MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
The federal government is moving closer to regulating a common tool for carpenters and do-it-yourselfers: the table saw. They're useful, but dangerous with an open spinning blade the size of a dinner plate. Every year, several thousand Americans cut off their fingers using table saws, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Table saws cause all these really grisly injuries every year and engineers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission say almost all of those injuries could be prevented with a better safety brake system.
Such a safety brake right now is only available on one brand of table saw. It's called SawStop, but the vast majority of saws sold today do not have this kind of safety brake.
CPSC Chairman Inez Tenebaum spoke at a hearing on the issue this week.
INEZ TENENBAUM: I personally met with victims of table saw blade injuries and I have deep sympathy for the pain and the suffering they've endured and will continue for the rest of their lives, all due to one split second miscalculation when using a table saw.
ARNOLD: A few months ago, a group of injured woodworkers came to Washington to meet with the CPSC and members of Congress. Some went from running small contractor businesses to actually being on food stamps after mangling their hands on table saws.
The trip was organized by Sally Greenberg. She's the head of the National Consumers League and she was also at the hearing this week.
SALLY GREENBERG: They are in constant pain. They have mounting medical bills. They are unable to make a living, many of them, because they can no longer use their hands.
ARNOLD: And government research shows that these sorts of injuries happen all the time. Anne Northup is a current CPSC commissioner and a former Republican congresswoman.
ANNE NORTHUP: It's not what happened to one person or two people. I mean, 3,500 people a year get a finger cut off - at least, at least. Maybe an arm. Thirty-five hundred people a year have an amputation. Now, there's something wrong with the product.
ARNOLD: Or Northup says it's at least worth a hard look to see if the products could be made to be much safer. Chairman Tenenbaum agrees.
TENENBAUM: The severity of these injuries and the frequencies of their occurrence is something that demands action. These injuries can and they should be prevented.
ARNOLD: One thing the commission is considering is requiring a safety brake that's similar to SawStops. An entrepreneur named Steve Gass invented this kind of safety brake and it allows the saw to sense when the blade nicks a person's skin. Within three one-thousandths of a second after that happens, the brake fires and the blade drops down into the table, preventing injury. It's actually pretty amazing to watch. The blade just disappears.
CPSC commissioner, Robert Adler.
ROBERT ADLER: I have to say, when I saw his technology demonstrated, I was dazzled. I really have trouble believing that it really works, but it does really work and it seems to me that some kind of variation on his approach makes sense.
ARNOLD: You can see a video of the saw at NPR.org. SawStop sells thousands of table saws all around the country now, but the other major saw manufacturers, Black & Decker, Ryobi, Bosch and many others - for years, they've resisted adopting this kind of safety brake. Instead, to address the safety concerns, they've come up with a new and improved plastic guard to cover the saw blade.
CAROLEENE PAUL: We think it's an improvement of an existing technology.
ARNOLD: Caroleene Paul is an engineer with the CPSC who is studying the issue. She says, though, table saws have had guards for decades, but woodworkers commonly remove the guards because they get in the way for certain kinds of cuts. And so she thinks the new and improved guards will similarly fail to stop injuries.
PAUL: We think the limitations with that technology have been evident in all the table saw injuries that we see each year.
ARNOLD: So the CPSC staff says requiring a SawStop type safety brake would prevent many more injuries, but the commission will have to consider the cost of requiring that. Most table saw manufacturers cite cost as a primary reason that they haven't adopted the technology. The safety brake could add between $100 and $200 to the price of a saw.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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