Table Saw Injury Survey Results

© As are all of our blog posts, this story is protected by copyright; Popular Woodworking Magazine, 2010.

Last week’s table saw safety survey generated a lot of interest and numerous responses. Around 6,000 participated and shared their experiences. Before we look at the results of the survey, a few words about the survey are in order. As many commenters pointed out, this was not a “scientific” survey.

With a sample of people who opted to participate, rather than a random sample, the data collected can’t be used to determine the chances of having an accident while using a table saw, nor can it be used to calculate the number of accidents likely to occur compared to the number of table saws in use. That wasn’t the goal. What we were after was a sampling of our readers, their experience in using saws, the type and severity of injuries they suffered and what safety equipment was or was not in place. We won’t be listing specific numbers; you’ll see the results in terms of about, nearly, most and some.

We last paid for a scientific study of our subscribers in 2005, and the percentages of readers who owned table saws and the number of years experience they have is in line with the results of the blog survey. The paid survey was about marketing our publication not about safety, so there were no questions about accidents to refer back to. Our motive in last week’s quick survey was to learn more about our readers and their experiences, not to sell anything, please or antagonize any advertisers, former advertisers or would-be advertisers. So here is what we know about those who took part in the survey:

Most of you own and use a table saw. A little more than half of you own a contractor’s or hybrid type saw, and almost a third have a 3hp or larger cabinet saw. Around 10 percent have a benchtop or portable saw, and less than 2 percent of those who responded have no table saw at all. Beginners were a distinct minority, less than 10 percent have only a year or two experience, about 30 percent have two to five years, and most of you have been using a table saw for five years or more. You’re a serious and experienced bunch; you have a significant investment in your machines, but the majority own middle-of-the-road machines.

And a lot of you have hurt yourselves with your table saws, about one in seven of those responding reported an injury serious enough that it required medical treatment. Here is where the statistically flawed sample of the survey shows up, and it makes sense to us that those who had been injured would be more likely to respond. Tangling with a table saw leaves a lasting impression, especially if, like me, you have a funny looking finger that you still notice 35 years after the fact.

When we wrote the survey, we gave three options for types of injuries: Being struck by something kicked back from the saw, having a hand or other part of the body come into contact with the blade as a result of a kickback, or moving your hand into the path of the blade.

There were other responses we didn’t anticipate, saws accidentally being turned on while changing a blade or checking the height of the blade, and one reader who, when he was 10 years old, stuck his fingers into the back side of a running blade, figuring it was the other side that did the cutting. Many of the injuries reported seemed mild to us. As a group you’re either very lucky (the curious 10-year-old reported that his bruised backside as a result of his mom seeing his wounds later in the day was more painful than his cut fingers) or we didn’t make it clear what we were looking for. We didn’t intend to count knuckles scraped during a blade change or a nick in the end of a push stick as table saw accidents, but some of our respondents did.

The good news is that most of the people responding have not had an accident at all, or at worst, what we termed a “close call” without an injury. Of those who did report an injury, slightly more than half didn’t require medical attention beyond first aid at home. Of the accidents that couldn’t be treated at home, three out of four were repaired with bandages or stitches. On the other hand, about one of five of reported injuries requiring treatment resulted in the loss of one or more fingers. Hands and fingers weren’t the only parts of the body to suffer; there were also injuries to eyes and soft tissues. Being in the way of a piece of wood kicked out of the saw left one reader without a spleen, and another missing a testicle.

We asked what safety equipment was in place when the injury occurred, and in about three out of four cases none was present. It would be easy to jump to a conclusion and say, “See, if you’d only left the guard on this wouldn’t have happened.” But there isn’t much evidence that guards or other safety devices can actually prevent accidents; their main purpose is to mitigate the damage after the operator loses control of the workpiece or places his or her hand in the path of the blade. About 10 percent of the reported injuries were on saws that were equipped with the stock splitter and guard, or a riving knife and guard. The severity of those injuries, including the loss of digits was within a percentage point of those injuries that occurred on saws without any safety equipment in place.

The frightening part of this survey was the number of table saw users who accept kickback as “something that happens” or simply weren’t paying attention to where their hands were, or where their hands might go if something went wrong while operating their saw. Moving the hand into the path of the blade was the most commonly reported cause of injury, accounting for six in 10 injuries. Three in 10 injuries were related to material kickback, either being struck by the material or having the hand pulled into the path of the blade.

In the October and November 2008 issues of Popular Woodworking, we printed articles on using a table saw safely, and on preventing kickback, written by Marc Adams, owner of the largest woodworking school in the country. We have decided to make those articles, as well as Marc’s safety rules for using the table saw available online. Look for links to those articles in a blog post to follow.

The one question I wish we had asked was this:

Looking back on your injury, what could you have done differently to prevent the incident from happening?

If you’ve had an injury while using your table saw, leave a comment if you would like to answer that question.

–Robert W. Lang

36 thoughts on “Table Saw Injury Survey Results

  1. Skip Feld

    What could have been done to prevent my injury? I was cross-cutting some stiles to length when several of the cut-offs jambed between the blade and the rip fence. One off them flew back and lacerated my thumb. I probably needed stitches but you know how that goes. I don’t think any gaurd gaurds or even a Saw Stop would have prevented this accident. I should have known to move the rip fence further away and/or cleared the scraps when that "little voice" in my head told me.
    Regards, Skip Feld

  2. Ken Hall

    Every accident I had was my own fault. I nearly lost an index finger and end of thumb by reaching across a moving blade to pick up a small piece I had cut. 34 stitches and loss of felling in the tip of my thumb, but still have 10 digits. I can’t even find the guard and splitter that came with my saw 20 or so years ago. Now I wait till the blade stops before reaching for any wood at the other end of the blade. Still no guard, not available.
    I learned never to use a molding head with a radial arm saw, fortunately the piece I was molding entered a cinder block instead of my body. Took me years to use a molding head again and that is only rarely. I manufactured a splitter after I had breakers trip when a piece of oak decided to grab the blade and stop it dead. Guards or not, safety needs a brain that is working. Shops are dangerous, thinking helps make them less so.

  3. al

    The best tool that you can take into your shop always is your brain. If you tend to leave it at the door, don’t go in. Short of natural causes such as lighning strikes etc.,all accidents are caused. I’m not saying this lightly, but if you look back you can usually trace an accident to a cause. Whether it be lack of attention at the time, or a momentary diversion, or whatever. It should not take more than one trip into a wood shop to determine that it can be a dangerous place if you are not tuned in to what you are doing. There are more than enough safety books, blogs, and teachers out there to keep you safe when in the shop. Your responsibility is to heed the warnings and instructions. Don’t let some shyster lawyer with an idiot in tow going to court make the rules for the shop. Thanks to all of our new safety czars and rules etc., we are in more danger than ever before. You don’t have to get shot to respect what a gun can do, well the same applies to shop tools and your safety.

  4. Jason Miler

    I’ll answer that question.

    I should have had a planer. A table saw is not the best tool for turning 3/4 mahogany into 1/2" (in one pass no less). It was stupid. The last board (3" x 24", for a little box) kicked back at me and left me with a split open finger. Scared me more than anything. I bought the planer.

  5. Jeremy Jones

    I did not respond to the survey, but here is my incident: I was cutting through a piece of 1/4" plywood about 3′x2′. As the plywood exited behind the blade, it bowed down and got hung up in the blade insert recess. I could not push it through. Next things happened really fast – I was shifting my grip and stance when the ply came back at me. Thankfully it struck my left forearm. The pain I felt made me thankful it did not hit me in the abdomen. I did not seek medical attention, but I probably should have.

    This was an old saw that had been owned by a one-man contractor shop. Then it was owned by my grandfather. I’m not sure what safety equipment it came with. But I think a ZCI that was flush mounted to the table surface could have saved me this incident. (Along with other devices – but most don’t look at a ZCI that way.)

  6. Bob Lang

    In the final photo, Marc is making a non-through cut, making a groove. If you look close, you can see 2 cutters of a stack dado set, and the top of the groove.

  7. Alex Pung

    DON"T DO WHAT THE LAST PICTURE IN THIS ARTICLE SHOWS!!

    I read your article above but when I was that last picture I said to myself "Good idea to guard the blade BUT what happens to the piece of wood that’s between the blade and the fence under the blade guard AFTER the cut is made?"

    I feel that to AVOID ACCIDENTS, one should always CONTROL the piece of wood between the blade and the fence until it is past the spinning blade. You wouldn’t be able to do that in the last picture above.

    Also, after a cut, you should always turn off the saw and wait till the blade stops before moving any piece of wood around the blade.

    Above all, ALWAYS UNPLUG the saw before messing around the blade area.

    Keep Safe.

    Alex

  8. chris

    Bob,

    Well, I read that part of your reasoning, but I don’t agree.

    Specifically, a splitter (even the old style, unified with dust shroud and pawls) is designed to *prevent* kickback that’s induced by the kerf closing up on the backside of the cut.

    The problem is, we can’t ever know how many of the kickbacks that occurred with NO protective gear in place would have never happened if the gear was there. But I bet it’s a non-zero number.

    Regards,

  9. Bob Lang

    There wasn’t a significant difference in the distribution of types of injuries whether or not guards were in place. Nor was there much difference in the severity of injuries reported.

    I think reading the entire sentence you quoted explains the reasoning behind what I said about guards. Here it is: "But there isn’t much evidence that guards or other safety devices can actually prevent accidents; their main purpose is to mitigate the damage after the operator loses control of the workpiece or places his or her hand in the path of the blade."

  10. chris

    Robert,

    You gave 3 types of injury choices.

    Of all the respondents who said they had an accident, you said about 75% had no protective devices on the saw.

    Do you see any difference in the distribution of the TYPES of injures that occurred in the injury-with-no-protection group versus the injury-with-protection group?

    Specifically, I wonder if the injury-with-protection group was more comprised of "moving your handing into the path of the blade."

    I’d also ask what is your basis for saying, "But there isn’t much evidence that guards or other safety devices can actually prevent accidents."

    Thanks,
    Chris

  11. Carol Oster

    My accident was preventable. After working on a project for half a year, I was making the last cut on the table saw – not even for a part for the item I was making, but for a jig to drill equi-distant holes for knock-down bolts. The previous cut required me to remove the blade guard and splitter, which were all one piece. The small piece I cut was about to fall off the back of the saw, I hit the off button and reached to grab it before it fell. As I came back over the still-spinning blade, I dragged my thumb over it. Cut down to – but not through – the bone, severed a nerve. Took 6 months to heal because there wasn’t enough skin to sew it back together.

    What I do differently now: think through every operation start to finish before I begin. Use safety guards or devices appropriate to the operation. Triple check where my body parts are relative to the path of wood and blade. Do it differently if it doesn’t look or feel safe. Take extra precautions when I’m on the last operations of the day and as I approach the final stages of a project, when I otherwise would tend to stop paying attention.

    It was all my fault… and it would never occur to me to sue.

  12. Bill Johnson

    Hmmm, what would I do differently? I would:

    1. Never ever ever use a molding head cutter on a table saw again. Did I emphasize ‘never’ enough?

    2. Never push wood through a table saw blade unless there’s a push stick at least 10" long between my hand and the workpiece – no matter the size, shape, or thickness of the workpiece.

    I did not respond to the original survey, but I did have a serious injury about 27 years ago. I was using a molding head cutter in my table saw (much like a dado set, but 100 times more dangerous). I was new to woodworking and still gaining knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, the experience came before the knowledge in this case. I was pushing a 4"x10"x3/4" piece of Oak over the cutter to make grooves for a knife block. I did use the rip fence as a guide, but no push stick/device. After many successful (i.e., lucky) previous passes, the cutter caught the workpiece and threw it back toward me while the force of my pushing action thrust my hand into the cutterhead. You can imagine what a mess a molding head cutter, made up of 3 "bits" or small blades mounted to a spinning arbor (like a shaper cutter turned vertically) could make.

    My Index finger was badly cut and broken in a couple of places, and my middle finger was badly lacerated and nearly severed – barely hanging on at the middle knuckle by a little bit of muscle and flesh. It was broken in so many places, the hand surgeon lost count. He placed a pin down through all of the pieces, reattaching it, and reconnected tendons, muscle and skin as best he could. Today it functions almost normally, but I lack 90% of my fingernail and have a lot of scars to show for the experience!

    This accident was the result of my ignorance – pure and simple. Fortunately, the memory of the incident is as clear today as it was 27 years ago, assuring that I always think about where my fingers are and how quickly things can go wrong.

    One last suggestion for your readers; If you own a molding head cutter, throw it away! Don’t give it to someone else, and don’t leave it in your shop where someone else might be tempted to use it. In my opinion, this is the single most dangerous tablesaw accesory ever developed. There are many good (and safe) ways to cut grooves, shape edges, etc., to choose from. The use of molding head cutters is not one of those.

    Come to think of it, I should have sued the maker of the cutterhead, or even the tablesaw. Just think of it, my ignorance and carelessness could have made me a millionaire, while at the same time, causing makers of woodworking equipment to add uneeded safety features and raising their prices to new levels. Why did it have to take 27 years for someone else to think of it? Maybe people were more willing to take responsibility for their own stupidity, and lawyers were more responsible and less out of touch with reality back then.

  13. Jim

    This is a little long, so I’ll try to keep it entertaining. I think every single one of us has broken a rule or two and gotten away with it. You might do something to help mitigate the risk you know is there. But, the critical point that will always ring true to me that was made in this article is to make sure you are prepared for what would happen if that plan fails. I got caught in "…or where their hands might go if something went wrong while operating their saw" from above. Also, I learned the hard way that you might be able to get away with a mistake every time you step to the saw. Maybe even two at a time. But when you look back and see as many mistakes as I made, you are going to get hurt.

    I was literally cutting the LAST piece of a many month project building a large 440 bottle moving wine cabinet. It was my first large project that was completely my own design. One of small spacers (about 3/8" thick, but 3/4" wide, by 4" long) was a not quite long enough so I had to cut another one. I picked a slat board from my scrap pile and went to the saw. I hadn’t been cutting at all that day, so I didn’t have my head in the game and give the tool the respect it deserves (we’ll call that mistake number #1). I was in a hurry because I wanted to finally see the finished product (#2). It was a rip cut down the 3/8" by 2" by about 2 foot long piece. I thought "it’s just one piece, I can leave the combo blade on and not put the ripping blade on," (#3). I didn’t put my rip fence on (#4). I had the guard removed on my 3HP unisaw, so no kickback fingers (#5). I knew what a push-stick was and used them all the time, but I had no idea what a shoe was (#6… I can tell a lot of you are starting to shake your head and tense up because you know what’s coming…) BTW, NO ONE HAS ANY EXCUSE NOT TO HAVE A SHOE. You can make it out of scrap. As I was making the cut, my brain tried one last time to help me out and said "this back of this is going to lift and kick on you," but then it failed me with the worst of my mistakes… the magic #7. I leaned forward, put my right hand on the fence behind the blade, pushed my palm down and shifted some of my weight to it, and used my thumb to hold down the wood as it existed the saw… you all know what’s coming…

    You know why they make rip fences, and shoes, and kickback fingers? Because your hand is not an acceptable solution to any of those problems.

    The board kicked just like I thought it would and pulled my hand, thumb pointed directly at the back of the blade, back to me. It was like lighting. It sliced right down from the top through the nail, and down the side of the bone. I felt the bone chip as it kicked up. I immediately clasped it and knew I had messed up bad. I put my hip into the shut-off, and had a look. I made two immediate assessments. I needed to go to the hospital, and I was a lucky man. It had got straight instead of across. Everything was still attached.

    Leaving the rest of the adventure out, I have a fairly normal looking thumb now. It still has a nail (which I had to have repaired again about a year after the initial incident). I have nearly full mobility. Any movement has some pain associated with it, and always will, but I can live with that. It’s a good reminder to make safety a priority. Getting back on the saw was incredibly difficult. The first thing I made was a shoe. I will upgrade to a Saw-Stop saw before my children step foot in my shop.

    -Jim

  14. Joe Okapal

    My injury came when I was cutting 2" x 2" squares for a chess board. The guard was in place and I was using a push stick. I set the rip fence at the 2 1/8" mark and proceeded to make 64 identical cuts. As the wood piece passed the blade I must have twisted the push stick and the wood piece came back at me breaking the blade shield and stricking me in the shoulder. What would I do different; I would rip the long boards the same but do away with the rip fence and cut using my miter guage. Doing this adds an hour or so th the process.

  15. Dennis R

    My encounter with a contractor’s saw was at a job site. It was 1975 but it is so clear in my mind that it could have happened this morning. I was cutting the 45 degree angles on gussets for gondolas. The 3/4" plywood pieces were already cut to 12" x 24". My job was to cut the correct angles. Using the factory miter-gauge at a 45, I would cut, flip, cut and stack. In ’75 many contractors had a disdain for guards as they were viewed as OSHA’s intervention into their work lives; therefore, all guards or anything resembling a guard was removed. As I was cutting, another guy was walking by and asked a question. I turned my head to respond and that was all it took. My right thumb went numb but the blood on my face and shirt told the story. In my case, I am not so sure a guard would have helped due to the thickness of the material. Lesson learned: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER allow anything to distract you while operating any power tool. My son is grown now, but if my grand-chilren are in the shop, I use hand tools. You can’t bond with them with a screaming saw running anyway. I’m not anti-power, but the serenity of a woodworking shop using hand tools is the perfect place to pass down those family values.

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