2012 Could See New Regulations For Table Saws

Every year, thousands of Americans suffer severe injuries using the saws. But after a series of reports by NPR, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has started crafting new safety rules for table saws.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Somewhere, somebody in America got a table saw for Christmas. And they've had time by now to risk a few injuries cutting wood. Every year, thousands of Americans suffer severe injuries using those saws, which are quite practical, but also hazardous. And now, after a series of reports by NPR, the saws have become a target for federal regulators. They've begun crafting new safety rules. NPR's Chris Arnold reported that series, and now has an update.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Table saws are dangerous because they're often set up with an open, spinning blade the size of a car's hubcap. It sticks up through a small, metal table, and it will cut just about anything you slide into the spinning, jagged teeth of that blade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW)

ARNOLD: The problem is that every year, tens of thousands of people get their hands caught in the blade, and those injuries are unnecessary. A proven safety brake technology exists that regulators say could prevent just about all of these injuries.

ROBERT ADLER: And the injury data are horrific: deep lacerations to arms and hands, broken bones, and worst of all, amputations to fingers and thumbs.

ARNOLD: Robert Adler is a commissioner at the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington. He cites federal research that shows that there are about 4,000 of those most severe amputation injuries on table saws every single year. Adler and his fellow commissioners at the CPSC recently voted on whether or not to move forward with new safety regulations.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Commissioner Moore, how do you vote?

COMMISSIONER MOORE: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Commissioner Northup?

COMMISSIONER NORTHUP: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I vote aye. And I understand that Commissioner Moore...

ARNOLD: So the CPSC has now voted unanimously to begin crafting new safety standards for table saws. This move came after a series of stories on NPR about this issue, which, this past spring, led to the country's oldest consumer group launching a campaign to improve table saw safety.

SALLY GREENBERG: Well, the problem is enormous, and it's getting worse.

ARNOLD: That's Sally Greenberg, who heads up the National Consumers League. She brought injured woodworkers to Washington to meet with members of Congress and the CPSC. Some were former carpenters who are now unable to work anymore after suffering serious injuries on table saws. Commissioner Bob Adler.

ADLER: I've met with a number of these individuals, and this is what I found so interesting and so fascinating. They were experienced woodworkers who made a single, small misstep or had a momentary lapse in attention, with ghastly consequences. To my mind, small errors like these should not produce tragic results on such a ghastly scale.

ARNOLD: Especially, Adler said, since a safety technology exists that can prevent just about all of these injuries. It's called SawStop. But the major power tool companies have resisted adopting it.

SawStop was invented by a man named Steve Gass. He's a patent attorney, a physicist and an amateur wood-worker. And he founded a company that he says makes safer table saws.

STEVE GASS: I invented the technology more than a decade ago, and the industry really wasn't interested.

ARNOLD: Gass invented a saw that can tell the difference between wood and a person's finger. People conduct electricity, and wood doesn't. That's basically how it works. What Gass did was to put an electrical sensor in his saw. And when the blade cuts a person, within 3/1000ths of a second, the saw fires a safety brake that stops the blade. Gass has sold more than 30,000 of these saws nationally so far. And he's documented a lot of finger-saves.

GASS: So we have, you know, over 1,300 instances where someone has run their hands into the blade on our saw and come away with a tiny scratch instead of maybe losing one or several fingers.

ARNOLD: Still, the power tool industry apparently does not want to adopt this technology. Gass says it adds about $100 to the cost of a saw. The industry says it could cost much more. And the industry says that new regulations are not necessary.

SUSAN YOUNG: SawStop is currently available in the marketplace to any consumer who chooses to purchase it.

ARNOLD: Susan Young is with the Power Tool Institute, which represents Bosch, Black and Decker, Ryobi, and most other big power tool manufacturers. She spoke before the CPSC this past summer. She also said that the power tool companies have developed their own safety brake, but they probably can't introduce it without paying royalties to SawStop, which is something that they don't want to do.

YOUNG: Steven Gass, who we understand is a patent attorney, has filed more than 120 U.S. patent applications and has over 70 issued U.S. patents which pertain to the SawStop technology.

ARNOLD: Right now, there is no negotiation going on between Steve Gass and the power tool companies. It actually seems to have gotten kind of personal between them. And years have now gone by without any progress.

GASS: We're just a small company, you know, in Tualatin, Oregon that nobody's ever heard of and, you know, we're trying to change an industry. And they don't want to be changed. They want to keep the status quo and keep making saws that, you know, cut their customers' fingers off.

ARNOLD: The Power Tool Institute differs with that characterization. The PTI says it's developed a new plastic blade guard that will make the industry's saws much safer. Anybody looking to weigh in on the issue has until Feb 12th. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is taking public comments between now and then, before taking the next step towards new safety regulations.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Road safety is what prompted a new federal law that goes in effect in the first few days of 2012. As of January 3rd, drivers of commercial trucks and buses will not be allowed to use handheld cell phones when they're behind the wheel. Those who violate the rule could face a fine of more than $2,700 and have their commercial license suspended.

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