June 10, 2011, Update: The Consumer Product Safety Commission has directed its staff to draft new safety requirements for table saws, NPR has learned.
Table saws are the country's most dangerous commonly used power tool. Forty-thousand Americans end up in emergency rooms every year with injuries — 4,000 of them suffer amputations, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
This week, consumer advocates are in Washington, D.C., meeting with lawmakers to push for tougher safety regulations for the industry.
Courtesy of SawStop
The SawStop senses an electrical current in the hot dog.
The SawStop senses an electrical current in the hot dog. Courtesy of SawStop
Courtesy of SawStop
A hot dog with a slight nick
A hot dog with a slight nick Courtesy of SawStop
The Safety Break Technology
A table saw has an open spinning blade the size of a dinner plate. And every day in this country, more than 10 people on average cut off their fingers or even half of their hands on these saws. Carpenters lose their livelihoods. Many people never recover. But what's most striking is that all of those accidents are preventable.
"The problem is enormous, and it's getting worse," says Sally Greenberg, who heads the National Consumers League and has been a top lawyer with Consumers Union.
The problem, she explains, is that there's a safety brake technology that can stop a table saw instantly — before it cuts off a user's fingers. It's like an airbag in a car. It's a breakthrough safety feature. But only one company in the entire industry is using it.
"We've got this great technology — it's not terribly expensive to implement," Greenberg says. "Let's do it."
This safety brake technology is called SawStop. Its inventor, Steve Gass, likes to show how it works by using a hot dog. He places the hot dog on a board as if it was his thumb placed in the path of the blade. Then he shoves the wood and the hot dog into the spinning saw blade teeth. And ... bang! A safety break fires within 3/1,000ths of a second, slamming the saw blade to a stop and dropping it down into the table. It actually looks like the saw disappears. And the hot dog barely has a scratch on it.
NPR has followed Gass over the years as he started the company that is now manufacturing tens of thousands of safe SawStop saws.
Greenberg, the consumer advocate, says she first heard about this safety issue on NPR seven years ago. She then grew frustrated that after all these years the industry still hasn't adopted the technology and the government hasn't mandated it.
Greenberg says this case is a classic example of why the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created.
"You have a pattern of injury, you have a technology that can address the injury, and it can address the injury for a reasonable cost," she says.
Given the life-altering harm these injuries cause, Greenberg says the government should mandate a safety brake like this for all table saws.
"This should have been done years ago; we would have saved so much pain, so much trauma, so much cost to the health system," she says.
Injured Carpenter Lives 'Nightmare'
Greenberg has been meeting this week with government safety officials and members of Congress. She's visiting their offices with people who have suffered unnecessary injuries on table saws.
One of them is Adam Thull, a professional carpenter who ran his own business. But one day, while he was using a table saw, a piece of wood fell, and instinctively he reached over the blade to catch it.
"My elbow entered the blade and it proceeded to pull my arm all the way through the blade, cutting 100 percent through the ulna bone — tendons, ligaments, nerves," he says.
Thull has a wife and kids and lives in Crosslake, Minn. Since his accident a year ago, he has had multiple operations. He remains in a lot of pain and can't earn a living. He says financially he and his wife used to run a successful small business.
"Now we are on food stamps, medical assistance, energy assistance," he says. "I want to call it a living nightmare."
The Next Step Toward Regulation
Thull and other injured people met Monday with Inez Tenenbaum, the chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"I held their hands and saw their injuries," Tenenbaum says. She says it's amazing to see how quickly and easily such serious accidents can happen while using a table saw.
Tenenbaum says she would prefer for the industry to work out a way to license this safety brake technology and adopt it voluntarily. But at the same time, she says, she wants to push ahead down the path of creating a mandatory government requirement for this sort of safeguard on table saws. The next step toward new regulations would be for the commission to announce what's called an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The industry and consumers would then have a comment period to respond.
Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (pictured here last year), is meeting this week with people who have suffered injuries while using table saws.
Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (pictured here last year), is meeting this week with people who have suffered injuries while using table saws. Alex Brandon/AP
"We do believe that we could do this in the next few months," Tenenbaum says.
Running between meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Monday, Greenberg said her group plans to keep the pressure up.
"Our job is that this table saw safety does not go on the back burner the way it has been for the last 10 years," she said.
For its part, the power tool industry is opposed to a mandatory standard. The saw brake technology adds around $100 to the cost of a saw. For expensive saws, that may not be a big deal. But for cheap $100 saws at Home Depot, it could double the price. The industry has said that's unreasonable.
It also says Gass and SawStop are asking for too much money to license the safety brake. And the power tool companies have come up with their own improved blade guard. All of these issues will have to be addressed if the Consumer Product Safety Commission moves forward down the path toward tougher regulation.