It began as an ordinary day on the job. A 31-year-old carpenter was replacing the roof of a house in Pennsylvania, standing on an aluminum ladder-jack scaffold while he made some adjustments. Then the aluminum drip edging he was installing accidentally bumped the 7,200-volt power line located just above the roof. The current from the line roared through the man's body, killing him instantly.
That was more than 10 years ago, but electrocutions and serious shocks are still major hazards for carpenters. Carpenter Dan Black* was once installing some bookcases in a San Francisco home when he lazily opted against shutting down the power before beginning work. Making what he calls a "stupid mistake," he fell against an open electrical outlet with a screwdriver. A strong electric charge painfully surged up his arm, both shocking and unnerving him for the rest of the day.
Black says he enjoys the creativity of his work despite the job's hazards -- of which he has experienced quite a few. Most of us are taken aback if we get a paper cut at the office or slice ourselves chopping vegetables. But to Black, lacerations are a routine occurrence. He nicks and bloodies himself about three times a week, describing his cuts as more of an annoyance than a hazard. The other dangers he skirts on a daily basis include falls, back strain, electric shock, repetitive strain injury, and lung irritation from dust and chemicals. He has learned -- often by way of painful firsthand experience -- how to protect himself when using heavy machinery or working in a cloud of dust or fumes. Like many carpenters, Black has no formal training in his field, having been taught the ropes by more experienced carpenters.
The lack of formal safety training for independent carpenters, along with some employers' failure to comply with basic safety regulations, may help explain why injuries and death are a serious problem in the field, say experts. The following is an overview of some of the work hazards carpenters face:
- Dangerous falls: Falls are the number one cause of accidental death in the construction industry, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency sets out clear rules for avoiding them altogether in its "Safety Standards for Fall Protection in the Construction Industry" and "Safety Standards for Scaffolds Used in the Construction Industry" -- guidelines which, if followed, could save many lives.
- Cuts and lacerations: Black is by no means the only battered and scratched-up carpenter around. According to a George Washington University report, lacerations account for a majority of carpentry mishaps. Protective gloves can help, but Stephen Perry, a field representative for the Carpenters Health and Safety Fund, warns against using them indiscriminately. He cites a case in point in which a colleague, trying to avoid lacerations, casually slipped on a pair of loose cotton gloves before operating a drill press. Unfortunately, one of the gloves caught in the machinery, "so instead of preventing a cut, he actually lost a finger." For this reason, Perry recommends that carpenters always avoid wearing gloves when operating machinery. But for ripping out walls and handling hazardous material like asbestos, he says, leather-palmed gloves are ideal.
- Exposure to dust and hazardous fumes: Construction carpentry is an extremely hazardous trade, with higher-than-normal death rates for stomach, bone, and breast cancers, according to a report in the 1996 American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Another study of respiratory disease among union carpenters found a slightly higher rate of lung cancer, compared to the general population. Researchers also found that exposure to dusts, glues, acids, alkalis, and concrete-form oils was associated with a higher risk of asthma.
- Back strain and musculoskeletal disorders. Carpenters suffer from many types of strains and sprains, but according to a 1997 study of more than 10,000 carpenters in the state of Washington, back strains accounted for the largest group of workers compensation claims filed for musculoskeletal disorders. "The best way to prevent a back injury from the very beginning is to use proper lifting techniques," Perry says. "Bend your knees; don't bend over at the waist to pick something up. Use your leg muscles." Carpenters may also want to order a copy of OSHA's Ergonomics Program guide. It describes the symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders -- running the gamut from carpal tunnel syndrome to disorders of the hips and knees -- and offers tips on how to prevent and treat them.
- Eye injuries: Between 1989 and 1995, eye injuries were responsible for 12 percent of workers comp claims among a group of 12,958 union carpenters in the state of Washington. In a 2004 report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts construction eye injuries at 18 percent. Hammering accounted for the majority of eye injuries. "I have seen, in my years of construction, people lose eyes from when they go to drive a nail, and they hit it crooked or they hit the edge of the nail and it flies into their eye," Perry says. "I've seen one end up puncturing someone's eye." It's also easy for foreign bodies such as sawdust to get lodged in the eyes ("I've seen that thousands of times"), so he recommends that carpenters wear eye protection at all times. Protective work goggles work best.
- Asbestos and lead exposure: Most construction carpenters are exposed to dangerous substances at some point in their career, especially when remodeling old buildings. OSHA provides rigorous standards for workers who handle toxic materials; the agency also outlines the protective gear required. In particular, Perry warns against remodeling with only a face mask when working around lead or asbestos, saying that it provides a false sense of security. "[Face masks] present a greater hazard because someone puts one of those things on and thinks that they're going to be protected from asbestos fibers in a high concentration. They're really exposing themselves to severe physical harm." In these cases, he says, carpenters should always use respirators.
- Electricity. Like Black, many carpenters have experienced close calls involving electric equipment. Some have been electrocuted when using power tools in damp or humid weather, or when using home extension cords on a job site. Experts recommend training in electrical hazards and OSHA regulations.
Better regulations, better safety
Many carpenters today enjoy better work conditions than their predecessors, thanks to better federal regulations. Perry, for one, praises the OSHA standards on preventing falls. "It took years and years of study in the construction industry to find out why so many people die from falling, how they fall, and how to prevent them from falling," he says. Once that was established, OSHA developed universal standards -- for example, those requiring handrails and a medium rail on scaffolding to keep people from falling off if they trip. To protect people working underneath a scaffold and pedestrians on the sidewalk, OSHA requires a kickboard, or barrier, so that tools, bricks, or pieces of wood won't get kicked off the scaffold and land on someone's head.
Better protective equipment can also help carpenters ward off work-related disease. To help prevent lung ailments, for example, the Carpenters Health and Safety Fund recommends wearing a face mask for sawing or when engaging in any other activity that creates billows of fine dust, which are easily sucked into the lungs. When working around paints, lacquers, or finishes with hazardous solvents, the work area should be properly ventilated, either by opening windows and doors or by installing exhaust fans. If fans are not available and it's too cold to open the windows, Perry warns that carpenters should use respirators. (Enclosed rooms with toxic fumes should always be ventilated, however: This guards against the possibility of a deadly explosion if machinery releases a spark.)
Perry says that we know how to prevent accidents: Now, he says, it's time to stop cutting corners when it comes to safety. In 2007, despite OSHA's stringent regulations, 109 carpenters died from work-related injuries.
Dan Black is a pseudonym.
Carpenters Safety and Health Fund
Provides OSHA-approved training to the Carpenters Union members and affiliates.
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
This union has 500,000 members in the United States and Canada. It provides information on everything from OSHA standards to updated links to books on the business. 202/546-6206
National Safety Council
The mission of this nonprofit council is to educate people to adopt safety, health, and environmental policies.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA creates and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
NIOSH. Bernard, Bruce P; Fine LJ; Editors. Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors: A critical review of epidemiologic evidence for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, upper extremity, and low back. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/pdfs/97-141.pdf
Workplace violence NIOSH: Current Intelligence Bulletin 57. Violence in the workplace: Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies. NIOSH Division of Safety Research. Publication No. 96-100. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/violcont.html
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Injuries/Illnesses and Fatal Injuries Profiles, 2007 http://data.bls.gov/GQT/servlet/ProfileData
Personal Protective Equipment. Remodeling magazine, May 2004. Posted on the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations carpenter safety web page.