Do you know what it takes to stay safe when using PATs?

For most contractors today, powder-actuated tools (PATs) are a way of life. By eliminating the need to drill holes with a concrete drill bit or use anchors and screws for fastening applications, PATs have become a necessity in the electrical construction industry—enabling users to attach conduit clips, electrical junction boxes and various other items to concrete, masonry, and steel surfaces. Although the benefits are obvious, there are several safety concerns you must address before becoming a qualified operator. That’s why anyone using a PAT must carry a valid certification card, which verifies he or she has been thoroughly trained and tested on how to use that specific tool.


Depending on where you work, two types of certification apply. California has its own requirements, while the remaining 49 states have common certification. In California, certification is valid for only three years. Elsewhere, certifications last a lifetime.

When choosing a PAT, make sure you purchase from a reputable company. The tool should be UL-listed and fasteners approved by the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), and/or Miami-Dade County, Fla. To find out more about certification procedures, contact the manufacturer directly.

Staying safe. Even if you’re a certified operator, you should never attempt to operate any PAT until you’ve carefully read and understand the operating instructions. Is this precaution really necessary? Absolutely. Improper usage can cause serious injury or death. In addition to safety warnings, there is also valuable information in the operator’s manual on proper fastener length selection, how to determine if a base material is too hard or too soft, and how to select the appropriate powder load. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about PATs, read the instructions anyway. Taking this proactive approach can prevent many mishaps. But there’s more you can do to maximize the safety of you and your coworkers. Here are a few more tips to remember when using a PAT.

The power fasteners, or pins, are made of special alloy steel with a very specific heat-treating process to ensure the right mix of hardness, toughness, and ductility. Never use ordinary or concrete nails in any PAT.

PAT powder loads contain very precise amounts of special powder to maintain consistent driving performance. Make sure you use the correct powder load for your particular application. Powder loads are available in single shot (for .22 caliber tools) and 10-shot strips (for .27 caliber semi-automatic tools). The level of powder for each load is designated by its color and number. Once again, you should refer to the owner’s manual or application chart to determine the appropriate color and level powder load. Generally, the harder the base material, the more powder you need.

Before starting a job, always know the thickness and type of base material you’re fastening to and make sure you test fastenings starting with the lowest powder level. Never make fastenings in spalled or cracked areas or too close to an edge. Use a Spall Shield to help reduce the amount of surface chipping when fastening directly into concrete or sparking from directly fastening into steel.

Loading and usage tips. After choosing the correct load and fastener, insert the appropriate powder fastener into the muzzle of the tool head first, until the plastic collar is flush with the muzzle. Then insert the powder load into the tool. Always insert the fastener first, then the powder load. Once loaded, place the muzzle of the fastening tool against the work surface, holding it at a right angle.

Certain safety features have been designed to help prevent accidents. Before you can use the tool, you must completely compress the muzzle against the work surface until the sliding action of the barrel stops. This prevents the PAT from firing into the air or accidentally shooting into the body. Once you’ve loaded the tool correctly, observe the following precautions for additional safety:

  • Always wear ANSI-/OSHA-approved eye and ear protection.

  • Point the tool away from your body and others during loading or handling.

  • Do not put hand/fingers in front of the muzzle.

  • Always clear the work area on all sides and post appropriate warning signs to notify bystanders and coworkers.

  • Never fire a PAT in an explosive or flammable environment.

  • Prior to using a PAT, inspect the barrel to make sure it is free from obstructions.

  • Always unload a PAT before disassembling, assembling, replacing the barrel, or cleaning.

PATs are easy to use and provide quality performance and reliability for any user. But following strict safety precautions as well as keeping up on appropriate building codes and ANSI/OSHA standards in your area will increases your chances of a safe and efficient installation.

Wetzel is marketing manager of DESA International's Tool/Specialty Products Division in Bowling Green, Ky.