The feds get serious about table-saw safety

The contest between flesh and bone versus the spinning blade of a table saw is always a
rout. The 40,000 Americans who land in emergency rooms every year with such injuries
are testimony that table saws are the country’s most dangerous commonly used power
tool. This spring, the issue of table-saw safety
has found a more receptive audience among federal regulators than have
several previous efforts at raising consciousness about a bloody battle no one ever wants
to wage.

Consider:

4,000 victims of table-saw accidents suffer amputations every year;
a table-saw accident occurs every nine minutes.

So why have these numbers failed to diminish significantly since the 2004 introduction of
a technology that shuts off a saw when it senses contact with skin? Because, apart from
the company that introduced SawStop, no other power tool manufacturer has embraced
the technology, and federal regulators have not required its use. Although understandably
reluctant to endorse a product, the feds finally are acknowledging the bone-headedness of
ignoring a clear solution to a vexing problem.

Invented by a physicist, a SawStop blade carries an electric signal that changes upon
contact with skin, thanks to the fact that the human body is conductive. The change
activates a brake, and the blade stops spinning instantly. In a recent interview with NPR,
Bob Adler, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said,
“What you have is somebody who has invented a dramatic technology that seems to
reduce virtually all the injuries associated with table saws.”

The potential benefit of imposing such a safety measure has been compared to that of
safety belts, air bags, disabling refrigerator door locks and other landmark regulations
that have saved lives and limbs.

The power tool industry claims that SawStop would increase the price of table saws
beyond consumer tolerance, essentially doubling the cost for the least expensive models.
It says that the blade guards on most models proved awkward, that users routinely
removed them, but that they’ve been redesigned. Their improved effectiveness, other
manufacturers say, bypasses the need to mandate use of the more expensive and
complicated SawStop.

Recently, the National Consumers League sponsored an effort by injured woodworkers to
lobby lawmakers and regulators to make the safety brake mandatory on all table saws.
Some weeks later, at a public meeting on table-saw safety, Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman
of the CPSC, said, “It’s clear that we need a standard that will truly address and help
reduce the tragically high number of finger and hand injuries that are occurring on a daily
basis around the country.”

The CPSC wants to encourage major tool companies and SawStop to reach a licensing
agreement to enable the industry to use the technology voluntarily.

The commission has just directed its staff to draft a new regulation package. It should be
ready for public comment by the end of September.

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