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Popular Woodworking Magazine, 2011.
The costs of any hazard are central to the question of whether or not the Consumer Products Safety Commission should step in and make and enforce rules. It tends to be a touchy area; one persons avocation may affect the amount every one pays for health care and insurance. You might think that we would know, for sure how much money is spent in any given year to pay for table saw injuries. We don’t. We don’t even know how many saws are in use in home workshops or in industry. There are some good estimates about the number and severity of accidents involving table saws, but in the end those are educated guesses.
Yet we see published numbers, such as the $2 billion per year “costs to society” mentioned in the recent article in USA Today. The article cites the Consumer Product Safety Commission as the source of that estimate, so let’s examine the CPSC documents and try to understand it. That’s a lot of money, and if you divide it by the 35,000 injuries that involve table saws in an average year, it works out to $57,000 per injury. Those in favor of CPSC requiring the use of “flesh detecting technology take that number, divide it by the estimated number of saws in use, and say that each and every table saw that exists in the United States costs society about $250.
That imported benchtop saw gathering dust in your neighbor’s garage isn’t just sitting there, it’s sucking money out of everybody’s pocket, every day of every year. Or is it? Where did the $2 billion number come from, how did CPSC arrive at it, and how did they intend for it to be used? This is how CPSC explains it:
“The name “Maximum Addressable Cost Estimates” is intended to emphasize that these estimates are upper
limits of the cost that might be successfully addressed. It should also be stressed that the term does not necessarily mean that there is any existing method or technology for reducing the costs.”
In other words, this is a worst-case scenario; if the situation is as bad as it gets,
the costs might be this much.
The explanation from CPSC continues:
“To know the actual addressability of the hazards associated with a product usually requires a detailed study
of the problem, and the product. This level of study is not feasible for this type of overview report.”
“They do not represent the number or percent of injuries that could actually be prevented.”
“The cost figures in the table do not represent an actual estimate of the costs associated with any of the product groups for a specific year. They were developed, using the data available, to provide indices for the purpose of comparison.”
These quotes are all from the Hazard Screening Report Power Tools and Workshop Equipment of June 2003. That document is
available online at this link.
The $2 billion isn’t a real number. It’s a guess of what the costs could be, in an area that has not been studied thoroughly. It’s a rough guess to help CPSC decide if table saw accidents are more worthy of addressing than accidents from welders or power washers. The number comes from an Injury Cost Model that includes four components; medical costs, lost work costs, pain and suffering costs, and legal and litigation costs. I have asked the CPSC to show their work so that the public will know how much of each of these four categories comprise the total number. The pain and suffering and legal parts of the total are based on law suits that haven’t happened regarding injuries that are only estimated. Unless there is a lawsuit for every injury, our bank balances seem pretty safe
from our neighbor’s table saw.
Of course there are real costs, and when the petition filed by the owners of SawStop was being discussed, more realistic costs per accident were used. SawStop claimed costs per accident of $5,000-$10,000 while the Power Tool Institute suggested costs were more likely to be between $1,000-$2,500. Again, these are only estimates and educated guesses.
Each party had good reasons to estimate either high or low, and multiplying the costs by the 35,000 per year accident rate gives a range between $35,000,000 (using PTI’s lower number) and $350,000,000 (using SawStop’s higher number). My guess is that the actual average cost per accident is somewhere in the middle of these figures.
If there is anyone out there who can help determine a realistic number, I’d appreciate hearing from you. The sample data for accidents is public information, but real medical costs are hard to track down. My guess is an average of a few thousand dollars of medical expenses and lost work costs for treating these types of injuries, that range from a few stitches to some rather serious hand
surgery. I did find a worst case scenario estimate online for the reattachment of four fingers and a thumb of around $150,000. That severe an accident though, isn’t the typical hand meets saw blade injury. The majority of table saw accidents are treated in a few hours in the emergency room.