Woodworkers are extremely passionate about their table saws. That’s at least one thing we’ve learned from our multiple postings about efforts to mandate saw safety by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and more recently by the state of California.
At the center of the table saw safety controversy is the SawStop, a flesh-sensing and braking technology capable of stopping a whirring saw blade almost instantly in the unfortunate event an operator’s finger, hand or other body part comes in contact with it. Thousands of woodworkers and others have seen the company’s famous demonstration at trade shows or on YouTube in which a hotdog held up to a saw blade escapes with barely a scratch.
In the dozens of comments we have received over the past couple of years, plus several guest blogs, no one has questioned whether or not the SawStop works as advertised. The bigger question has been if a government-mandated rule would create a lucrative monopoly for the owner of its patents.
CPSC Commissioner Robert Adler and California Assemblyman Das Williams have been outspoken proponents of the SawStop in pushing for a table saw safety mandate in their respective positions. While both Adler and Williams say their greater interest is promoting safety and not mandating that table saws be equipped with SawStop, opponents beg to differ. The Power Tool Institute, a group that includes most of the makers of table saws sold at retail, argue that the wording of the proposed CPSC and California rules would require a flesh-detection technology which PTI says would be difficult for others to introduce because of the dozens of patents SawStop Inventor Stephen Gass holds on his product. Groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce, plus Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears have joined the PTI in a bid to stop SawStop.
Gass, a patent attorney, has petitioned both the CPSC and the state of California to establish table saw safety standards that would help reduce the average of 66,900 saw-related injuries treated at emergency rooms each year, including about 3,500 amputations, purported in a CPSC study. The CPSC voted 5-0 last fall to move forward with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR). The Table Saw Safety Act legislation sponsored by Williams is headed to the California Senate for a vote having already passed the state’s Assembly by a vote 64 to 4. Williams' bill would require all new table saws sold in California “to be equipped with a safety device that substantially mitigates injury when human skin comes close to or in contact with the blade."
In sifting through the latest batch of readers’ comments, it is obvious that all seem to value safety and recognize the inherent dangers of operating a table saw. It also seems clear that those saw owners who still have all of their digits are vehemently opposed to government intervention on issue of saw safety. In general, they see better and more aggressive safety training and using saw blade guards as the solution.
On the other side of the saw fence, those that have lost a finger or worse or who knows someone who has are more prone to favor a table saw rule regardless of the individual saw user’s opinion.
In any regard, it seems more and more likely that the CPSC, state of California or both will enact a table saw safety rule. And if either or both of these rules come true, it is also looking more and more obvious that this issue will wind up in the courts.
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Rich Christianson is Associate Publisher and Editor at Large of Woodworking Network. During his 25+ years covering the wood products industry, Rich has toured hundreds of manufacturing plants throughout North America, Europe and Asia. His reporting has covered everything from the state of the industry and impact of wood imports to technology and environmental issues. In his current capacity he is responsible for editing the daily Woodworking Network Update newsletter and coordinating events including the annual Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and Canada’s biennial Woodworking Machinery & Supply Expo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.orgRead more of Rich Christianson's blogs.