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

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32 thoughts on “Should We License Table Saws

  1. Chales King

    I am 84 years old. Been using Table Saws for 72(yes,72) years. NEVER A NICK! Only careless IDIOTS get hurt with power tools. Guards are a JOKE! On "skil saws, two TRIGGERS is stupid.
    We have too many Government "SAFEGUAERDS" already!
    Just use common sense and keep all 8 fingers and both thumbs.

  2. Ric Washburn

    I have only been a professional woodworker since 2007. However, I have used several different saws with various types of safety systems.

    My personal experience has been that poorly desined and constructed guards are more dangerous than no guards at all. The anti-kickback pawls on my small benchtop saw are a perfect example. After having them jam the wood against the blade in such a way that almost caused me to run my hand into the blade for the 5th time, I finally got wise and removed them. The exposed blade is for me a constant reminder of the danger of using it.

    I have also used a European style saw with the "best" guards installed. After having the guard trap the board aganst the table multiple times (which results in the desire to just shove it harder to get it to feed) I am not sure that they are the best answer either.

    I do like the riving knife on the European saws but even it needs some work to make it better as you can only use the saw if the blade is cutting clear through the wood, i.e., no tennons or rabbites.

    The best guard system I have used is the over head style, but you can not cut anything smaller than about 4" wide with it in place, so cutting smaller pieces, which are inherently more dangerous to cut, requires the guard to be removed.

    Having used a SawStop (not mine) for about a year, I am not convinced that they are all that great either. I have seen multiple times (5 times in one year) where they tripped without any "human flesh" being involved at all, and at $400.00 a pop that adds up fast. Also the safety claims for them cuase many users to rely on the machine to keep them safe rather than their brain.

    Every demonstation of the SawStop I have seen used an extremely slow "feed rate" rather than what would be a typical accident "feed rate". Falling or kickback type approach rates are typically so fast that you can not react in time to stop before you hit the blade. The demonstraions have always used a feed rate that is about 1/3 to 1/2 or less those typicaly used to feed a board into a saw normally, instead of what would happen in an accident.

    As a former electronics repairman, I know how likely electronics are to fail. The safety circuit is supposedly checked every time you turn the saw on and will not let you use the saw if it isn’t working, however, I also know that any safety circuit can and will fail eventually. So it is only a matter of time before someone loses a finger to the SawStop.

    To put it in perspctive, even when funtioning correctly, if you are using a 40 tooth 10" blade on the saw, in the 5 milliseconds that it takes to stop the blade, 13 teeth have passed the contact point (and yes the blade is retracting as well, but . . .). If the contact point is at the front of the blade, it might not cut you much, but you could still end up needing stitches. If you are falling onto the top of the blade, the injury will most likely result in needing stitches, but losing a digit is not as likely. So, yes it is "safer" than other saws, but relying on it to keep you from getting hurt is unrealistic.

    In my opinion every person that uses a table saw is responsible for their own safety while using it. If they do something stupid, injury will result, but that is no body’s fault but their own.

  3. dino makropoulos

    Bob, It is very hard to separate my thoughts and roles. As a carpente/cabinetmaker for 25 years, as an inventor and a licensed woodshop teacher and now a maker and a seller of tools that we invented to solve problems.

    Back to the issue at hand?
    The tablesaw was invented after the panel intro.
    It was never intended for the diy market.
    There is nothing that we can do to make it right.
    Much easier to start allover and make new tools that they confirm to the Dead Wood Concept.
    I can’t Imagine a milling machine without a vise.

    I think that we ( woodworkers) can save the trade and hobby that for many people is a simple need.
    Right now woodworking is the most expensive and the same time the most dangerous hobby and trade.
    If we can make it safer and affordable instead of few Normalites we will have million(s)? new woodworkers every year.
    Imagine the huge market that we’re forcing away from us?
    IImagine the benefits of keeping the woodshops at the schools and the kids safe and busy making stuff instead of looking for answers in drugs?
    thanks

    dino
    eurekazone

  4. Bob Lang

    Dino,

    I’m letting your first comment stay for now, but your second one crossed the line and has been deleted. You’re welcome to discuss the issue at hand, but it isn’t appropriate for you to promote your product in this space. I’ll be happy to put you in touch with our advertising people.

  5. dino makropoulos

    Hi guys.
    Keep in mind that we use equipments invented before the panels…later we included sliding tables to the wrong tools to move the panels against a blade and a fence. working against all forces instead of working with them.

    We like to design tools that offer the safety and quality of the dead wood concept.
    The idea is used in heavy duty industrial machinery for ages. Imagine feeding planks of 4" white oak lumber in a 40 HP gang rip saw without the overhead pressure rollers? Instant death.

    The diy market works with the wrong tools and we need to stop the bad reputation of woodworking and re-open the trade schools.

    Most woodworkers think that the dead wood concept is bad for woodworking. No Table saws. No injuries.
    No macho man? Instead af cattering to few brave Normalites…why not telling the public that we can have safe woodworking and we can re-open the trade schools if we start to think and learn how the beam saws and gang rip saws work?

    the latest answer to the problem was invented few months ago.
    The ripsizer. Here is a videoshowing 4-5 cuts in less than 4 minutes? The bridge applies pressure against the wood and the saw slides on the track/clamp. Cleaner cuts and very accurate using rip stops instead of binding fences.
    Enjoy and feel free to send me an email at ezsmart@gmail.com and I will do my best to help your cause. After all, you guys have the power and the know how to "talk".
    I;m only a carpenter who loves woodworking and the trades. Thanks.
    dino
    eurekazone inc. Enjoy the dark video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5XTTGqR0Sw

  6. Lee Reiners

    Any power machine with sharp fast moving parts is dangerous. Ripping with a 3 TPI blade on a bandsaw can also be dangerous. Radial arm, portable circular, and miter saws all use the same type of rotating blades. I run chainsaws for my tree service and they can be even more dangerous and any homeowner has access to all of these tools without any license or formal training. Butcher shops contain the same type of dangerous equipment, designed specifically to cut flesh. This all comes down to personal responsibility and common sense. Open the manual to any of these tools and the first several pages are dedicated to safety and proper operation.

    Sawstop has changed the field with their technology and anyone is free to buy one. Perhaps their competitors can come up with their own technology to compete with Sawstop. I also fear that some people will get a false sense of security and become even more careless with an additional safety device in place.

    I am not at all against Sawstop. Both my father and I have received hand injuries on the same saw, due to our own neglegence. I have since purchase a guard for the saw on E-bay, and it is always in place unless the operation calls for the guard to be removed. I just don’t believe our government has any business mandating that everyone use a patented technology that favors one company. If the government was that concerned, perhaps they should have denied the patent to Sawstop as being too important to restrict to one company (not likely to happen).

    Just my two cents on the matter. Be safe everyone!

  7. Matt

    Dean wrote: "I have to believe that with additional brands of table saws offering this solution [flesh-sensing, auto-stop technology (FSAT)] 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."

    And:
    "Even better would also be a retrofit solution, at a reasonable price, for existing table saws."

    As to point 1, I agree that it is only a matter of time before others offer similar technology, but the price precedent has been set and few sawyers will junk their saws and invest thousands to upgrade, which is the situation today.

    As to point 2, this seems a more likely scenario and I hope manufacturers are burning the midnight oil working on this one.

    Personally, I have a healthy respect for my tablesaw (okay, I am a bit afraid of it because I have acquaintances who have had accidents with them)so I like to think I am extra careful, but that is no guarantee. I look forward to affordable FSAT, and obviously, the sooner the better.

  8. JR Allen

    I have 2 questions
    1. How much alcohol was involved in these accidents?
    2. Would an inexpensive splitting guard stopped most of the kick back accidents.

    I have been a woodworker for 50 years ( started on a Shopsmith) with my dad at the age of 10. We built a boat. I ran my hand though the saw one time. Luckily no amputations. But that was and has been the only accident I have had. A sharp Blade is one of the best tools for safety you can have.

  9. Chris C

    Issues w/ SawStop:

    1. Large tool companies are likely wary of licensing
    from a small company w/ a technology they do not understand.

    2. The (possibly false) implied liability issue. Many
    vendors are afraid that if they install such a
    device it suggests that the saw is "safe" and then when
    the user gets hurt anyway(a fluke, or more likely from
    a kickback) they are liable.

    This is the same logic that causes the NFL to not mandate concussion inhibiting helmets for players.

    3. Cost. Like somebody pointed out, the cost difference is
    WAY more than 10-20%.

    4. The device is not practical for smaller saws.

    5. I have heard rumors that there is some momentum for
    an industry standard "flesh detection" system. Perhaps
    vendors are waiting for this to be viable to free them
    from sole source licensing.

    Solutions:

    1. Use your guard whenever possible.

    2. Buy a saw with a good riving knife if possible.

    3. Buy a SawStop if practical.

    4. If you have ANY doubts about a cut, walk away. Find
    some other way to do it.

    5. Use the right jigs, and hold downs for the operation
    at hand to control the stock.

    6. DON’T stand right behind the blade. Move off to the
    side.

    7. If you are tired, angry, distracted, etc get out
    of the shop or just use hand tools.

    8. Use hand tools.

  10. Jeremy

    Is license really necessary for table saw? This is very ridiculous… How about the government strengthen their drive against firearms and the like not diverting to a simple household tools. This issue is really very funny.

  11. AL ONDIC

    Bob enjoyed your post.

    Assuming 8 million saws (a figure midway between the 6 & 10 million, in your post) and looking at the stats documenting 38,000 injuries. This equates to .475% for 8 million saws, or roughly one injury for every 200 saw owners. I personnaly do not believe this percentage which is 1/2 of 1% warrants gov’t involvement, regarding this issue.

    Lets assume the gov’t gets involved, and dictates
    SawStop or equal for all future saws. Table saws are not cheap to begin with, with the likely outcome that table saws would end up costing considerably more, I can see where some % of people would say possibly
    do something along the lines of mounting a circular saw to the underside of a table. Wonder what that will do to the injury stats, it will not reduce the injuries, in my opinion.

  12. Greg M

    Just as a point of fact, SawStop’s are considerably more than 10-20% more expensive than the alternatives. The SS contractor saw is about $1,600; competing models from Delta and DeWalt run about $600-800. That’s more than double.

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