MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
The table saw is, by far, the most dangerous tool that's used by woodworkers and do-it-yourselfers. According to government data, more than 3,000 people in the U.S. cut off their fingers or thumbs with table saws every year.
NPR's Chris Arnold has been following one entrepreneur who's developed a safety device that prevents those injuries. It's called SawStop, and it works. But the power tool industry has not adopted it. That's lead to a growing number of lawsuits.
(Soundbite of a saw)
CHRIS ARNOLD: A table saw has an open, spinning blade the size of a dinner plate with sharp, jagged teeth. Often, there's no guard attached to protect the person using it. The blade spins so fast that it's hard to see. And so if you lose concentration for just half a second and put their hand in the wrong place, you can lose your fingers before you even feel the pain.
Mr. CHRIS HIGGINBOTHAM (Wood Shop Teacher, Forest Grove High School, Oregon): You can't react fast enough. It happens before you realize it's happened.
ARNOLD: Chris Higginbotham is a wood shop teacher at Forest Grove High School in Oregon. In his class here, about 25 teenagers are using table saws and other power tools. You might think that's an accident waiting to happen, and Higginbotham is painfully aware that they do happen.
Mr. HIGGINBOTHAM: I had a young man, he paid attention, he did a great job on the safety test, you know, he was well-behaved, and he just made a mistake. In an instant, his index finger was gone up to the middle knuckle, and there was nothing left to put back on. And that was pretty traumatic. I mean, I feel horrible even just talking about it now.
ARNOLD: Several thousand Americans cut their fingers off every year on table saws. Some cut off three or four fingers. But these days, Chris Higginbotham is a lot less worried about accidents. That's because the table saws that he's using are made by a company called SawStop, and they have a super fast safety brake mechanism that can sense when the blade makes contact with a finger.
Mr. HIGGINBOTHAM: I absolutely know its safe because thumb - he would have lost his thumb.
ARNOLD: The entrepreneur who invented this safety brake actually lives just a few miles from here. His name is Steve Gass. He's a woodworker, a physicist and a patent attorney. We first did a story on him six years ago when he launched his company. And he agreed to come by the class here today to show the students how the saw works.
Dr. STEVE GASS (Physicist, Patent Attorney, Inventor, SawStop): I'm going to put this hotdog on top of the board here as if it was my thumb misplaced in the path of the blade. And then...
ARNOLD: It turns out that a hot dog has about the same salt and moisture content as a human finger. The SawStop saw induces a very slight electrical current on the blade. That's monitored by a computer chip. Wood does not conduct electricity, but your finger, it turns out, does, and the saw can sense the difference between the two and trigger a safety brake. When that happens, the blade slams down into the table and away from the person's hands.
Mr. HIGGINBOTHAM: One minute, the saw is running full speed with the blade up fairly high, and just in a thousandth of a second, it's just gone. I mean, it doesn't just stop. The whole blade is gone.
Dr. GASS: Ready?
(Soundbite of a saw and a thump)
(Soundbite of applause)
ARNOLD: You can see a video of this hot dog demo at npr.org. Steve Gass first invented this technology back almost 10 years ago, and he's tried ever since to get the big power tool companies to license and use it.
Dr. GASS: They came back and said, well, we've looked at it, but we're not interested 'cause safety doesn't sell. And I thought: What a crazy attitude.
ARNOLD: Over the past decade, Gass says all of the power-tool makers - Black and Decker, Ryobi, Skil, Bosch, Makita and others - they still haven't adopted this type of safety system. So his startup company has been manufacturing saws, and so far he says he's documented 700 saved fingers.
Dr. GASS: We ended up having to build the saws ourselves to get them out there, and it has sold. It's become the number-one selling table saw - cabinet table saw in the country. And so it sort of proved how wrong those guys were.
ARNOLD: Gass says SawStop is number one in the higher end, so-called cabinet saw part of the market. But the vast majority of table saws sold still do not have this kind of safety brake. Gass says it's basically like refusing to put airbags in cars.
Recently, though, Steve Gass has gained a pretty powerful ally.
Mr. STUART SINGER (Attorney, Boies, Schiller and Flexner LLP): It is really a shocking lack of concern for the safety of their customers.
ARNOLD: Stuart Singer is a partner in the law firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner. It's a high-profile firm that successfully sued Microsoft on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department in a famous antitrust case. The firm has now joined the fight, and it's representing injured people and suing power tool companies.
Mr. SINGER: We have approximately 50 such cases that are pending in various courts around the United States, and we anticipate more of them will be filed.
ARNOLD: In a just a single case, the firm recently won a $1.5 million verdict against the power-tool maker Ryobi.
Mr. SINGER: Our hope is that we don't have to try 50 cases before we convince the industry that they need to change table saws, that they need to use an available safety technology to protect customers.
ARNOLD: The power tool companies argue that they have been making their saws safer. The industry recently adopted new standards for better guards to cover saw blades, and they're adding a feature that prevents wood from getting thrown back at the person who's using the saw.
Susan Young is a spokesperson for the Power Tool Institute, which represent the major toolmakers. She declined an interview, but read form a statement.
Mr. SUSAN YOUNG (Spokesperson, Power Tool Institute): The members of the Power Tool Institute continue to devote substantial time and resources in the research, development, testing and implementation of improved table saw guard designs and other safety measures.
ARNOLD: Part of the debate here boils to down to cost. SawStop says the safety brake system adds about $100 to the manufacturing cost. On top of that, SawStop would want royalties. On a high-end, $3,000 saw, that might not be a big deal. But you can also buy a cheap, small table saw for around a hundred bucks. Adding SawStop or a similar safety system would probably double that price.
Stuart Singer says that's just what a responsibly built saw should cost. The industry argues, though, that it's unreasonable to force consumers to pay for more safety if they don't want it.
Ms. YOUNG: It could increase the consumer's cost of table saws.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, government regulators could step in. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's new Chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, is taking an interest in SawStop. Founder Steve Gass recently showed her how the saw works.
Ms. INEZ TENENBAUM (Chairman, Consumer Product Safety Commission): I was extremely impressed with the speed by which the blade stopped upon contact with human skin. And I recognize that his SawStop does prevent amputations and maimings from the table saw incidents.
ARNOLD: Steve Gass actually, back in 2003, petitioned this agency to require this technology on table saws. Tenenbaum would prefer to see the industry adopt the technology voluntarily. But so far, that hasn't happened. And in those past seven years, according to the CPSC's own data, tens of thousands of people have had their hands mangled and their fingers chopped off on table saws.
Ms. TENENBAUM: I believe that if we don't see a voluntary standard soon, then we should look at making this product a part of our rulemaking, so we can build that in it in terms of a mandatory standard. If we have something that can prevent injury, we need to act upon it now.
ARNOLD: The chairman has not yet asked the industry to voluntarily implement a safety brake like SawStop. If and when she does that, she'd give companies several months to respond before seeking new regulations.
In the meantime, the lawsuits continue, and so do the injuries. About 10 people every day in the U.S. are getting their fingers cut off on table saws.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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