How Not to Hurt Yourself On a Table Saw

© As are all of our blog posts, this story is protected by copyright;
Popular Woodworking Magazine, 2011.

Back in junior high school, there were occasions when the entire class would be  threatened with punishment due to the actions of one or two troublemakers. The current fuss over proposed actions from the Consumer Product Safety Commission possibly requiring “flesh detecting technology” on saws reminds me of Mrs. Vasbinder’s attempts to force a confession from a petty thief or vandal. There really is a problem with table saw safety; too many people are getting hurt, and most of those injuries can be prevented. But is the proposed solution the best choice for everyone?

Teaching table saw users how to keep their hands  away from table saw blades is a far easier, and less expensive way to lower accident rates than mandating devices to minimize damage after a  hand meets a saw blade. If it were up to me, I would require every would-be table saw owner to read 100 anecdotal reports about table saw injuries. I’ve been reading a lot of those lately, and unlike statistical analysis or grandstanding from
manufacturers who stand to gain or lose from new regulations, this exercise reveals there are a few common ways table saw injuries happen. If we look at the common causes, simple and effective solutions reveal themselves.

In accident reports, the action most often cited is moving the hand into the path of the blade. This occurs whether or not the guard is in place. A table saw guard will keep a hand away from the blade if it is approaching from the side or the top, but a finger or a thumb will slide under the front of the guard as easily as a piece of wood. A momentary distraction or lapse of attention often is mentioned in these cases, but in many of them, the saw operator simply wasn’t aware of the location of his hand in relation to the blade as the cut progressed.

Before you make any cut, think about where your hands will be before, during and after the cut. Inform your family or anyone else who might distract you of the danger involved, and don’t let yourself be distracted. These accidents happen when everything is going as it should; when there aren’t any problems with the machine or the material.

A bad decision when there is a problem with the material is another common cause of injury. Wood that is warped, twisted or bowed can bind on the blade or on the splitter and get stuck. Pushing harder to move the piece through can result in the hand slipping and moving into the path of the blade. This is the scenario that happened in the Osario vs.
Ryobi case. There are two obvious solutions here. The first is to shut off the saw, free the material and if need be, find a different piece of wood or a different way to make the cut. The second is to be more selective about what you send through your saw. Stock with a flat face on the table, and a straight edge against the fence is safer (and easier) to work with.

Many accidents happen after a cut is made,  reaching over, behind or to the side of the blade to clear an off cut or retrieve a work piece. That little piece can catch on the back of the blade and  come flying toward the operator, often bringing the hand with it and into the blade. Or a mistake in judging the position of the blade is made, and the hand touches the blade while reaching. This type of mishap is entirely avoidable. Turn off the saw and wait, and recognize that this is a place where the guard is effective.

Kickback causes many injuries, either by carrying a hand into the path of the blade, striking the  operator (or an innocent bystander) with the piece of wood, or slamming the hand against some part of the saw other than the blade. Fractured fingers are a common injury. Kickback occurs when the piece of wood in the saw gets out of  control. The teeth of the blade are spinning toward the operator, and if the wood contacts the back or top of the saw blade, forces are exerted to send the wood toward the operator. If the wood is pinched between the blade and the fence, the saw essentially becomes a pitching machine. If your hand is on the wood behind the blade when the wood takes off, it can be forced into the blade in an instant. This is basic physics, but many table saw users either ignore this or don’t understand it.

In our table saw safety survey taken last year, many of the respondents seemed to think of kickback as something that “just happens” every now and then. If a piece being cut is entirely under the operator’s control, all the way through and after the cut, kickback can’t happen. If a work piece, or an off cut is trapped between the blade and the fence, kickback will almost always happen. In many cases a saw user loses control of the work by using push sticks that don’t firmly hold the wood both down and toward the fence.

In an average year, there will be 35,000 accidents involving table saws that result in treatment at an emergency room. That’s a lot of accidents, but there are a lot of table saws in the United States, estimates range from 6 million to 10 million. If you do the math, that works out to about one injury for every 200 saws. How can we reduce this number? Can we develop better methods to educate table saw users? If we could do that, what portion of accidents would never happen? If we don’t, all table saw users could see increased regulation and higher prices.

In the recent USA Today story, the phrase “as pressure to address debilitating table saw injuries builds” is used. Yet this increasing pressure seems to be one letter to the CPSC chair from one consumer group. What if woodworkers wrote to CPSC suggesting better efforts at educating inexperienced saw users? Better yet, what if we all thought a bit more before we turned on our saws, especially if the task at hand is unfamiliar or seems risky.

–Robert W. Lang

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10 thoughts on “How Not to Hurt Yourself On a Table Saw

  1. lental

    I have been woodworking for over 60 years.

    In that time it has been rare to come out of a day in the shop without a nick, scrape or cut. I consider myself to be a safe woodworker but it just happens. Also, in that time, I have sustained only one injury serious enough to send me to the emergency room and in that experience, I would have been smarter to have tended the wound myself and forgotten the healthcare system.

    I still don’t know how it happened. I cut a piece of masonite and had moved it well clear of the sawblade. In fact, I was standing to the side of the saw when I reached over the table to turn it off then…Bam…I had a four-inch piece of masonite sticking out of my upper forearm with the sharp end an inch deep in my flesh.

    I pulled it out, administered minimal first aid and drove myself to the emergency room where I waited for 5 1/2 hours to see a doctor. I finally left and went to another hospital where I was in and out in 45 minutes with not even a stitch. My major concern and the concerns of the doctor was whether any wood particles were left in the wound to cause infection. They weren’t. I healed.

    There is no regulation in the world which could have prevented that injury…no tablesaw either. Was it stupidity on my part? Maybe. Had I reached below the table to turn the saw off, I would not have been hit…but I had no reason to expect a problem in the first place. Still, I have to credit myself with stupidity.

    I am frightened of power tools and I’m frightened of guns. But no tablesaw has ever injured or killed anyone and neither has a gun. I use both very carefully.

    As someone said above, you can’t regulate stupidity. All governmental regulations do is impinge on our right to be stupid and have fun while we’re doing it. All governmental regulations do is put money in some corporation’s pocket at the expense of the man on the street.

    The CPSC is not supposed to be a regulating body; it’s for fact finding and for making recommendations. Congress is then supposed to do the regulating…and that’s scary too.

    But for me, I don’t want the government involved in any way. There’s too much corruption, too much ignorance and too much “what’s in it for me” on the part of our elected representatives.

    With one semi-serious accident in 62 years of woodworking, I’ll let a free marketplace and consumer demand make the necessary changes and improvements. When you think about what the manufacturers have done over that period of time, it’s remarkable but it still would not have changed what happened to me.

  2. Lea

    Robert,

    When I bought my Shopsmith back in 1988, the new owner’s safety class taught us that for a rip cut like the one shown, one should install a featherboard in the left-hand miter slot, just in front of the blade, to keep the board snug against the rip fence. I am curious why with such a long board no featherboard was used here?

  3. Chris in ATX

    Not sure what to think of this issue exactly. It’s very complicated. Would I like to buy a Powermatic or Delta cabinet-style table saw with some kind of saw ‘drop’ technology for something near the same price of what you would pay today??? Sure. I’d do that in a heartbeat. Not for myself per say, but I’ve got two little boys who will no doubt want to ‘try’ to do the things that daddy does in the workshop. I need that security for their sakes more than mine.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure that the the statistic about injuries per tablesaw is relevent or even useful. I’m a ‘weekend worrior’ and my tablesaw sits ‘dormant’ for long periods of time. When I use it, I use it. Otherwise it just sits there. I think that a better stat would be injuries per hour of use. Some kind of national average might help to heighten awareness about tablesaw safety. Probably even a harder stat to come up acurately calculate than the Injuries per saw, I know. but I feel it would be more useful to a woodworker that hasn’t had an injury on ‘his’ tablesaw.

  4. Merlin Vought

    When we are able to legistate against stupidity and carelesness then we can cure this problem. Until then BE CAREFUL, THINK BEFOR ACTING, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING.and enjoy working with what you love.

  5. John Preber

    As a safety guy, it’s very hard to state that the engineering method of maintaining a safe working environment isn’t the best method however it can also be a large, and possibly unwarranted, expense.

    On my construction sites, it’s easy to follow the safety protocols. We have real safety training, weekly safety meetings, daily safety reminders and the peer pressure, at least on the ‘good’ jobs, is to stay injury free. The smart contractors know the cost of injuries and we’ll gladly spend a little more to maintain a safe job site.

    I don’t know though how we can translate the safety mindset of a job site into the home shop where the tools may only be used sporadically. How do we get the average Joe to ‘read, understand and follow’ the instructions that came with his tools? How do we get him or her to remember those instructions weeks or years after the initial purchase?

    We need to find a way to get the home users to put safe operation at the top of their concern list when they start using their tools. Perhaps some internet based safety training provided by manufacturers would help, especially if it would show the tools as they’re used in everyday use and not just the basic safety gloss over that most instruction manuals show. Then we just have to get folks to watch it.

  6. Jim S.

    Bob,

    I think this series of articles is great, but I think this one implies a little too much about potential actions by the CPSC. Last I heard, the CPSC was basically in fact-finding mode. I haven’t heard of any proposal, just a quote in USA Today that they are interested in improving table saw safety.

    From comments on this blog and elsewhere on the web, a lot of woodworkers think that a rule forcing flesh-detecting technology is imminent. That’s just not true. There haven’t even been hearings yet, much less any kind of concrete proposal to do anything.

  7. Chris C

    As an FYI: Nearly every saw manufacture offers
    a riving knife and quick remove guard. Some are better
    than others, but they are all fairly good.

    Contrary to popular belief, the only reason they
    did this is not because of pending UL listing
    issues. It is largely because customers screamed for
    the features.

  8. Larry Marshall

    I agree with everything you’ve said, Bob, but I can’t help but wonder where we’d be with these issues if the table saw industry had responded to the gazillion laments that existing saw guards were too hard to remove/reinstall? A simple ‘easy-attach’ system would have been a lot cheaper than where things are headed.

    Cheers — Larry

  9. Pete Jacobsen

    Robert,
    I am a fanatic about table saw safety. I never turn on the saw without thinking through the cut carefully. I use the guard whenever possible. And yet two weeks ago after carefully thinking through what I was going to do, I put the board on the table opposite of what I had decided. I have no idea why. I made a mistake. The blade grabbed the board and my hand was jerked into the guard. No harm, but it scared the *bleep* out of me. I’ll continue to be careful, but I’m also saving for a SawStop.

  10. Dreamcatcher

    Robert,

    This table saw stuff is getting a little overwhelming. But I still appreciate your dedication to inform us of the facts.

    I have been a little dismayed by some of the respondents to the articles. As a professional table saw user, I value tool safety very highly considering any injury using a tool has the consequence of at the least hindering my ability to provide for my family and at worse, causing a career ending outcome.

    I use a table saw almost every day and I live by two rules: 1) make each and every cut with the full expectation that something could go wrong and 2) never put any body part into a moving blade. These two rules have allowed me to keep an impeccable safety record. I know that it sounds ultra simplistic, but it is just a better way of implying that I am vigilant in knowing exactly where the blade is at all times and that I have pre-determined contingencies for any unexpected mishaps.

    I should also note that I am not a ‘safety nut’. I never use blade guards on table saws as I feel they impair my awareness of where the blade is in the cut and they present yet another object to mentally track during the operation. In that aspect, my main safety precaution is just common sense.

    That said, I don’t even feel that the table saw is even my most dangerous tool. Surely over the years I have self inflicted more flesh damage from utility knives, chisels, belt sanders, grinders, and even hand planes than has ever been attributed to my table saws or other circular saws in my shop.

    Of the comments posted recently, the ones that struck me most peculiar were those that indicated shying away from table saws for other power cutting tools and even more so those which seem to advocate against all power tools. While there may be a niche market for luddite carpentry out there, I do not foresee that as being a proper response to simple common sense. There are many dangers in carpentry – many dangers in life in general. We cannot just hide from them all nor should we simply regulate against them.

    DC

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