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.