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.