If Table Saws Can Be Safer, Why Aren't They?

Jun 18, 2011
Originally published on June 24, 2011 11:01 am

This week some of the nation's biggest power tool companies sent their executives to Washington. They came to argue against tougher safety mandates for so-called table saws, the popular power tools with large open spinning blades. NPR's Chris Arnold has this Reporter's Notebook.

Seven years ago, I was flying on an airplane and thumbing through a woodworking magazine. In the back of it, I came across a little ad for a table saw that wouldn't cut off your fingers. That sounded like a good kind of saw to me; I like doing home-improvement projects. And it just sounded interesting. So when I got home, I called up the inventor. It turned out he had a pretty amazing story to tell.

I found out that table saws cause thousands of these really horrible injuries every year. This inventor, a guy named Steve Gass, had actually figured out a way to prevent just about all of those accidents. Over the years, he's proved that it works, too.

"What you have is somebody who has invented a dramatic technology that seems to reduce virtually all the injuries associated with table saws," says Bob Adler, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was holding meetings on the issue this week.

Gass likes to demonstrate how his saw works by using a hot dog. At one point he showed this to me at a high school shop class out in Oregon.

"I'm gonna put this hot dog on top of the board here, as if it was my thumb misplaced in the path of the blade," he said, "and them I'm gonna shove it into the blade."

Gass' saw uses an electrical sensor to detect when the blade touches flesh instead of wood. Within a few thousandths of a second, the blade slammed to a stop.

But as well as the technology works, the major tool companies have failed to put this kind of device on any of their table saws — even eight years after Gass offered to license it to them.

"They came back and said, 'Well, we've looked at it, but we're not interested because safety doesn't sell,' " Gass says.

SawStop, Gass' little upstart company, has sold tens of thousands of these safer table saws, and lately things have been heating up in Washington. The National Consumers League last month brought in injured woodworkers to meet with lawmakers and regulators. They want to make the SawStop safety brake mandatory on all table saws.

So just this week, I was back in Washington in a hearing room.

"SawStop is currently available in the marketplace to any consumer who chooses to purchase it," says Susan Young, who represents Black & Decker, Bosch, Makita and other power tool companies.

In other words, let consumers decide. Young says many consumers won't want to pay for the SawStop technology, which could add $100 to $300 in cost, depending on which side you talk to.

Either way, the gears are now turning in Washington. By the end of September, regulators say they'll issue a draft of new safety requirements for table saws.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Some of the nation's biggest power tool companies are gearing up for a fight. This week, they sent their executives to Washington, D.C. to argue against tougher safety mandates for so-called table saws - those are the ones with large open spinning blades. Every year 4,000 Americans suffer amputations in table saw accidents. NPR's Chris Arnold has this reporter's notebook.

CHRIS ARNOLD: About seven years ago, I was flying on an airplane and I was thumbing through a woodworking magazine. And in the back of it, I came across a little ad for a table saw that wouldn't cut off your fingers. Man, that sounded like a good kind of saw to me. I like doing home-improvement projects, and it also just sounded like something that was pretty cool and interesting.

So, when I got home, I called up the inventor and it turned out that he had a pretty amazing story to tell.

(Soundbite of table saw)

ARNOLD: I found out that table saws cause thousands of these really horrible injuries every year. And this inventor, a guy named Steve Gass, had actually figured out a way to prevent just about all of those accidents. And over the years, he's proved that it works.

Bob Adler is a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was holding meetings on the issue this week.

Mr. BOB ADLER (Commissioner, Consumer Product Safety Commission): What you have is somebody who has invented a dramatic technology that seems to reduce virtually all the injuries associated with table saws.

ARNOLD: Steve Gass, the inventor, likes to demonstrate how his saw works by using a hot dog. At one point he showed this to me at a high school shop class out in Oregon.

Mr. STEVE GASS (Inventor, Sawstop): I'm going to put this hot dog on top of the board here as if it was my thumb misplaced in the path of the blade. And then I'm going to shove it into the blade and all...

ARNOLD: Gass's saw uses an electrical sensor to detect when the blade touches flesh instead of wood. And within a few thousandths of a second, the blade slams to a stop.

Mr. GASS: All right. We're good to go? Everybody ready. All right.

(Soundbite of table saw)

ARNOLD: But as well as the technology works, the major power tool companies have failed to put this kind of device on any of their table saws, even 10 years after Steve Gass offered to license it to them.

Mr. GASS: They came back and said, well, we've looked at it but we're not interested 'cause safety doesn't sell.

ARNOLD: Gass's little upstart company in the meantime has sold tens of thousands of these safer table saws. And lately things have been heating up in Washington.

The National Consumers League - it's a consumers group - last month brought in injured woodworkers to meet with lawmakers and regulators. They want to make the Sawstop safety break mandatory on all table saws. So, just this week, I was back in Washington in a hearing room.

Susan Young represents Black and Decker, Bosch, Makita and other power tool companies.

Ms. SUSAN YOUNG (Lawyer): Sawstop is currently available in the marketplace to any consumer who chooses to purchase it.

ARNOLD: In other words, let consumers decide. And Susan Young says many consumers won't want to pay for the Sawstop technology, which could add between $100 to $300 or more in costs depending on which side you talk to.

Either way, the gears are now turning in Washington. By the end of September, regulators say they'll issue a draft of new safety requirements for table saws.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.