By: Thomas H. Welby Published: January 2015

Safety in Using Hand Tools and Portable Power Tools: Some Basics

It’s important from time to time to review, and to remind your employees, about even the most basic procedures to be followed to ensure the safe performance of work in the construction trades.

Although such injuries are seldom fatal, it’s common for workers to be injured while using hand tools and portable power tools.  Injuries sustained while using tools may result from the use of the tools themselves, as well as from falls, being struck by falling objects or projectiles, and exposure to harmful fumes, or other airborne substances.

Perhaps the most basic rule to observe is that no one should use a tool that he or she doesn’t know how to use, and use safely.  No less fundamental is that only competent, authorized personnel should be permitted to repair tools, in accordance with manufacturers’ specifications.

Common injuries from the use of hand tools include cuts or lacerations from sharp edges or surfaces, eye injury from flying objects dislodged and projected from the tool, and bruises from the user striking some part of his body with the tool.

Generally, hand tool injuries are caused by the use of the wrong tool for the job; the improper use of the tool; the use of a defective tool, or one not properly inspected or maintained; and the failure to wear eye or face protection, safety shoes, or other necessary personal protective equipment.

It is essential, therefore, when using hand tools, for employees to wear appropriate PPE, and to inspect their tools to detect loose hammer heads, bent screwdriver bits, dull knives, etc., and to remove defective tools from service, and report the matter to a supervisor.  Employees should also be trained that, if uncertain as to what PPE to use, they should consult a supervisor.  To reduce the risk of slips and falls, floors in areas where tools are in use must be kept clean, dry and free of debris.  The use of tools in proximity to explosive or flammable substances generally requires the use of spark-resistant tools of brass, wood, plastic or aluminum.

Power tools present dangers exceeding those associated with hand tools.  Electric tools have as their main hazard the danger of electrocution, shocks, and burns.  Those dangers are caused or enhanced by faulty power cords, the misuse of power cords, improper insulation or grounding, the failure to use a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, and use in wet conditions, or around wet surfaces.  Electric tools should always have a three-wire cord (and be plugged into a three-hole receptacle) or, better, be double-grounded, with a housing unable to conduct electricity to the user.

Gasoline and mixed-fuel tools may emit flammable or explosive fuel vapors and/or toxic exhaust.  Care must be taken in handling, transporting and storing the fuel.  The device must be shut off and allowed to cool before refueling (to prevent accidental ignition of hazardous vapors) and ventilation, or PPE, is required as protection against carbon monoxide or other hazardous emissions, especially where the device is to be used in a closed area.

Gasoline or mixed-fuel devices should be equipped with a trigger lock to prevent accidental activation, as well as a constant pressure throttle control (like the one on your lawn mower) that will shut the power off when pressure is released.  They should be inspected regularly for fuel leaks, and to ensure that mufflers, spark plugs and wires are in good condition.

Pneumatic tools’ greatest danger is the risk of being struck by one of the tool’s attachments or a fastener.  PPE (including, in the case of jackhammers or other high-decibel devices, hearing protection) are essential.

“Do’s” for the safe use of pneumatic tools also include checking to see that the tools are fastened securely to the hose; safety clips or retainers to prevent attachments (such as the chisels on a chipping hammer) from being “shot” from the barrel, and the use of screens to protect other employees or passersby from being struck by flying fragments.

The air-hose must be designed to withstand the pressure to be applied.  If the hose is more than half an inch in diameter, a safety excess flow valve must be installed, to shut down the source of air automatically, in the event that the hose breaks.

“Don’ts” in using pneumatic tools include the use of an air line having a leak, the use of an air hose for cleaning at nozzle pressures exceeding 30 psig (or without chip protection), kinking the airhose, or permitting it to lie across walkways or aisles.  Generally, the trigger on an air hammer, impact wrench or similar tool should not be squeezed, until the tool is in contact with the work.

Every type of power tool has its own safety requirements, but the following is a partial list of safety rules that most types have in common:

  • Read and understand the manual.
  • Use tools only for tasks that they are designed to perform.
  • Use electric power tools that are properly grounded, and in conjunction with a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters.
  • Don’t use electric power tools around flammable vapors, dusts or construction materials.
  • Avoid using electric tools in wet environments.
  • Only use recommended attachments, and be sure that they are properly installed.
  • Inspect tools for damage.  If a tool is damaged, or becomes damaged while in use, report it, and remove the tool from service until repaired.
  • Feed materials at the rate the tool is designed to handle, and avoid excessive force to try to make cutting tools cut faster.
  • Maintain your balance, avoid over-reaching, use a tight grip, and grasp the side handle where available.
  • Never use power tools when tired, distracted, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Your training and procedures should include maintenance, storage, and transportation protocols.  Power tools, for example, should be periodically checked and repaired, as necessary, by authorized repair personnel.  The power supply should be disconnected before making repairs.  Only equivalent replacement parts should be used, the tool or its parts should not be altered, and parts should not be added or removed.

Sharp tools should be stored in a specially-designated cabinet equipped with a blade guard.  Gasoline or other flammable fuels should be drained before long-term storage, and tools should, when appropriate, be de-energized (removing air pressure, de-pressurizing hydraulics, and removing loads).

Transportation guidelines should include prohibitions against carrying power tools by their electric cord, air line, or hydraulic hose.  Sharp or pointed tools should not be carried with the “business end” pointed upward or toward the body, or handed to another person with the sharp end toward the receiver.  Tools must never be thrown at, or toward, another person, or handed to another person while in operation.

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