CPSC Table Saw Rules: Emotion vs. Numbers

The Consumer Product Safety Commission will be accepting public comments on a proposed rule to improve table saw safety. Comments will not be accepted by e-mail, but will be accepted online via regulations.gov, or through the US mail. Submit your comment to CPSC online through this link. We hope that readers of this blog will choose to make their voices heard, whatever side of this issue they are on. This is an important issue, and we think it deserves careful thought and consideration. Unfortunately, most of the statements made by the parties involved have made use of emotional appeals, supported by numbers that have little basis in fact. Most of the media attention this issue has received, in the woodworking community and in the national media, has been repetition of these arguments. Whether or not we need government regulation for safety features on table saws should be based on a rational analysis of the costs versus the benefits. A lot of people get hurt every year while using table saws. These injuries can be devastating and life-changing, and treating any injury costs a lot of money. But will society as a whole be better off if new technology on table saws is mandated? How will we know, and how long will it take until we know we know?

The answers depend on how far CPSC is willing to go in writing a rule. The current proceedings before CPSC are in response to a petition filed in 2003 by Stephen Gass and his partners in SawStop. The petition asks for a performance standard that would require a device to detect contact with the blade, or dangerous proximity to the blade. It would also require, after detection, a mechanism to either stop or retract the blade before a cut deeper than 1/8″ could occur. Gass is the inventor of the SawStop, a device that performs within the standards proposed. In addition to being the inventor, Gass is also a patent attorney, and it makes sense that this invention would be protected by a patent. A quick online search finds that Gass has been awarded 78 patents related to this invention. If CPSC adopts a rule in the next year, it might well be referred to as The Patent Attorney’s Relief Act of 2012.

In 2009, the Power Tool Institute was awarded a patent for a safety mechanism that retracts the saw blade below the table on contact, without engaging the blade with a brake mechanism. Any of the companies that are members of PTI can use this technology. But PTI, Gass  and CPSC have all acknowledged that any implementation of a device that met the conditions of the rule would result in lengthy litigation over the patent claims held by Gass. Before starting SawStop as a manufacturing company, Gass shopped the idea to all other manufacturers unsuccessfully. None of the member companies of PTI have publicly commented on why Gass was turned down, beyond mention of the opinion that the licensing and royalty fees were too high. There is a lot of speculation that one of the reasons is that implementing a new safety feature could be construed as an admission that all saws manufactured before that were not safe, opening the door to lawsuits such as the Osorio case, recently upheld on appeal.

The Osorio case was not the first time anybody sued a table saw manufacturer for damages due to a table saw injury, but it was the first one with a big award, and attention in the national media. The standard defense in most of these cases is this; the manufacturer provided a state of the art guard system with the saw, a system that met all Underwriter’s Laboratory and government requirements, and the injured party hurt themselves after the guard was removed. Until Osorio, that defense worked pretty well. Those guards systems were developed as a voluntary standard, agreed to by the power tool manufacturers and UL. Under pressure from CPSC, a new standard was agreed to and better guards appeared on the market in 2007. Have the new guards helped reduce injuries? We don’t know because all of the injury data being used to decide this issue is from the years prior to the introduction of the new guards.

As debate goes on, we hear a lot of numbers about the number of injuries and the cost of treating them. Back in February, I wrote about the $2 billion/year “societal cost” of table saw injuries. I also wrote about the injury statistics and where those numbers come from. If we’re trying to decide this issue rationally on the basis of costs and benefits, overstating the costs and the number and severity of injuries going in isn’t the way to proceed. If you’re looking to sway people to your side emotionally, it’s an effective tactic. And we also need to take a closer look at the costs of a solution, and the possibilities of using that solution on all types of table saws. The largest segment of table saws sold is the least expensive bench top and job site saws that retail for a few hundred dollars. Slamming a piece of aluminum into a saw blade running at full force generates a lot of energy. This is why the blade of the SawStop drops below the table when the brake is activated, that energy needs to go somewhere, or the saw itself would be damaged. This is also why the SawStop mechanism can’t be retrofitted to existing saws.

Since the introduction of the SawStop ten years ago, the figure of $100 per saw has been used to represent the increased cost of the device. Yet when saws so equipped have come to market, the price is closer to $1000 more than any comparable saw. I don’t think it’s possible to engineer a low cost, light weight saw equipped with a braking mechanism for $100 more than the price of an existing saw without destroying the saw when the brake activates. SawStop says they are working on a prototype of a job site saw, but the cost (retail price) will be close to $800. Economys of scale may affect production costs, but economy of scale can’t overcome the laws of physics. Historically, SawStop models have been introduced at prices several hundred dollars higher than prices quoted during the tool’s development. Many in the industry believe that the adoption of rules requiring brakes on all saws will mean the end of table saws that cost less than $1000 and higher prices for all table saws.

Statements from  CPSC commissioners Inez Tenenbaum and Robert Adler, and recent media stories make it sound like we’re in the midst of a national crisis, and there is a simple solution available that doesn’t cost much. In reality, we have a new product on the market that has been received enthusiastically despite a high price. The SawStop is an amazing technological advance, and many of the early adopters have been schools. Marc Adams School of Woodworking purchased ten of the saws when they first became available. In an interview with me earlier this year, Adams mentioned that they have had a few accidental/non flesh triggered firings of the mechanism, but no blade contact firings. He also pointed out that his school has never had a blade contact injury with any table saw in the school’s existence, and that putting the SawStops in service had no effect on his insurance rates. Safety is serious business at the school, and it should be foremost in the mind of every woodworker who chooses to use a table saw.  My personal opinion is that education of table saw users is the key to reducing the number of injuries. It’s far easier to prevent accidents in the first place than it is to try and mitigate the damage after an accident occurs.

Despite hundreds of pages of government documents, and thousands of comments from people on both sides of this issue, we don’t know the most important things we need to know to make an informed decision. What will be the effect in the long run of the new guard systems now required on new saws? The Power Tool Institute maintains that the new guards are used more often than the old ones, and that injuries have been reduced. In the briefing package for the proposed rule CPSC staff notes that the new guards are an improvement, but can’t protect users from pushing their hands into the blade from the front. In other words, to allow the saw to cut wood, you need to be able to push the wood into the blade, and if a piece of wood can side under the guard, so can your hand if that is where you position it. That scenario may seem far-fetched, but in many table saw accidents that is exactly what happens. If we had a few years worth of data, we’d have a better idea of the effect of the new guards.

What would be the effect of an educational campaign by the media and by manufacturers to increase table saw user’s knowledge of safe practices? PTI has prepared videos on safe table saw use, and made them available on their website. What would happen if those videos were burned to discs and the discs included with every new saw? Popular Woodworking Magazine  has published articles on safe use of the table saw, and made them available online. You can read two articles on Table Saw Safety from Marc Adams at this link. What if magazines and TV shows quit “removing the guards for clarity” and showed safe practices? What if we all made a personal commitment to safe work habits, and paid complete attention when using machines?

What is the effect of the SawStop system on current users of those saws? Are they more safety conscious, or do they take more risks because they feel safe? Since SawStop entered the market, they have sold about 30,000 saws. Last winter, in an e-mail exchange between me and Stephen Gass, he mentioned that they had reached the milestone of 1,000 saved fingers, customers who had made contact with the spinning blade on their saw. The numbers for accidents of all saws, gathered by the NEISS and SawStop’s numbers were gathered in different ways over different time periods, so we can’t make an apples to apples comparison, but this does suggest that owners of SawStop saws are making hand to blade contact at a much higher rate than the general population. It will take some time to sort that out.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s proposed rule doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The commissioners can decide to adopt the rule, accept a voluntary standard negotiated by those in the industry, or they could decide to require safety warnings on all machines. Or they could put the decision off for a few more years to get a better view of which course of action makes the most sense.

Again, we hope that you will submit a comment during the 60-day period, whatever your opinion is. We also welcome your comments below.

–Robert W. Lang

The Popular Woodworking Magazine Editor’s Blog has published a number of articles on this issue; Click this link to read more.

Click Here to Submit Your Comment on the Proposed Rule to Improve Table Saw Safety to the CPSC online

 

31 thoughts on “CPSC Table Saw Rules: Emotion vs. Numbers

  1. GunnyGene

    The link you provided for comment says:

    “Document does not exist

    The document you requested does not exist on Regulations.gov. The Web address may be incorrect, or the document may have been withdrawn.”

      1. GunnyGene

        Ok. I cleared the cache, and got to the regulations.gov and found the document. But they won’t let me submit a comment. I get the same message as above. I have cookies enabled, and am not blocking scripts.

        I guess they are going to force people to use snail mail.

  2. Recruiter

    I have always been on the side of “Don’t use the tools, unless you know how”. In this case, they can be extremely dangerous. Education is the key, not government mandates.
    When I took my first shop class in school, I remember my teacher giving us a long lesson on the proper way to use the table saw. He immediately followed up with a demonstration on the effects when you don’t pay attention. With everyone out of the way, he proceded to put a board through the running blade, and let it kickback. It threw the board sailing 30 feet, and smashed into the far wall.
    That leaves an impression and a lot of respect for the tool.
    If you don’t use the tool properly, its only a matter of time, before you are going to have an accident. This, to me, is a case where the government is going to regulate the table saw so tightly, that people are going to be complacent, and accidents that weren’t happening before, will start to happen, because they may take more chances.

  3. tpobrienjr

    While we’re at it, how about a performance-based specification for table saws that would eliminate kickback, which might not mangle your hands but has plenty of ability to to cause trauma?

  4. tpobrienjr

    It seems to me that a good alternative to the Gass patent has been overlooked.

    No solution I’ve seen, including the PTI solution, uses a clutch and brake. If the arbor is disconnected from the motor shaft by a clutch, then stopped by a brake, it can be done pretty fast – in a few milliseconds. The reason is that the angular momentum of the motor is removed from the picture when a clutch disconnects it from the arbor. Then the arbor, having much less angular momentum, can be stopped by a suitable brake. I would also consider making the arbor from a lightweight alloy, which would also have a somewhat smaller moment of inertia. Jamming a moving blade, with the motor’s momentum attached, into an aluminum block, seems to be a brute-force approach.

    This approach I describe avoids destroying the blade, but it might need to use the Gass patent’s flesh-sensing technology or some other technology to operate quickly enough.

  5. Rich Harris

    This all boils down to greed not safety. The inventor of the saw-stop, a fine product I might add, is the one petitioning the CPSC to make HIS product a requirement in essence requiring ALL manufacturers to use his safety device. Each would have to pay his price and install the device on their saw.

    He was snubbed by the tablesaw manufacturers and now he’s out to have Uncle Sam nanny all those who don’t want to spend more on his saw. I wonder why a Saw Stop is $1000 more than a comparably equipped non Saw Stop TS instead of the $100 Mr. Gass claims is the difference.

    Again, it’s a great product. I chose not to buy one and that is how it should be, the individual’s choice.

  6. dwbaulch

    I like the idea of rules for table saws, but, as before, you cannot have rules for stupidity – I should know, I have had 3 accidents with my old table saw – 2 my own stupidity and the last, just out of luck. I now have a newer and better table saw, safety-wise, but things can still happen even if I am careful – which I am. I understand that you can lose fingers, tips of fingers and more, especially while using table saws and bandsaws, no discounting the possibility, but forcing the matter via regulations to rasie the price of saws is a bit much. I agree – education is a necessity and far more cost effective.

  7. Jim Maher

    Safety First!

    Tablesaw accidents really do happen with disturbing frequency and really are devastating for all involved. I believe (though its really hard to prove) that the overall costs to society of the current level of accidents is higher than the overall costs to greatly improve the situation. If we CAN make it safer, we SHOULD.

    SawStop has an answer. PTI has an answer. Others have answers, too. If the CPSC can figure out wording for a PERFORMANCE standard that drastically reduces injury risk, they should implement that. How the manufacturers choose to achieve that standard should be up to them (they all have pretty damn good engineers).

    But DO make it safer.

    I have a concern about the “education and common sense” approach: it doesn’t seem to be working. Plenty of education is available – even free. Not enough people are getting the education. Apparently, common sense ain’t all that common. Without some kind of enforcement (or than self-discipline), I have little hope for “education and common sense” as an answer.

    If we can make it safer, we should.

  8. kobash

    I think the extra safety accessories that are available today are good, if you think you need them. But forcing everyone to get them is crazy.
    I can see tool prices doubling, and what will it really accomplish. Nothing can substitute for proper training. Would be better if they gave you, or sold a DVD instead.
    I really don’t know how this law suit went this far, with all the info. that the web has there’s no reason for this case to have gone this far.
    As far as this particular case goes, his trainer was responsible for his injuries.

    What happens when you prop a (wet) 2 X 6 X 10′ on your thigh and attempt to cut it in half, and it pinches the blade, then it kicks the saw into your thigh causing a life threatening injury? I guess the new thing is file a law suit. I’ve seen that happen (not the law suit). What next Saw Stop on a circular saw?

    What do you expect when you get a low end job-site table saw, then you disable the safety guard, and you don’t know how to use the tool (nor does your trainer)?

  9. Fred West

    Bob, In response to your figures above of an additional $800 for fitting a bench top saw with the SawStop technology here is Gass’ response to Larry King’s, oops Asa’s hard hitting questions. I agree that the technology is amazing but forcing this down our throats through government regulations is bound to cause many unforeseen consequences and that is not counting some of the consequences we can all see coming down the pike.

    Some of the questions that I have is if your SawStop misfires, how long does it take to replace the brake and can it cause damage to either the blade or the saw itself?

    Bob, thank you for all of your efforts in keeping us informed as well as showing us where we can respond.

    Fred

    “Gass: You are welcome to come out any time and see our prototype [that incorporates the SawStop technology into a jobsite saw]. It weighs about the same as a Bosch 4100, so weight is certainly not an issue. I believe the manufacturing cost will be less than $100 over that of the Bosch, as there just isn’t much that you have to add to put SawStop on it. Even the PTI guys have testified that it would only cost $55 to add their version to a portable bench top saw.”

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      Hi Fred,

      Changing the cartridge usually only takes a minute or two, but it can take considerably longer if the brake discharges into the blade. Blade and brake get stuck together, so you have to get the blade off the arbor at the same time you’re removing the cartridge from the post it sits on.

      There is some debate about damage to the blade, personally I would not reuse a blade that had been stopped. Even though there might not be visible damage, there’s a good chance that the connection of carbide tooth to steel saw plate could be weakened, allowing the tooth to come flying off at some point in the future. When we had a SawStop in the shop here, we had the brake discharge into a stack dado set, due to the spacing between blade and brake not being precise. We asked Freud (the makers of the dado set) about it, and they recommended replacing the entire set to be safe.

      One of the great unknowns is the long term effect of multiple discharges to the structure of the saw. The industrial version is pretty beefy, but the castings on the lower cost models are not as robust. This is why I am doubtful that the mechanism can be adding to a bench top saw without making it very heavy, expensive or one-trip and the saw is toast.

      The $800 figure is based on the retail price of the most expensive version of Bosch saw, and the assumption that adding $100 to the manufacturing costs would add more at the retail level.

      Bob Lang

      1. Steve_OH

        Bob,

        I think there’s some confusion over that $800 number. Fred appears to have interpreted it as the price _increase_ that would be required in order to add the SawStop technology to the Bosch saw (and I have to say that that was also my interpretation on my first reading), but what you’re actually saying is that the total price of the Bosch saw + SawStop would be in the $800 range (vs. the roughly $550 for the saw in its current form).

        -Steve

  10. ckm

    Thank you editors for not baiting your coverage like that other magazine’s site in order to make your forums (and page view stats) look more like those of foxnews.com.

  11. jake shackelford

    This is really easy. Don’t use a table saw if you don’t know how to use one. Take a class or ask someone who knows how to teach you. I learned how to use a table saw while working at a cabinet shop. I wasn’t allowed to use the saw until I had watched and learned from more experienced workers. Even then the other guys watched me to make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid. Maybe weekend warriors don’t need table saws to begin with.

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      Links in the post have been fixed. If you have problems with those links, go to:

      http://www.regulations.gov/#!home

      In the upper right of the page, click on “Submit a Comment” and select Proposed Rule from the drop-down list and enter “Table Saw” as the keyword. Hit the search button and the following page will let you read the Advance Notice for Proposed Rule, or submit your comment.

      Bob Lang

  12. GregM

    Bob,
    Thank you for the professional, balanced and comprehensive way that you (and Glen, and other editors) are covering this important matter. I did pose a question in a comment to one of your previous posts that is actually a serious one – what do you think is the likelihood that we will see separate ranges of table saws on the market, some “For Professional Use Only”? I’ve seen this label on other products already (primarily paints and other coatings) that I presume is to fulfil or work around other CPSC regulations.

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      CPSC doesn’t have any authority over the workplace, that falls under OSHA jurisdiction. At the present time the OSHA regulations call for the guarding of the older UL voluntary standard.

      Even though the Osorio case was a workplace accident, the vast majority of accidents with table saws occur with hobbyists.

      Bob Lang

  13. dsnodgrass0

    “Adams mentioned that they have had a few accidental/non flesh triggered firings of the mechanism, but no blade contact firings.”

    I’d be interested in knowing how many accidental firings there have been, both at the MASW and from Saw Stop. I don’t want to invest a lot of money into a table saw only to replace my blade and cartridge often because it fired off by mistake.

    1. MaxD

      If I must pay as much as has been suggested for a “safer” saw I would be more than just upset if the device “fired off” by mistake. I would want to be not only recompensed for the repairs but also for an expensive saw blade. That’s not even counting lost work time.

  14. bluejazz

    I have yet to understand why a decision to buy and use a table saw is of regulatory concern. It is not like a car or a plane or a phone or some other device that is so ingrained into society, anybody without it is at a cultural disadvantage. If I am afraid of a table saw injury, I have two easy choices. I can use some other tool, or I can decide not to work with wood.

    I applaud the creation of the Sawstop technology. It definitely has its place and should be marketed aggressively. I however loathe the obvious attempt by a patent attorney to force his technology on consumers when marketing is apparently not creating the kinds of sales he is looking for.

    What is next? Flesh sensing blade retraction technology required for bread-knives? Or maximum sharpness regulations for steak knives? Don’t laugh at these absurdities. Watching this unfold, can you truly be sure a government that seems so convinced its citizens need protection from their own stupidity would not see value in such regulations?

    1. Steve_OH

      How many ER visits does the widespread use of bread knives result in? What is the average cost per visit? How many amputations per year are there from bread knife use?

      Rather than consider the real problem, all you’ve done is set up a straw man. Tablesaw injuries are real. They exact a very high cost, not just on those injured, but on all of us.

      Regulators aren’t focused on any one category of causes for an injury problem. They look at all causes, and all potential remedies. This isn’t about protecting only people who do stupid things. It isn’t about “choices” or “personal responsibility.” It’s about recognizing that a significant problem exists–however that problem has come about–and trying to figure out the best course of action to remedy the problem. The remedy may be better education, it may be built-in safeguards, it may be a combination. It could even be prohibiting sales to unlicensed users. Whatever the remedy may turn out to be, it’s intended to be a _real_ solution to a _real_ problem.

      If you don’t like what the regulators come up with, what is _your_ proposal to deal with the _real_ problem?

      -Steve

      1. vamatt

        I think a more accurate application of this technology would be to jointers, bandsaws, and chopsaws. If that played out, I believe that for many hobbyists this could outprice woodworking.
        I understand that injuries are a real problem and affect lives, but I think safety education (DVD w/ purchase) would be as effective and less costly.
        Matt

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