Should We License Table Saws

And If We Did, Would You Pass the Test?

Whether or not the Consumer Product Safety Commission should mandate the inclusion of “flesh-detecting technology” in new table saws has generated much debate. When the article in USA Today appeared on Wednesday, I questioned some of the numbers being used, and asked CPSC for the source. In response, I received documents and memos used by the commission, and the facts and statistics about table saw accidents surprised me. Before we can intelligently decide what society should do about table saw injuries, we need to understand who is getting hurt, and why. I’m not advocating that the government require training and licensing to be able to purchase a table saw, but the numbers involved make a better case for that scenario than for mandating additional safety equipment.

It’s also important to recognize what we don’t know, and that starts with the number of tables saws in use in the United States. The best estimate is between 6 and 10 million, including benchtop saws, mid-range contractor saws, and cabinet saws. That estimate is based on numbers of saws sold, and a guess at a useful life of 10 to 15 years. Over the last 10 years, accidents to users of table saws requiring emergency room treatment have averaged about 38,000 per year, with about 10 percent of those injuries requiring amputation of some form. Those 3,800 amputations aren’t detailed further; the loss of a fingertip is counted
the same as the loss of an entire finger or hand.

The first surprise was the number of injuries incurred in home shops in comparison to professional shops. You might think that because pros have more exposure to saws, they would have more chances of injury.
The vast majority of injuries, 95 percent of table saw accidents, happen in the home, not at work. One of the reasons CPSC is looking specifically at table saws is that the amputation rate, as well as the hospitalization rate, is higher for these injuries than for other consumer products. Of injuries, 83 percent involved contact with the blade, and 94 percent were to fingers.

Table saws account for more injuries than other types of saws. Of total power saw injuries reported, table saws account for 73 percent, miter saws 15 percent, band saws 8 percent and radial arm saws 4 percent. This doesn’t mean other saws are safer; the difference can also be explained by other factors such as more table saws in use more often than other saws.

So who are these people heading from home to the emergency room after a table saw accident? Ninety-six percent of injuries occur to men, and the average age is 51 years. Fifty-six percent of those injured were 51 years of age or older, and 25 percent were 65 or
older. These demographics are similar to our magazine’s readership. Eighty-five percent of injuries happened to the owner of the saw, and 20 percent of saws involved in injuries were 1-year-old or newer. In two-thirds of the cases, the hands were pushing or feeding stock at the time of the injury, with kickback pulling a hand into the blade accounting for around one injury in five.  The blade guard was reported in place on twenty-two percent of table saw injuries.

So what is it about woodworking as a hobby that accounts for these rates of injuries? This is addressed in a CPSC memo from June 2006 that provides a “human factor” analysis and compares hobbyists to
professionals. The memo notes that almost all home woodworkers have a table saw and there is no requirement or training required to own one.

The basic cuts are easy to accomplish, and that builds confidence in using the saw.  But stepping beyond the basics is where many injuries occur. This quote from the memo sums it up well: “Inexperienced
or untrained home users may not comprehend their lack of  nowledge or experience in operating their table saw. They may discover dangerous or difficult operations only by actually experiencing near accidents or problems. They may have no or little knowledge about how to properly set
up and operate the saw to perform more complex types of operations. Typically, they will have no training or oversight by experienced woodworkers.”

Age and environment are also elements that are just as important as the saw itself. On age the memo says, “Safe table saw operations require healthy vision and depth perception, well-functioning eye-hand coordination, complex decision making, accurate memory, hearing, and, at times, moderate or greater strength.”

To put it kindly, many of us over 50 face some challenges in these areas. And we tend to work in cramped, poorly lit areas in garages and basements where we may be interrupted at any time by an innocent spouse, child or pet. It only takes a moment of distraction to stick a hand into a spinning saw blade.

The memo also addresses the issue of guarding systems, in particular the fact that poorly constructed guards, or guards that are difficult or time-consuming to remove and replace, tend to go unused. There is an element of wishful thinking in the memo that guards are more likely to be used in professional shops than at home, due to the threat of an OHSA
citation and fine. In my experience in professional shops, the clunky guards also go unused, but they stay close to the saw so they can be put on quickly if an inspector walks in. The exception to this is European-style guarding that is well-designed, doesn’t get in the way and is easy to remove and replace. New saws introduced after 2008, and all saws on the market after 2014, will need this type of guard to get UL approval. Improved guarding is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t the total solution.

We can get up in arms and debate what the government or industry should or shouldn’t do, but that sidesteps the real question: What can each of us personally do to keep ourselves safe, and how best can we help new woodworkers stay safe? Leave a comment or send an e-mail with your thoughts.

– Robert W. Lang

Click Here to Read the CPSC Memo on Human Factors in Table Saw Injuries

Click Here to Read Free Articles on Table Saw Safety

Click Here for Free Video on Table Saw Safety

32 thoughts on “Should We License Table Saws

  1. John Tran

    I’m baffled by all the strong opinions regarding Sawstop.

    1. Cost, yes it costs more, but this same sentiment isn’t there for Festool or other European power tool companies. Sawstop is 10-20% more than a comparable saw. Festool and the european companies are routinely 100-200% more, but people buy them like hotcakes.
    2. Not made in America. Lots of brands aren’t. But it IS an American company. Plenty of woodworking brands are not american companies or made in America.
    3. Politics. The same level of politics being used to push this technology on to all saws is the same type of politices existing companies pulled to reject this technology. From a business perspective wouldn’t you think Gass would prefer to license his technology rather than getting all the capital to start an industrial tool company?
    4. Machismo. I know someone who made it a point to take a stab at my Sawstop several times, noting it was not necessary if the user properly used the saw. A month later, he cut his finger off. For the second time in 10 years. Machismo has no place in woodworking, especially in regards to safety.

  2. Bruce Jackson

    I saw the EZ-One. At $1300 for something that any of us can easily make for ourselves … all I can say is "Yikes, it doesn’t get any worse, does it?"

    Festool, if I recall correctly, has something very similar in concept to go with their circ saws and routers. And then there are panel saws which also allows you to use your circ saw and router.

    One thing I found nice about the circ saw and router is that, as you do with your jackknife, you can point the business side of the tool away from yourself, minimizing the risk of severe injury.

    Thus, sorry guys, I begin to think the classic table saw configuration with the stock between you and the tool and the spinning blade forever pointed menacingly at your hands, arms, etc., has always been a brain-dead idea. I’m all for doing something safer and just as effective.

    Excuse me while I boot up Sketchup to design a knock-down horizontal panel saw / router …

  3. David

    A table saw is inherently dangerous, but when it is manufactured to an appropriate standard and used correctly in accordance with recommended practises it is safe to use. A license like most other government controls tends to encourage those who were most likely going to do the right thing anyway, and those others will most likely not, and continue to have accidents.

    If table saws are to be licensed and controlled is this a greater priority than other issues with significant risks e.g. firearms, raising & education children

  4. Frank V

    Interesting stuff and well presented. Thanks Bob.

    A couple of observations…

    On the 22% thing. One way to view it is to consider that if 100% of people used guards, then 100% of accidents would occur with the guard on. So the 22% doesn’t reveal much because we don’t know what percent of operators use a guard. If we knew that 50% used guards and 50% didn’t – and that 22% of accidents occurred with guard and 78% occurred without guards – we would know that guards really work at reducing risk.

    There is a huge market for small, inexpensive, lightweight table saws. The starting price is around $129. None of these are going to work with a blade-stopping technology like Saw Stop. To handle the forces of stopping the blade, I think you have to be at the high-end contractor/hybrid/cabinet saw level. I can’t see fitting saw stop into a saw selling at $500 to $1000 – forget about putting it in a saw that sells around the same price as a good 10′ blade. SawStop’s entry model Contractor saw sells for about $1600 and is a heavy duty saw.

    Were the safety technology to be mandated, virtually the whole line of "retail floor" saws would no longer be viable. Look at the saws that sell off the floor of Home Depot, Lowes or Sears next time you’re there. Most of them are horrible, unsafe, and inaccurate. I bet they make up a large percentage of overall sales for table saw manufacturers and they are worried about losing that revenue. I also bet these saws are involved in a large number of the homeowner accidents.

    Frank

  5. Fred West

    Bob,

    Just two quick comments. First I would also like to know how the 22% happened with the guard on and secondly can we not assume from the numbers above that if 3800 amputations a year happen and 94% of all saw accidents happen to the fingers that 3572 of those amputations are probably fingers?

    Knock on wood but in 11 years I have never had even a near accident with my tablesaw blade and I use it daily down in my basement where my shop is. However, I took two classes on tablesaw safety when I first started and that really helped me.

    Fred

  6. Dean

    Is Stephen Gass the only one alive that has enough intelligence and education to create a flesh detection mechanism, or a functional equivalent, for a table saw? I have to believe that on the staff of the major table saw manufacturers, are men and women who can “invent” a proper solution to the problem. So what is the disconnect? Liability? Not enough profit? Momentum? No one can slow down long enough to spend time to create a solution.

    Once the other manufactures of table saws come up with a credible solution, then the playing field is much more level and we now have choices. I have to believe that with additional brands of table saws offering this solution, that the prices will come down, and if there are such intelligent entities in existence that can make the solution affordable, then this solution could be offered across all table saw models all the way down to the least expensive. Even better would also be a retrofit solution, at a reasonable price, for existing table saws.

  7. Dreamcatcher

    Robert and Glen,
    These two recent table saw posts are great. I get so fed up with statistical reporting in the news; the type that uses hyped up numbers to inspire fear. I sincerely hope that these two blog posts can combine into an article in the magazine to debunk some of the mainstream media hype.

    DC

  8. Mark Maleski

    Bob, Excellent article, thanks for continuing to explore this important and potentially incitive issue. Without advocating one position or another, I too think of the analogy to seatbelts. Seatbelts protect the user, not others (an exception to Steve’s point that "…almost invariably, the reason for [Government's] restriction is the damage that you can do to others"). Since the potential CPSC mandate focuses on manufacturers vice users, it’s seems analogous to the ruling that all car manufacturers must install seatbelts…this increases the cost of the vehicle but makes it a better/safer product. The user didn’t (initially) have to use the seatbelt, but it had to be available in every car; the woodworker can bypass the flesh-sensing technology, but perhaps we’ll see a day when it too must be available on every saw.

    Along a different line of thought, do European-style sliders present a viable alternative to flesh-sensing technology?

  9. Jeff Dickey-Chasins

    My frustration is that because the ‘big’ manufacturers have fought Sawstop technology tooth and nail, they’ve limited my options to buying a safer saw to only vendor: Sawstop. That’s ok, but in the capitalist/competitive system that we theoretically live in, I should have a bit more choice, eh? Even with SawStop’s significant price penalty, they’ve done incredibly well in the marketplace. If I was a competitor, it seems that I would want to jump into that apparently large and growing market, rather than fight it. Anyway, if everything stays as is, a Sawstop is on my purchase list – I know I’m not infallible, and even though I’m a very safe user, I also know that I might work too long, get distracted, or simply do something dumb. At least this saw will help limit the downside of my ‘humanness’!

  10. Bob Lang

    It surprised me also, but the number of accidents with the guard in place is in line with results of the survey we did about a year ago. Guards won’t prevent an accident, they will mitigate the damage when one occurs. A lot of injuries happen when the operator isn’t paying attention to his hands in relation to the blade. While a guard will keep your hand away from the blade if it’s moving down and from the side, there isn’t anything to prevent a hand from traveling under the front of the guard along with the wood and into the path of the blade.

    The guard on a table saw is like wearing seat belt or having an air bag in your car. Assuming the presence of the guard will keep you safe is like assuming your car’s air bag will prevent you from driving into a tree.

  11. Bruce Jackson

    I’m as puzzled as Jason is about the 22% of the injuries happenng with the guard in place. And I read the memo.

    The thing I share with Josh B above is not owning a table saw. I make do with a band saw (no kickback), two skill saws, a jig saw, and a chop saw. At 56, or five years past the average, I just have to remember to ride my back every other day or so to maintain some semblance of agility, particularly in my lower back and legs while cutting sheet goods to size on 2x4s on the shop (garage) floor.

    Oh, occasionally I think wistfully about getting a table saw and then remember we have to park the car in the shop at night. Not to mention coming up with a crosscut sled and a tenoning jig for my much safer band saw.

  12. Steve

    There are quite a few things that do require one to have training and/or licensing to use, but almost invariably, the reason for the restriction is the damage that you can do to others (or the property of others), not to yourself.

    You can look at the numbers a different way: If a tablesaw lasts an average of ten years, and there are ten million in use at any one time, and there are 38,000 amputations over that ten-year period, then that says that only one in about 250 tablesaws is ever involved in an amputation.

    And that’s why it’s so hard to get people to take the problem seriously: While an amputation accident is devastating to the victim, it’s also pretty rare, which lulls people into the "it won’t happen to me" false sense of security.

    People are notoriously bad at risk assessment: "…I’ve been using tablesaws for thirty years and never had an accident, therefore tablesaws are perfectly safe…"

  13. Jason M

    The part that I don’t understand is how 22% of the injuries occurred with the guard in place. Do they explain that?

    Also, I think it’s interesting that they consider ripping "an increasingly complicated operation." If I had to guess, I would say that I rip on my saw more often than anything else. But to their point, I recognize that it can be dangerous and always pay attention to the woods relation to the back of the blade. It would be nice if guards would better accommodate ripping. I always remove the guard and put my trust in a splitter alone. I see that some of the new guards have sides that move independent of one another. I haven’t used one, but it would be nice if one side could sit on the fence (literally), and leave the other side down to protect your hand.

  14. Scott Turner

    The key point to me is this: If SawStop was free, who would turn it down? Nobody. So this isn’t an argument about principles, or government interference. It’s an argument about money.

  15. Josh B

    Bob,

    This is exactly why I don’t own a table saw and work primarily with hand tools. I’m a hobbyist and I work alone. My high school didn’t offer wood shop and none of my friends or family have ever been into woodworking. When I got serious about this hobby I didn’t really have anyone to show me the ropes on table saw safety or watch over me as I worked and learned my way around the tool. My teachers have been internet message boards, blogs, magazines, books and DVDs. I also started woodworking in an apartment and my present garage is cramped enough I’m not sure how I’d have room to work on a table saw safely even if I wanted one.

    I’m not saying that table saws can’t be used safely, or even that they can’t be used safely at home, just that I don’t feel safe operating one. From what I’m taking away from the stats you just presented it sounds like my gut reaction to table saws – not safe for me to use at home unsupervised – is backed up by the accident reports. Though I’m twenty years younger than the average table saw victim that passage from the memo you quoted is still spot on for me.

    My worst accident in the shop was with a handsaw, I was cutting a short section of 12/4 ash with a big ripper and just as I was starting the cut the saw jumped out of the kerf and into the thumb of my off hand, which I was using to steady the blade while starting the cut. It was my fault and due entirely to working too late while fatigued. That injury shattered a good part of my fingernail and tore a nasty trench into the tip of my thumb. I went to the doctor the next day and was fortunate that all I needed was a tetanus shot, gauze and wound care instructions. A similar lapse on a table saw would have cost me the whole thumb or worse and required an ambulance ride to the ER that night.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  16. Larry Eiss

    Well Bob, you have changed my perspective. I still don’t want to see Saw-Stop or anything like it mandated by law, but I do have a clearer view of the real numbers behind all this and I can see that it isn’t just a bunch of hype. Thank you for the follow-up article!

COMMENT