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DIY Safety Tips

Updated: Jun. 30, 2017

Lessons learned from difficult and sometimes painful experiences

FH11MAR_DIYDAN_01-2Family Handyman
Our staff and field editors tell of the DIY mistakes they've made and the lessons learned from ladders, electricity, roofs, power nailers, drills, pressure washers and more.

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Watch out for falling tools

Falling tools

Never leave anything on ladders. It'll come back to bonk you.

If you're grinding without goggles, it shouldn't be a surprise if you get metal in your eye. But there are plenty of ways you can get hurt with DIY that are unexpected. To find out what some of them are, we asked our Field Editors how they've been hurt doing DIY projects. Here's what they told us, along with some of the lessons we can learn from their experiences.

Do you catch yourself leaving stuff on top of ladders or framing? One Field Editor told how his brother had rested a framing nail gun on the top plate of a wall they were building, and while he was working below, the vibrations from his pounding knocked it off onto his head. Tools left on top of ladders, set precariously on framing, or placed unsecured on a roof are an accident waiting to happen.

Pressure washers peel skin

Charlie Marken says, “I rented a pressure washer to spruce up the concrete patio. After finishing that job, I spotted some dirty patio chair cushions. Holding a cushion with one hand, I used the other hand to operate the trigger on the pressure washer. Not paying much attention, I moved the spray wand right across my hand. Immediately I let go of the cushion and saw the skin on my thumb peeled back and bleeding profusely. I now have a very healthy respect for the power of water when it's pressurized to 2,500 pounds per square inch! I also have a two-inch scar in the shape of a 'Z'—not cut by Zorro, but myself.”

Cuts from pressure washers are surprisingly common, and dangerous. Water and bacteria get forced deep under the skin, where they can cause infections. Treat pressure washers as carefully as you'd treat a loaded gun.

Bump-nailing nails foot

Bump nailing goof

If you bump your boot while bump nailing, you might nail your foot.

We were using a framing nailer to fasten plywood to joists. The nailer was set to fire in “bump” mode. Instead of pressing down on the nose of the gun and then pulling the trigger, you just hold down the trigger and push the nose against the wood. That's great for speed, but not so great if you bump the gun where you don't want a nail. And that's just what happened. In my rush, I bumped my boot. Luckily, the nail just glanced off my toe. Set your nail gun to the safer sequential-fire mode. It's not worth risking a 16d nail in your foot or forehead just to save a minute or two. Joe Jenson

Wrapped up and reeled in

I was using a large hole saw to drill plywood and leaned in close to apply pressure. The hole saw caught my T-shirt. In my panic, I accidentally pressed the trigger lock (I usually cut the trigger lock button flush to the tool to minimize this problem, but didn't on this drill). The hole saw reeled in my shirt and climbed my chest. Luckily I escaped major injury, but I got some nasty spiraling teeth marks and a shredded shirt before I was able to turn off the drill. I learned two lessons: Avoid loose-fitting clothes around power tools, and be wary of trigger locks. Jeff Gorton

Zapped by live wires

Electrical shock

Electrical shocks can kill you. Always check wires with a noncontact voltage tester before touching them.

I plugged a radio into the outlet and switched off breakers until the radio died. I figured it was safe to work in the box and proceeded to disconnect the wires from the outlet. Suddenly, I was knocked back by a jolt of electricity shooting up my arm. It turns out there were two circuits connected to the outlet and only one had been turned off.

It's dangerous to make assumptions about electricity. Always check the wires with a voltage tester and double-check all the wires in the box with a noncontact voltage tester before doing any electrical work. Elisa Bernick

Sliced by spinning sheet metal

Here's a story from Michael Giannetto, another one of our Field Editors. “I was drilling a hole in a piece of metal on my drill press. I was in a rush and didn't take the time to clamp the metal to the table. The drill bit caught the metal and spun it out of my grip. The spinning metal made a nasty, deep slash in my hand. Fourteen stitches and a few hours at the hospital later, I regretted not taking time to clamp the metal as I should have.”

It's surprising how quickly sheet metal can be twisted from your grip if it's not clamped. I know I've had this happen on more than one occasion. The lesson is clear: Slow down and clamp your work before drilling it.

Springing branch sends ladder airborne

Worried about ice buildup on his old oak tree, Mark Davis, one of our Field Editors, cut off the end of the branch with a chain saw. Mark recalls, “When I cut through the branch, it eliminated the weight problem and the branch sprang into the air, leaving the ladder with no support.” Mark was unhurt, but it was a close call.

The next time you think about heading up a ladder with a chain saw, consider hiring a tree trimmer instead. It'll cost a lot less than a trip to the emergency room.

Blindsided by a beam

Overhanging beam

Beware of head-high lumber. It'll whack you when you not looking.

Gary Steinmetz was rushing to get done for the day, turned the corner and smashed his forehead into protruding lumber. His baseball cap visor blocked his view and—WHAM! After a trip to the emergency room and a half-dozen stitches, he was more careful about leaving boards sticking out at head level and decided to wear his baseball cap backward.

Jawbreaker bit

Free-swinging drill

When the bit in a powerful drill binds or stops suddenly, the torque will knock you off your ladder … or worse.

My plumber was using his powerful Milwaukee Hole-Hawg drill to bore a big hole through the floor. He was working from underneath, between the floor joists, when the drill hit something and the bit bound up. The drill handle swung around, knocking him in the jaw and off the ladder. He was bruised and couldn't chew for a week, but at least nothing was broken. Even small drills have a lot of torque, so avoid this type of injury by keeping your face away from the drill. Jeff Gorton

Karate chop backfires

Here's a cautionary tale from Field Editor William Wilson: “I decided to 'kung fu' a piece of furring strip against the curb so it would fit better in the trash can. The broken piece boomeranged, slapped me in the face at supersonic speed and left a nasty knot over my eye. I played it like it didn't hurt only to go home to my wife and whine when she asked me about it. It's tough being tough.”

We received other similar stories of disastrous attempts to break stuff. Take William's advice: A saw is still the best tool for reducing remodeling debris to a manageable size.

Dangerous sawdust

Our crew did a lot of new-home framing, and the last step was the roof sheathing. That involved lots of cutting up there: skylight and vent holes, gable ends, etc. I insisted on having a push broom on the roof and lectured the guys about sweeping the dust away after each cut. The young guns, of course, thought they were bulletproof and wouldn't always do it. Then it happened. Joey's feet went out from under him and he found himself tobogganing down the 5/12 slope and over the edge, then performing a perfect two-point plant on the ground. He was lucky we were building a single story! The broom got used religiously after that. Travis Larson

Ladder-stretcher disaster

Make-shift scaffolding

A ladder added to planks on sawhorses is a bad combination. Set ladders up properly and safely.

Travis Larson tells this ladder story: “I had a six-foot stepladder and I needed an eight-foot one. What to do? I know—I'll rest it on planks that are resting on sawhorses. Brilliant! Nope, turns out it was really, really stupid. When I climbed nearly to the top, the planks slipped right off the horses like the undersides were greased. Of course, the ladder went down too. The saving grace was that I was near enough to the gutter so I could grab it before I followed the ladder. Fortunately it was strong enough to support my weight. I hung there and bellowed for help until my wife came out to see what the rumble was. She set the ladder back up—on the ground this time—and steadied it so I could 'dismount.'”

Ladders are one dangerous DIY tool. But you can avoid most accidents by following good ladder safety techniques—and using a little common sense.