How Not to Hurt Yourself On a Table Saw
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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.