Lawmakers in California are scheduled to vote later this month on final passage of a bill that would require most table saws sold in the state to have flesh-sensing safety technology. Currently only the SawStop brand saws meet the standards set forth in the bill.
Invented by Stephen Gass of SD3 in Tualatin, Ore., the SawStop saw was developed to prevent workers from suffering serious injury or amputation from their saws. A bill introduced by California’s State Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) would mandate that this technology be used on all saws with blades of 12 inches and smaller that are sold in California.
The Table Saw Safety Act, AB 2218, introduced February 24 would ban manufacturers from selling new table saws in California unless the saws are “equipped with active injury mitigation technology.” such as SawStop. The bill passed the State Assembly by a 64-4 margin and moved ahead in the State Senate on July 3 on a 3-to-2 from the Senate Judiciary. The bill is expected to go before the full Senate in late August.
When SawStop introduced its groundbreaking technology some years ago, woodworkers were amazed to see how the unit works. The blade carries an electrical signal that changes when flesh is detected. Within milliseconds, the blade stops, and an aluminum brake springs into the spinning blade, which dives below the table, and power to the motor is shut off.
Proponents of the device say a lot of injuries could be prevented. But major retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears, and manufacturers such as Stanley Black & Decker Inc., Makita USA Inc. and Skil Power Tools have announced opposition, joining forces with The California Chamber of Commerce in the fight.
Opponents object to the cost to install the technology and the cost to users if the device is falsely triggered. The blade brake is a single-use device and costs $69 to replace, not to mention the cost of the saw blade, which is typically ruined by the braking action.
“We feel that (cost) is more than made up for by the medical costs we would save by not having tens of thousands of fingers cut off,” Assemblyman Williams said.
The other issue with the bill is that since this is only mandated in California, saws without the technology could still be sold in 49 out of 50 states. However, the common perception is that if California requires it, manufacturers will change their products to meet the California standard rather than selling two products or abandoning the California market.
The L.A. Times reports Gass paid thousands of dollars to lobbyists and politicians in an effort to get the bill passed. In the last couple of months, Gass’ company has given political contributions of $46,400 to 21 Democrats and to key Republicans, according to the LA Times. In May, he gave Williams, the bill's author, $2,500.
"It seemed like a long shot, but it seemed like the right thing to do," Gass said.
While lawmakers claim that there is no mention of a specific brand of "active injury mitigation technology" to use when complying with AB 2218, Gass has put in place so many patents on his technology, 37 to be exact, that the cost of manufacturers to replicate it would put their businesses at risk.
“This is about legislating market share and attempting to create a monopoly," said a spokesman for the Power Tool Institute, a Cleveland trade group, in a letter to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Assemblyman Williams. “What's more, adding finger-saving sensors could boost table-saw prices by hundreds of dollars per unit.”
SawStop's contractor saw starts at $1,599. Lowe's in Southern California sells contractor saws from other manufacturers starting at $149.
Many woodworkers are strong advocates for the SawStop technology. John Bueti, a woodworking instructor at Thacher School in Ojai, Calif., has had a saw with this technology in his classroom for the past 8 years, according to a press release from Williams’ website.
“I can walk away from the saw and leave the students to work independently on it and can be assured that they won’t be injured,” he said. “I could not do this previously because of the inherent risk posed by conventional saws. This provides my students with a much richer experience and frees me up to work with other students, making my time much more efficient,” Bueti said.
“It’s like having an airbag in your car,” said Steve Sligh, owner of Sligh Cabinets in Paso Robles. “You don’t treat the saw any different, but it’s something that should be standard in manufacturing.”
Sligh knows firsthand the cost of a saw accident. About 20 years ago an employee of his lost several fingers in his shop. After learning of the table saw safety technology at a trade show he was among the first to use the advancement.
“I just think it is wonderful technology,” Sligh said.
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