Where Do Table Saw Safety Rules Come From?

In addition to designing the Morris Mini, Alec Issigonis is credited with coining the phrase “A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee”. I can’t think of a better way to describe the guards that were standard equipment on table saws sold in the United States from the 1970s until new UL standards took effect in 2007. What was wrong with the old guards? Nearly everything, as the first few minutes of this video demonstrate. The newer guards, such as the one in the photo at right are a huge improvement; they can be removed and put back on quickly without needing tools, they have an effective riving knife, and the anti-kickback pawls can be removed. They are a lot like the guards on European saws.

The question of the day is why did we have to put up with such bad guards for so long? To answer that, we need to take a look at how our current system for regulating safety works. Those of you reading from outside the United States can feel free to pour yourself a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or open a bottle of real beer and smugly say, “those crazy Americans”. There is a lot of talk about proposed government regulations for table saw safety, but at the present time, our government has little to do with it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for safety in the workplace. Unless your table saw is in a commercial shop and you have employees, OSHA has nothing to do with you. In the workplace, OHSA defers to requiring that the guards described in the Underwriters Laboratories Voluntary Standards be in place.

UL isn’t connected to the US government, put it’s an extremely powerful organization. If you want to sell a product that plugs in and spins sharp things around, you need UL approval or you won’t be able to buy liability insurance. You need the insurance because sooner or later someone will sue you if they get hurt, and your product is even remotely connected to the injury. When standards for table saw guards were adopted, UL decided to form a committee to write the rules. That sounds reasonable, but who should be on such a committee? As it happened, a group formed of representatives of table saw manufacturers developed the requirements for guard systems that a generation of woodworkers found unworkable. Because the rules appeared to be imposed from outside, manufacturers had no reason to innovate or develop better guards, or even use systems that had been developed in the US and abandoned, like riving knives. They were following the rules, and that was that.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is a government agency became interested in table saw injuries in the late 1990s, just before the introduction of the SawStop. CPSC looked to UL to re-examine and possibly improve the standards.  In December of 1999 CPSC called for a meeting with representatives of the Power Tool Institute. The summary from PTI is typical of the manufacturers view of guards “The splitter/spreader guard is the most appropriate for common wood cutting and is the industry standard.” “PTI believes the current spreader guard is the best possible guard for most thru (sic) cuts. Education is the only way to affect the injury hazard patterns seen. Education, not redesigning the guard, is needed to convince the operators to use the blade guard.” Note: documents regarding this are on the CPSC website. Whether by design or coincidence, this line of reasoning was and is a typical defense in product liability suits regarding table saws. The saw came with the industry standard best-available guard, you took it off and didn’t put it back on, and then you got hurt.

Experienced woodworkers knew the guards were junk, and those of us who had seen European guarding systems began to ask why did they have such good guards on that side of the ocean. One of these woodworkers, Kelly Mehler became involved in working with UL to improve our guarding systems. If you like the new guards better than the old ones, Mehler is the guy to thank. So where do we go from here? PTI says give the new guards a chance, but CPSC appears to be leaning in the direction of requiring something more. I’ve worked in shops that had signs posted that said “Safety First”, and I wish that everyone involved in this mess would work on that principle. That’s what we should be talking about, not corporate profits, winning and losing lawsuits, or how to write the rules to favor one business over another.

–Robert W. Lang

14 thoughts on “Where Do Table Saw Safety Rules Come From?

  1. CGH

    Sir, as an owner of a professional woodworking business, I feel I had to respond. As you and the PTI said, “follow the money and check the math,” that’s true. Safety is all about money isn’t it? It is very seldom about people, or doing the right thing. You said you don’t want your personal choices limited by someone else. We all are limited in our choices in every facet of our lives, for our protection and the protection of others. If we all used good judgment and made all the right choices we wouldn’t need traffic laws, would we? The fact is we all make bad choices for many different reasons.
    Money is important, don’t take me wrong. The fact is that putting flesh detection technology on saws is cheaper than the cost of injuries. Two billion dollars a year are paid out in medical costs, and how about the cost in lost work productivity or the cost of pain and suffering.
    As Norm Abram says, “following all safety rules will lessen your chance of personal injury.” There is no guarantee that it still won’t happen. Accidents do happen, that is why they are called accidents.
    As you stated, hundreds of thousands of “value engineered” bench top saws are purchased every year. (Cheaply made and dangerous saws that shouldn’t be sold, especially to experienced table saw users.) The table saws that you are referring to are used to build a dog house and put in the garage and not touched for years. Whereas, my cabinet saw is used 14 to 18 hours every day of the year. An hours use vs. injuries study may show a different story.
    The study done by the CPSC, which the PTI latched onto, states that only 11% of injuries come from “value engineered” table saws. This is an extremely flawed statistic. One example of this is, some owners of Ryobi saws filled out the survey stating that their saw they were injured on , was a cabinet saw, but Ryobi doesn’t make a cabinet saw. Many people don’t know the difference!
    The CPSC also stated that most injuries come from direct drive saws, such as, bench top saws. The report also stated that most injuries were on cabinet saws, but cabinet saws are not direct drive. So which is it, direct drive bench tops or cabinet? As you can see the study is not accurate and needs to be redone properly.
    You also refer to the PTI’s claim that it will cost more than $100 to put the flesh detection technology in a saw, and that a Saw Stop is $800-$1000 more than competitors. In reality the higher cost of a Saw Stop is not because of the safety system, but because of the saws superior fit and finish. Making it, probable, the best product on the market.
    In open court a representative of PTI stated that their flesh detection safety system, that they have had for about 6 years (Yes they do have their own system), would only cost about $55, this is about the same as a Saw Stop.
    Why haven’t they done something with their system? I guess the bottom line is more important to them than people. They want to continue making profit with saws that cause injury and death, YES people have died using table saws. Yet they don’t want Mr. Gass to profit from his invention, which saves people from serious injury. Such hypocrisy! Oh, by the way, the PTI system doesn’t stop the blade. It fires the blade away from your hand below the table surface and the blade keeps spinning. So it would be a good system for a cheap bench top table saw, because there is less force. So where is it, why aren’t they using it?
    YES, it is heartless to bring it down to a cost benefit analysis that the PTI wants you to use. Here is the real cost benefit analysis. Tens of thousands of injuries prevented saving billions and billions of dollars every year, with no cost to table saw manufacturers because they will pass the costs along to me, the consumer. That’s okay by me because it will save me thousands of dollars in medical costs down the road and keep me out of the emergency room.
    You see, I didn’t purchase the Saw Stop when I had the chance. Three months later I had an accident that cost me $12,000 in medical bills and a finger. I could have purchased four Saw Stops for that! How is that for cost benefit analysis?
    No one at the hospital and no one from the CPSC or PTI asked me what type of table saw I was using, a bench top or cabinet saw. No one asked me if my guard was on the saw, which it was, or if it was a new style guard or an old style. Who am I suppose to report it to? Pretty Convenient for the PTI to say that there is no reported injuries with the newly designed guards (UL 987 safety standard), when there does not seem to be a way of reporting it.
    Let me say something about the new guard. I do have one and the board seems to go under easier and so do hands. Also, it has never been taken into account that there are times that the guard has to be removed for special operations, such as a dado cuts. The industry has done nothing to protect me during such operations, with the exception of the Saw Stop. The guards themselves cause accidents, as in my case. In most shops across America the guards are not even used.
    A saw without the Saw Stop system is like purchasing a vehicle without the airbags and other safety features. The industry has had 60 plus years to do something about safety with little improvement, in the same time automobiles have improved a great deal with crumple zones to seat belts and airbags, which are mandatory. Now it is time for better safety regulations for saws!
    CGH

  2. Loganmac

    If the table saw manufacturers had a seat at the table when the rules were made, then where were the insurance comppanies? Weren’t they invited? After all, they are the ones that would have to pay out if someone successfully sued. The IIHS has a BIG say in setting safety standards for automobiles; product liability insurers should have an equivalent input in this matter

  3. finzona

    Bob. Well written and insightful. I worked in a level one trauma center for a period of years and every hand tool or power tool injury that came thru the center was due to a lack of knowledge and or carelessness. People in this country seem to think and act as though anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault.
    This was also true of injuries in the kitchen, bathroom and garage. People do senseless things.

    1. paulbeard

      I usually assemble a complex matrix of scraps and clamps where I know the supplied guard is going to interfere. Ugly but I can still count to ten on my fingers …

  4. teesquare1

    A good article indeed….

    But I wonder if we continue on toward a “nanny state” manner of accident prevention if it will matter…?

    My postulation is this:

    Everything I need to know abow about table saw safety ( and shop sfety in general ) I learned in the first year of High School wood shop class. That was 36 years ago. So – the question should be – How much of that safety training do I still practice?
    And – I believe the statistics will support that most – almost ALL table saw injuries are NOT newbies – rather experienced folks ( o.k. – geezers – like me ).
    As we gain experience, and confidence we often do 2 things to dramatically increase our chance of injury.
    1. We get lazy due to confidence. Lazy pertaining to simple, key safety rules. Remember – confidence can breed contempt. ( “I don’t need that guard – it only gets in the way” thinking)
    2.We get a little egotistical. With many years of experience our skills and abilities often serve to fertilize our ego. Ego can momentarily blinfold our judgement – and THAT is when injuries occur.

    I have spoken to many fellow wood butchers through the years about injuries in the shop and there is one commonality…habitual behavior. The gradual allowance for bad habits to replace good practices. Little things, that when added together at the wrong moment can be devasting.

    Remember that few injuries are accredited to newbies? Why? Because they still have awe, and respect of the equipment can do not only to the wood – but their body parts as well… And a healthy portion of respect is a little fear. Fear that if you get sloppy, or lazy about safety – the machine WILL bite you.

    So – my feeling is that if we continue focusing on making the machine safer rather than making the wood worker safer -we only further empower our government to drive costs out of site on machinery. And – even with all of the saftey one could possibly add on – do you think for an instant that:
    1. Insurance cost will go down?
    2. That injuries will not happen?

    Again – better training, and self awareness is far more valuable to preserving digits and all the “stuff” you can imagine on heaven and earth Horatio.
    T

  5. Daniel J

    As a Brit, I’ve watched with interest the US Table Saw debate from afar, this article and the mention of the shop sign “Safety First” struck a chord with me. As you may or may not know in the UK we have the Health and Safety executive, the government dept responsible for workplace safety.

    The case that sparked this whole debate off, would never have got to court in the UK. The responsiblity for the workers safety is with himself and his employer. If it was proven that he didn’t follow training given, it would have been his fault. If the employer didn’t train him how to use the saw it would have been the employers fault. For the use of hazardous equipment such as this in the workplace, its up to the employer to do a risk assessment and to ensure these risks are managed.

    We are seeing more fear of litigation in the UK now, with newspaper stories of silly things being banned due to “Health and Safety.” The litigation culture in the UK is derived from the US, but perhaps the Health and safety culture is something you could take from us!

    FYI, Devices such as tenon guides or dado blades for table saws are banned in the UK, and have been for years.

    1. paulbeard

      You hit the nail on the head: this is an issue of responsibility (was the worker trained to use the tool and if so, did they follow those instructions?) vs liability (did the tool maker take every possible precaution to insure that the user could never harm themselves, even if it meant the tool was inconvenient or impossible to use as delivered, i.e., with the safety equipment in place?).

      Every regulation stems from some mistake or risk, sometimes unethical or crooked dealing, sometimes stupidity on the part of someone. But we somehow push the responsibility to one side and absolve the other in an imbalanced way.

      1. Daniel J

        Exactly! – Responsiblity seems to be overlooked, and money becomes the motive.

        It is impossible to remove all the risks. It is possible to train people and manage risks.

        Blaming the manufacturer in this case is wrong. Any tool is dangerous if missused. And as you say, using legislation to push responsibility aside is side stepping the main issue.

        Yes the european regulation for guarding and riving knives means limitations in the way a saw can be used, but these are affordable and sensible measures to reduce the biggest risks. From what I read of the original case, the guards had been removed on the saw he used; The responsibility for willingly removing them is down to the employee/employer, (RTFM!!) not the manufacturer.

  6. georgebclark

    Bob,

    I am usually on the side of less government regulation, but in this case I have mixed emotions. Recently, while on my way to a chair class, I was involved in an automobile accident that totaled my vehicle. In years past this type of front end accident would likely resulted in death or serious injury. Due to government mandated safety equipment and laws requiring their use, I sustained only a couple of bruises and was able to rent another vehicle and continue on to my class. I remember many similar opposing arguments when seat belts, shoulder harnesses and air bags were being debated.

    Additionally, your cost analysis does not consider the cost savings if the f/s devices were manufactured in the tens of thousands rather than hundreds.

    George

    1. dreamcatcher

      Quoting George: “I am usually on the side of less government regulation, but in this case I have mixed emotions.”

      George,

      Everyone is usually on the side of less government regulation – especially if those regulations affect how they earn an income. Nobody wants “big brother” constantly looking over their shoulder making their life more difficult. But sometimes we forget that those regulations that possibly saved your life in an automobile are the regulations that assure us that our medicine is real, our hot dogs are meat, our rivers aren’t polluted, and our baby toys aren’t toxic. Anyone who thinks that consumer demand will drive manufacturers to voluntarily respond to consumer safety and ‘do the right thing’ probably doesn’t know much about the history of manufacturing. Sadly, health and safety is more often less profitable (in the short term). While I am not a big fan of government regulation either, I become an advocate of any regulation that is well thought and proven to produce a better way of life in America.

      DC

COMMENT