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