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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.
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If you want to promote tablesaw safety, I suggest you stop showing ripping operations with a full length fence…
A few years ago I tipped over a worn out push block & put my right index finger down right on top of a running saw blade. It split my finger from the tip to above the first knuckle. It was such a strange experience that I actually pulled the board back, straightened up the push block and resumed to cut before my mind registered that something might need attention. Required an orthopedic surgeon (ER rule since bone was involved). He wanted to send me to physical therapy to exercise the first joint of my index finger. Lost my fingernail, about 1/4 inch off the length of my finger, part of my ability to type well, and my potential career as a hand model. That was about 4 years ago. I now have about 90% of the feeling back in the fingertip, a nail that resembles a very bad circumcision, and a lot of chagrin to carry around. I did PT on my own–figured I could handle finger bending exercises w/out an attendant–saw the surgeon about 3-4 times in his office for follow-up. I paid about $3800 and insurance paid about $1500, if I remember correctly. I could have bought a SawStop for the cost, but I still wouldn’t for the simple reason that I wouldn’t have room to use it if I had one. I’m using (and was using) a 1970’s era Craftsman table saw. No gaurds. I made the push block. I turned on the saw. All me. My fault–no one else’s. I just get more and more tired of discovering that every thing that happens to anybody is made to be some one else’s fault and that it has to be rectified by making them pay money to the "injured" party and the contingency fee to his lawyer.
I lost about 1/2" of my right ring finger tip in my garage door about 4 years ago. The ER surgery bill my insurance paid was about $3700. Then there was follow up surgery that was another $1500 or so, plus all those doctor visits and therapy. I think the cost of that one finger tip was about $8500 total.
Next thing you know they’ll set up programs encouraging folks to turn in their table saws, like the programs they have to take similarly dangerous handguns off the streets. (As someone who practices his constitutional right to own firearms and a table saw, I’m kidding of course.)
I personally don’t think we should ignore what they are saying, just be real about it. For example, I don’t think there would be any harm in giving table saw owners a small manual showing how to safely perform common table saw tasks, what to watch for, and what to avoid. I personally learned about kickback the hard way, even though I understood what it was. I didn’t really get why it happened until it happened a few too many times. Now that I get it, it hasn’t happened. Fortunately, I never was injured.