication was tricky on this site. And, compared with my experience offshore, there seemed to be considerable complacency about working safely. We had just removed a second-story balcony rail for demo when one of the Latino workers went up on the balcony; because we couldn't speak any Spanish, we couldn't warn him about the missing railing. I didn't see him fall, but I did hear a sickening thud followed by a muffled groan as he landed on the concrete floor below the balcony. When I turned around, he was lying on the ground, eyes rolled back and his tongue curled back in his throat.

Having learned my lesson from the accident offshore, I didn't try to move the man, but instead concentrated on getting him stabilized by clearing his breathing passage and keeping him from moving, and then calling the EMTs. Fortunately, he too recovered.

Because of the lax safety guidelines on this job site and the difficulty we had in communicating with our co-workers, a person was nearly killed or permanently disabled. But, by not moving the victim, I avoided making any injuries that he had worse.

When I was younger, I worried too much about keeping the job moving. Now, I realize that it's more important to work safely, and if there is an injury, to take care of the injured worker first.

Bill Robinsonis a general contractor and consultant in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

Just a Splinter? Maybe Not

by Mike Guertin

I once tripped on a tangle of hoses and power cords while carrying an armload of nail-embedded studs that I'd just extracted from a wall. Hoping that no one noticed my clumsy act, I quickly scrambled back to my feet. Luckily, all the wounds looked superficial: a couple of nail pokes, a few scrapes, and a splinter in my thumb. I hopped back to work.

After I showered that evening, I taped up a couple of spots with antibiotic salve, just as a precaution. The next day, my thumb started to hurt and swell a little at the knuckle joint, but I didn't think much about it other than that I must have bruised it when I fell. Over the next two days, though, my thumb continued to swell, and even double doses of painkiller failed to take the edge off the pain. On the fourth day, I decided that I must have broken it, so I stopped by the hospital treatment center for X-rays.

There they checked my vital signs, took some blood and X-rays of my thumb, and asked what happened. I just wanted to get a splint, know how long I would be out of work, and score some industrial-strength painkillers.

The doctor said, "Good news. Your X-rays came back negative from the radiologist. But you're running a fever and your white count is up there. When was your last tetanus shot?"

"Uh, beats me," I replied.

He closed the door and paused. "If you came in here tomorrow, you'd be spending the night, because I'd be cutting off your thumb and perhaps part of your hand. You've got a very serious infection."

We decided that the inch-long splinter I dug out of my thumb after the fall must have started the infection. While the small puncture sealed over quickly, the bacteria inside were having a party at my expense. I spent the next three hours hooked up to an IV antibiotic infusion, then spent the next four days at home with my hand above my heart, popping antibiotic horse pills every four or five hours. All because of a splinter.

That was 15 years ago, and I've taken every small cut seriously ever since. I don't wait to get home to scrub and cover wounds with antibiotic and tape, and I keep my tetanus shot current (every five years).

Just the same, three weeks ago I dropped a piece of decking on my ankle, which left a pretty good scrape that I had a nurse look at and dress. My ankle swelled up — as I expected — but it wasn't bad enough to stop me from going on vacation two days later. Still, even though I changed the dressing daily, my ankle continued to swell and stiffen.

Upon returning from my four-day vacation, I went right to the treatment center. I figured that the piece of decking must have whacked my ankle just right and fractured it. But, no: It was another infection that left me couch-bound for two weeks with my foot elevated above my heart. After five days of antibiotics, the pain was still so bad I couldn't walk any further than the bathroom.

I'm fine now, but have since learned from my doctor that injuries below the knee can be more dangerous than anywhere else, because circulation is poor and infection can set in quickly.

Mike Guertinis a builder and remodeler in East Greenwich, R.I., and a member of the JLC Live construction demonstration team.