Saving fingers and pushing for safer table saws – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I spent yesterday morning at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) listening to a report from the Commission’s staff on Table Saw Blade Contact Injuries – this is the culmination of many years of study and deliberation and even a favorable vote toward a mandatory safety standard in 2006 that never materialized. Table saws are inherently dangerous devices to anyone who comes within 10 feet of one. A blade spins on a table at 100 mph and cuts through thick pieces of wood, even metal.  Even watching the saw in action is scary, knowing what it can do to fingers or hands upon contact is even worse.

But table saws are a staple in any woodshop, no woodworker can operate efficiently without one.  And these saws are also among the most dangerous devices, inflicting nearly 67,300 injuries a year, half of which land victims in the emergency room. Many of the injuries are severe and cause lifelong pain and trauma  – amputations from table saws occur 10 times a day, according to CPSC data.

However, today we have a technology, invented by Oregon scientist and patent lawyer Steve Gass, that all but removes the danger of table saws. It operates with a sensor that can distinguish between human flesh and a piece of wood, stopping the blade in a millisecond and preventing injury when it senses flesh. The company Gass runs – which now makes table saws because no manufacturer would license his technology back in 2001 or 2002 when he first developed the prototype – is called SawStop. 30,000 SawStop saws are in operation today, many in shop classes and cabinetry workshops.

The CPSC staff – which is made up of lawyers, scientists, engineers, actuaries, statisticians, and human factor experts – gathered all the relevant information in order to brief the five CPSC commissioners and make a recommendation that the commission move forward with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That’s the first of three steps – the last of which would be a final rule or regulation requiring safe table saws.

The fact that the CPSC has moved forward on its own – without being specifically required to do so by congress –is unusual in itself. What’s even more unusual, though, is that there is a near total fix to a major safety hazard – one that causes 40,000 plus injuries a year. NCL wrote a letter in November to the Commissioners asking them to adopt a mandatory safety standard with this flesh detecting technology. NCL has been front and center in pushing the CPSC to jumpstart an otherwise dormant process.

Finally, one of the most hopeful signs that we will get an effective safety standard were the comments by Republican appointee, Commissioner Anne Northup, at yesterday’s presentation. No liberal, Northrup had this to say about the proposed ANPR and possible federal safety standard: “Thanks for putting this on the agenda. I’ve wanted this on the agenda for a long time. If you’ve ever known anyone who was injured by a table saw, it’s debilitating and expensive to treat. This is the kind of work I came to the Commission to do.”

We are hoping that within a year – give or take – we might well have a new mandatory safety standard from the CPSC, requiring flesh detecting technology, perhaps starting with the larger saws and eventually required on all of them.  The CPSC was established to address just this type of hazard. We are pleased to see them moving forward so decisively.