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What is a jackhammer?

A jackhammer is a percussive drilling machine that’s manually operated by a person who usually holds it vertically on the surface to be drilled.

What are the origins of jackhammers?

The jackhammer was created as a response to a need that prevailed in mining in the mid-19th century. Before they were created, steam engines were used for drilling mines, but this entailed great inconvenience and risks.

Steam engines require fire, and the resulting smoke does not combine well with the narrowness and lack of ventilation of underground mines. The source of steam also had to be close to the place where the machine was operating because the steam couldn’t be transported without significant losses. Digging the mines also frequently released flammable gases such as methane, which pervaded the tunnels quickly, so flames in close proximity greatly increased the risks of explosion and fire.

This is how the first models of pneumatic hammers came to be. Compressed air could travel relatively long distances without losing energy, and when released, it helped ventilate the tunnels. Of course, the economic potential of these tools quickly led to a successive run of patents, as well as improvements to the designs and production of other varieties.

Other fields where jackhammers were widely used were building tunnels and railway tracks.

What types of jackhammers are there?

  • Pneumatic hammer: works with compressed air, which fills the piston, pushing the hammer’s head. The air comes from a separate machine called a compressor, which is connected to the handle of the hammer through a valve.
    This type of hammer can be paired with various accessories, such as chisels and drills, to perform different jobs more efficiently. 
    The pneumatic hammer is preferred for use on horizontal surfaces, given that its shape, size, and weight are not ideal for vertical work.
  • Hydraulic hammer: works based on the same physical principle as the hydraulic hammer but uses hydraulic fluid instead of compressed air. It is typically used along with another machine like a tractor, skid steer loader, backhoe, etc.
    While it is used on horizontal surfaces, this is the ideal type of hammer for working on vertical surfaces, so it is preferred in mining. Its current design is still very similar to the first hydraulic hammers from the late 19th century.
    This type of hammer can itself be divided into:
    • High pressure, which uses a membrane pressure accumulator.
    • High pressure plus gas, which has a nitrogen accumulator.
    • Gas pressure.
    • Low pressure.
  • Electric hammer: it is smaller, requires less specialization for use, and has a more limited capacity. It is usually used for more domestic jobs.

What is a jackhammer used for?

It is normally used for:

  • Breaking pavement.
  • Making large holes.
  • Demolishing walls or small structures.
  • Breaking up hardened soils.
  • Drilling rock.
  • Opening channels for pipes and wiring.
  • Disassembling ceramic coatings.

What safety measures should be taken when using a jackhammer?

Despite being a relatively small machine, jackhammers require many safety measures because of how exposed the operator usually is. To use a jackhammer, the following are essential:

  • Safety shoes with a reinforced toe cap.
  • Protective goggles.
  • Anti-knock helmet.
  • Anti-vibration work gloves.
  • Acoustic protection.
  • Mask with a mechanical filter.

What health consequences can sustained jackhammer use have?

Using a jackhammer, especially the pneumatic kind, for a long time can lead to various health problems. The main ones are:

  • Raynaud’s syndrome: a vascular disorder affecting the fingers, in the case of jackhammer operators. It causes numbness, tingling, a feeling of cold, cramps, and a change in skin color (to white and blue).
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: the carpal tunnel is the channel through which nerves enter the hand. When a nerve becomes inflamed — for example, due to small, continual trauma caused by the vibration of a jackhammer — the nerves are compressed inside the carpal tunnel, causing pain, weakness, numbness, tingling, and increased sensitivity to cold.
  • Tinnitus: the constant perception of a noise in one or both ears. These are not sounds coming from the outside: it’s an internal condition that, among other things, can be caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises, such as the high decibels of jackhammers.

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