Actual Table Saws in Use: A Numbers Game

We’ve all been following the lawsuit where a jury awarded a Massachusetts man $1.5 million dollars for an accident he had while using a Ryobi table saw. (Need to catch up on the story? Click here for an article in the Boston Globe, here for an article in INC. magazine about the SawStop technology and here for a piece from The Oregonian). Catching up with the case is easy, but working with the numbers, not so much.

The Oregonian reported that there are, “An estimated 700,000 table saws are in use across the U.S.” It goes on to report that “According to the Journal of Trauma, an estimated 565,670 table-saw-related injuries were treated from 1990 to 2007 in U.S. emergency rooms.” That’s an average of 33,274 injuries per year. Of those injuries, it is estimated that 10 percent result in amputation. I found that statistic alarming, and I’m willing to bet that most woodworkers did, too. Imagine what non-woodworkers might think.

The more we talked about the figures here in the office, the more we wondered if the numbers were real. I don’t intend to question the number of injuries reported. I’m sure those numbers are well documented , insurance companies are like that. But let’s look at the other number in the equation: 700,000 table saws caused more than half-a-million injuries. In 17 years, there’s nearly one injury for each table saw being used. How dangerous is this machine?

Are there 700,000 table saws in use in the United States? There must be, I read it on the Internet. In fact, I’ve already seen that same number repeated in another online write-up. Soon it will be fact! (Note of sarcasm in my voice.)

After discussing the numbers, we thought it best to talk with someone in the industry. Someone who has held a position in a number of the companies that sell table saws and other woodworking tools. Someone that has dealt with factories abroad, large chain store orders and has worked a lifetime inside the woodworking machine and tools industry. We wanted a reliable source.

In talking with this someone, we found that Sears, which back in the day was the only woodworking machine seller I knew about, sold Craftsman table saws in huge numbers. During its hey-day, the stores would sell about 50,000 contractor table saws and 150,000 benchtop saws per year. Back a few years, Delta would sell 15,000 to 18,000 Unisaw models each year, as well as 25,000 contractor saws annually. One of the large chain stores placed an order for benchtop table saws in excess of 110,000 units, and that was just for the holiday rush. These numbers don’t add up to 700,000.

If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention, take a look at this figure: There is a single factory abroad that produces 700,000 benchtop table saws every year!

I think it’s safe to say that the figure quoted in The Oregonian is not even close to accurate. When asked to provide a number as to how many table saws are in use within the confines of the United States, our source said, “Four million, maybe more.”

That certainly changes the injuries-to-table-saws ratio. Doesn’t it?

- Glen Huey

28 thoughts on “Actual Table Saws in Use: A Numbers Game

  1. CJ

    Greetings everyone,
    One of the things that I find interesting in the thread is "money","lawyers" and "Government" arguments.

    From what I have read the major cause of serious injury is related to kick back. I have not read that any one was impressed with the current safety features available from US manufacturers. The general feeling that I picked up from the thread that they were poor at best.

    If the industry had taken the time/effort to design in a few safety features this issue may never have happened. This partially self inflicted by the manufactures.

    What about the human cost? It would be interesting to hear from someone who has had a serious table saw accident. It is an academic argument for the rest of us.

    Take a moment to make it personal. We have all done things around the shop that could have caused serious injury to ourselves or worse someone else.

    How would you feel if your son/daughter/friend had a serious accident from a poorly design machine?

    I grew up in a time it was usual to have a memorial candle at a High School Graduation because one or more kids got drunk and got into an accident. It was a bunch of Mad Mothers Against Drunk Driving that started the ball rolling about teen drinking and driving. It wasn’t a industry group, lawyers or government. It has saved lives.

    Remember that someone was seriously injured. I hope that the outcome from this is we will not know someone who was injured from a table saw.

    I want to teach my son and daughter about wood working and using power tools. I don’t want a trip to the hospital.

  2. mitchell M

    a few things to note-

    the 3-8% proposed royalties were ON TOP OF the cost of completely re-engineering, re-tooling, & mfg the saws. contrary to what you may have read about it ‘adding only about $150′ to the cost of a new saw, that would, at best, be the long term per unit cost AFTER all of the aforementioned. in the relatively short run, say 5-10 yrs, even bench top & contractor saws could have doubled in price, effectively killing their market. in short, i believe the main reason most mfrs passed on the technology was this unavoidable price increase and unprofitable margins. if they thought this would be a moneymaker AND improve their liability, they would have jumped all over it.

    also, SawStop claims 20,000 units sold since 2004(?) and 700 appendages saved. charitably assuming this isn’t just cartridges replaced, incl. misfires (which happen), they’re saying 1 out of every 30 of their customers has already nearly cut off a finger in just the last few years??? is this a self-selected group of klutzes or what?

  3. Lea

    From what I have read in the magazines, the SawStop saws are very nice machines, independent of their braking technology. New models from other major manufacturers are also coming out with better guards, riving knives, etc. So market pressure is definitely having an effect on upgrading the safety level of new machines at most?/all? price points.

    Now consider this possibility. IF SawStop is successful in getting the GOVERNMENT to pass legislation mandating some kind of blade braking technology on ALL new tablesaws manufactured or sold in this country, what is to prevent the GOVERNMENT down the line from mandating that NO TABLE SAW, NEW OR **USED**, MAY BE SOLD IN THIS COUNTRY WITHOUT INCORPORATING A BLADE BRAKE?

    Think it can’t happen? Just read the Consumer Products Safety Act, especially the parts restricting the types of USED books and children’s clothing and toys that can be legally sold at garage sales and second-hand stores.

    So you want to upgrade to a SawStop – fine. At that point, how do get rid of your 5-year-old top-of-the-line Powermatic with 50 years of use still in it? Chop it in half with a Sawzall and scrap it? One commenter thinks that is the only responsible thing to do. I respectfully disagree.

    When you give the GOVERNMENT the power to regulate what you MUST BUY, you have handed them the power to regulate what you are allowed to RE-SELL.

    Just something to consider.

  4. Jim S

    Chris C,

    I’m sure people are getting tired of me on my soapbox, so this will be my last post. I think you are absolutely correct that the low demand for European saws is a result of their high price. I also think you’re absolutely right that many people are willing to trade safety features for low price.

    What I think people should be asking is, why did the lower end manufacturers refuse to use riving knives and ignore the obvious problems with their guards for so long? I just don’t believe that these things are difficult engineering challenges, or that they would add much, if any, cost to the saws.

    If you think about that question, you might come to the conclusion that saw makers don’t care that much about the safety of their products. They didn’t take affordable steps that would make their machines a little safer. At the same time, they were able to control their legal liability up until now by putting some cheap piece of junk on top of the saw and calling it a safety device. That sort of thinking made companies like Ryobi vulnerable to this lawsuit, because there was no fig leaf to hide the fact they didn’t have something to stop the blade from spinning. The necessary equipment was offered to them, and they backed away from it.

    Thanks for listening.

  5. Chris C

    In response to Jim S:

    You can buy lovely European woodworking gear with every manner of safely device
    and fancy guards on them. They do not sell well in this country. There is nothing
    wrong with them. In fact, they are quite nice. And most of them have safety features
    that best even SawStop(though not the flesh detection).

    Why don’t they sell well? Because they are very expensive. You are free to buy one if you wish. But some of us are willing to assume a certain level of risk in trade off for the cost of the device. I am willing to agree, to some extent, that mandates for things that are inherently dangerous to OTHERS for your misuse might warrant some sort of regulation. For example: firearms having a safety that prevents it from accidently firing when not intended.

    As for the cost of the SawStop, the price analysis is puzzling. How much does the device add to the cost really? From what I am seeing, you can buy a number of very good quality saws for about $1000 less than the SawStop. These saws have riving knives, and excellent guards. Much better than in years past. Why is their such a difference in price? Is it because they don’t do the volume of the other vendors? But they are the self proclaimed "#1 selling table saw". Something is not adding up to me.

  6. Jim S.

    Dan,

    I didn’t see enough info on the economics of the proposal to form an opinion on your question about the increase in licensing fees. Just to be hypothetical, if a saw wholesaled for $500, the fee would be $15 at 3% and $40 at 8%. That $35 increase would most likely be significant to Ryobi, but then again their competitors would be paying a similar fee.

    It seems like SawStop never intended to be a manufacturer, so the actual SawStop equipment going into the saw would be manufactured by someone else – Ryobi or a 3rd party. Getting into the market first with a new technology has risks and rewards. You get a lead on figuring out how to make the technology efficiently, grab market share, lock up contracts with suppliers, and create goodwill among consumers (both for offering a new safety technology and being innovative). Even if you don’t offer it on all products at first, it brings positive attention to the brand and maybe generates sales in another line. The other brands have to play catch-up if they want to keep their market share.

    The downside is you also end up having to sell for a higher price initially and you (potentially) deal with headaches if there are bugs to be worked out.

    So, I would never claim that it wasn’t a complicated decision for Ryobi. There were risk in proceeding. However, they had a chance that they didn’t take, and that was a risk too.

    I’ll say one more thing. I would be way more willing to cut Ryobi (and anyone else) some slack if they had a previous strong committment to safety. The reality is that the guards/splitters/antikickback pawls offered on most tablesaws in the US (not just Ryobi)… well… they just suck. They’re inconvenient and clunky to use, and most users just remove them and never use them again. Then since the antikickback features are built into the guard, there is no antikickback either. How hard would it be to put a riving knife on a saw instead? How hard would it be to make a guard that’s easy to remove and replace? Even without SawStop, they weren’t doing enough.

    Jim

  7. Dan

    Jim S – I thought the article pretty clearly implied (right or wrong) that Ryobi walked away from an unsigned agreement. But I’m still wondering if the price vs. adoption structure described makes any sense. I could see Ryobi trading X% of its wholesale price for the advantage of being able to claim the safest saw on the market. But why would it (or any other company) want to see its expense grow to almost 3X% to say that it’s no more safe than anyone else? Granted, all the companies seemed to have chosen to keep their money and say that they’re no *less* safe than anyone else (an argument the jury clearly had no sympathy for), but the pricing structure still seems backwards.

  8. Jim S.

    I think the car airbag analogy is excellent:

    "Further, car air bag analogies are just fraud. Why?
    1. A better analogy might be: Would you buy airbags
    for your car if you were the only car on the road? "

    Haven’t you ever heard of someone killed in a single-car accident where someone hit a tree or some other large object? It happens all the time. It would be silly not to buy airbags even if there were no other cars.

    "2. Contrary to the anti-capitalist rhetoric, a number of car makers already offered cars with air bags PRIOR to any federal legislation requiring them to do so. I would speculate they would have eventually become ubiquitous on their own. So perhaps the fed move sped it up. But not for free. All of the other people with more expensive cars at the time who wanted air bags essentially subsidized the other vehicles."

    There was a federal law in the 1980s that required passive safety devices, which were airbags or those cheesy automatic seat belts. Airbags were often offered on expensive cars standard or on average cars at a higher cost. I recall the Chrystler made the decision to offer airbags in ALL their cars as standard equipment. That really helped brake the logjam. Airbags were certainly available (on a limited basis) before that. But consumers had to learn to demand it and manufacturers needed to figure out how to do it affordably. After that, making a lot of airbags for a lot of cars made them better and cheaper. The result is many lives saved.

    So really, federal regulation is not the issue here. As far as I know, there’s no federal regulation proposed for tablesaws.

    The airbag analogy works, I believe, because we need one of the major saw manufacturers to make a gutsy decision (like Chrystler did) to offer the technology on reasonably-priced saws. Pretty soon, consumers would widely demand the technology, and it would soon become much more affordable.

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