Saturday, November 15, 2014

Table Saw Update

A couple of times in the life of this blog, like here, I've mentioned that the woodworking tool industry is in crisis due to a liability suit over table saws.  For a summary: (slightly edited)
In 2010, a lawsuit was won against Ryobi tools' parent company, for producing a "defective" table saw.  The plaintiff was awarded $1.5 million when he sued for $250,000.  The defect?  It didn't include an expensive safety option that was invented around year 2000 and only on the market a couple of years at the time of his accident; (the modern tilt-arbor table saw was invented in 1939; the basic idea goes back to 1813).  In 2000, inventor Steve Gass produced a technology called a SawStop that senses when flesh touches the blade and stops the blade in milliseconds.  In the process of stopping the saw as fast as it does, it destroys the saw stopping block, sometimes the blade and possibly other parts of the saw.  The user still gets cut, but typically only a minor cut that might require stitches instead of having a body part cut off.  The inventor shopped this safety to the major tool makers and none of them agreed to license his invention.  Their major concern was that the idea was untested; they had no idea how durable it would be (contractors' tools live a rough life); they had no idea if it could be added to existing products, or how to roll it out across their product lines.  The inventor started his own company in 2004 selling tablesaws with this feature.
Got that?  Ryobi (well, the company that owns them) was punished for not including a safety device that didn't exist when the saw was designed.   As I concluded in that 2010 article, "This suit will end the production of low-priced and bench top table saws, seriously impacting hobbyist woodworkers as well as the tool industry.  Professionals will buy the more expensive saws and raise their prices to you and me." 

Fine Woodworking magazine reported last month (October 6th):
The $1.5 million in damages awarded in the Carlos Osorio tablesaw case seemed destined to be overturned, considering the facts of the case. Not only was it upheld yesterday, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to propose a tablesaw safety standard that would mandate that saws all sense fingers and retract their blades instantly. The implications for the industry are massive.
There's quite a long story behind this at the Fine Woodworking link; the suit has been in process since '06, and has long turned into insurance company vs. insurance company (subrogation).  On October 5th, the CPSC voted 5-0 to look into requiring tablesaw manufacturers to include a device like the SawStop on all of their saws, and since SawStop owns about 70 patents, if they rule this way they're essentially requiring every manufacturer buy from SawStop.  The Power Tool Institute estimates this could quadruple the cost of an entry level table saw.  Further, as the Fine Woodworking article says, no one even knows if the SawStop can be fit to smaller, bench top saws. 

As I said a couple of years ago, this isn't about safety and "the right to cut my finger off" as Steven Colbert puts it.  Tablesaws are dangerous machines, made worse because many users defeat the safeties on the saw (as Carlos Osorio did - he started this long chain of lawsuits).  It's about how a manufacturer can be found to be producing a "dangerous and defective" product for not including a feature that didn't exist when the product was designed. Lawyers to the contrary, we can't go back in time and take the invention with us.

It's widely reported that around 4000 people every year are sent to the ER with a traumatic amputation from a tablesaw.  Nobody wants that.  The question is the best way to prevent injuries.  Should the government step in and mandate all saws have this technology?  No one knows how durable these are going to be, how long they'll last and how well they'll hold up to the rough life of a workman's saw.  Part of the reason there are so many injuries now is that the safeties currently mandated for these saws are routinely removed or defeated.  Will this one sit there quietly for 25 years waiting for the time its needed and then snap into action, or will some circuit element open, rendering it the worst kind of safety: a false sense of security?   
There are tons of pictures of the SawStop hot dog test online.  This one is from NPR, who (predictably) want the government to mandate it. 


  1. The problem is the operator. I admit I removed the anti-kickback device and the saw blade cover. In my humble opinion both of these make the table saw more likely to harm you rather then make them safer. Safe operation is technique and not doing a few very specific things. Most accidents can be blamed on distraction. With any power equipment or any dangerous task beware of distractions.

  2. The obvious outcome here is downstream liability increases exponentially, and that will have an effect.

    Sale prices on portable contractor saws are in the $500 range; including Sawstop will, at absolute bare minimum, double or triple that, and some manufacturers will simply drop those products from their line. Others will venture into "interlock heaven" and add safety features that they hope will ward off lawsuits, but will have the opposite effect as users defeat them because the saw is largely unusable with them. Remember auto seatbelt interlocks from the '70s?

    It would not surprise me if a tool firm not only dropped non-Sawstop saws from their product line, but engaged in a deliberate bankruptcy and re-organization to insulate themselves from lawsuits on the thousands of non-Sawstop saws they've produced over the last century.

    Joe the Contractor, who has a perfectly good - but non-Sawstop equipped - saw will find his insurance costs skyrocketing. In fact, he may discover he's uninsurable without one. Few customers will knowingly hire an uninsured contractor because that means liability will fall onto the customer, and without customers contractors won't exist. The few remaining contractors will, certainly, charge the new market rates dictated by expensive saws, expensive insurance and scarcity. (And wait until your homeowner insurance company discovers you have a 12-year-old table saw in your basement, or the AMA feels compelled to have doctors ask about your power tools. The street corner cocaine dealer may wind up also selling used DeWalts.)

    The real danger, however, is the cultural mindset that government bureaucrats, in their endless quest for a world with rounded corners and padded surfaces, can unrestrainedly impose safety on mechanical devices and processes and do so successfully and without unintended consequences. Some stuff that people do cannot be made risk-free. I've seen some pretty bad cuts come from a 26-inch Stanley crosscut hand saw, every now and then a HD 1/2" drill will grab and twist, breaking a wrist, heavy weights fall, and flying particles get into eyes. The list goes on.

    I'm not suggesting that safety is not important, and that training, supervision and pre-task thought about how to properly and safely perform an operation safely should be reduced.

    The larger question is "what kind of a society do we want to live in?"

  3. Anon - you're completely right. The guy who started this lawsuit ball rolling was either completely untrained or dumb as a box of rocks. He was ripping oak flooring on a small benchtop saw. They defeated the safeties, and then when the oak jammed, he pushed on it until his hand raked over the blade. (all of this as I understand what I've read, of course). In my world, he's responsible for his own injuries. I can see an argument that his employer is responsible for not training him or not checking him out on the tool to make sure he knew what he as doing, but Ryobi?

    Alien - your comment is a post in itself. A quick look at Amazon shows small tablesaws starting at under $400 and SawStop brand starting at $1750. More than 4x the price.

    What about those (rough swag) millions of saws out there now? Simply mandating these safeties on new saws is not going to eliminate those 4000 amputations a year.

    I can see insurance companies telling cabinet shops they're uninsurable until they get SawStops. Their costs, of course, get passed on to anyone buying from them. For a guy looking to get started in woodworking as a hobby, the cost of admission goes up.

    The first time I ran my new milling machine, I realized their plexiglass chip guard in front of the bit would interfere with every cut except for the longest cutting bits (trust me - you don't want to cut 1/4" slots with an end mill that's 3" long). The very next thing I did was remove that safety. Stupid safeties are more dangerous than not having them.

  4. The owner of sawstop is a lawyer IIRC.
    One of his actions after he was turned down by the big tool companies was to get a ruling from the CPSC mandating his product by law.
    it is a brilliant invention- I was going to buy one until I saw his attempt to force them down our throats-

  5. The CPSC hasn't made that ruling. The action six weeks ago (Oct. 5th) was preliminary and called an ANPR, Advance Notice for Proposed Rulemaking. Under this, the CPSC is asking for expert testimony on ways to make saws safer. There are competing technologies to consider, not just SawStop's, and woodworking experts are invited to comment.

    The next step is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, where they publish their intended rules and open them for comment. At least in other agencies, the rules can still be tweaked or even dropped at this point. I would guess that's at least six months away, maybe more.

    In short, it's a long way from that we have to buy them.

    I couldn't tell you if he's a lawyer, I just see him referred to as Steven Gass Ph.D, and the company says it was founded by him and some friends. The whole approach of using the government as a stick to win your business is one of the main things this blog "fights", and I detest it.

  6. Thanks for the correction- I meant to write-"attempted rule"-.

    I wrote my opposition to the original proposed rule to the CPSC, and also to Fine Woodworking- there are apparently a large group of woodworkers who think it is just the thing for the government to step in everywhere to protect them.
    They seemed unable to grasp the idea that although I thought the sawstop was a fine idea, that the market should decide, and not the Feds.

    I once read a story that said OSHA had never recorded a table saw accident where all the guards were in place. I have never seen a pro shop where ANY of the guards were in place, save for a European style splitter behind the blade. The reason is obvious- the guards make the saw unusable and/or clumsy for a lot of operations.
    What this comes down to in the end is that there is no way for legislation to correct idiocy.
    There was a study done on risk perception, regarding how safety improvements in autos led to less careful driving. Everything has unexpected consequences.
    With this ruling, any shop that now has a saw without this technology is at great risk. And how soon till some enterprising lawyer decides it should have applied to the jointer? or the chop saw? or any other tool?

  7. They seemed unable to grasp the idea that although I thought the sawstop was a fine idea, that the market should decide, and not the Feds. Absolutely! If anyone wants to buy a SawStop, fantastic! - and apparently somewhere north of 20,000 people have bought them. They should enjoy their saws with the security of knowing a short distraction won't cost them a finger or worse.

    It's the feds mandating it that's the problem. The insidious problem (aside from the ones you mentioned) is that it will stifle innovation. Where's the incentive to invent a better safety device if the Feds won't allow it? Nobody knows how well the SS technology will hold out for years to come. Are the small, benchtop saws rugged enough for it? I have no idea if it could be retrofitted onto my old Ryobi tablesaw.

    Personally, if we're going to go down that route, I'd like the blade to stop before my finger gets nicked. And I'd like to be able to reuse the blade (I know SS destroys the blade sometimes). In my mind, there has to be a better way.

  8. "In my mind, there has to be a better way."

    1- never put your hand behind the blade.
    2 never cut an over square part without a cross slide support.
    3-always use a push stick.
    4 stand to the side of the blade.
    5 don't let people work in the kickback alley zone.
    5 keep an inch or so of blade above the part, if possible. More if ripping.
    6-toss the long sleeves, ditch the gloves, cut the ponytail and get rid of the rings.
    7 use a sharp blade.
    8 If the wood jams, stop the saw and figure out why- usually it is poor drying that causes stress in the wood (case hardening) and often a thin wood wedge in the outfeed kerf will keep it from binding.
    9 the smaller and lighter the part the more the danger- the saw has to overcome much less inertia.
    anon 1237

  9. So with SawStop I can ignore items 1-9 above as the blade won't even cut through my causes.

  10. Correct- until it fails. or until you get tired of wrecking the part, or tired of spending the money to replace the blade and stop cartridge. To count on a mechanical device ,to prevent injury, in lieu of proper use, is not a good idea.

    "don't worry, the safety is on...."


  11. I apologize for chiming in again.

    According to Wikipedia, Sawstop puts an electric current through the blade and activates when it senses a different electrical potential; activation will stop a blade within 5 milliseconds.

    First, what's the longevity potential of that electrical path? Sawdust, oil, lubricated bearings, etc., plus a mechanical (wired) connection someplace in the system. I haven't looked, but I'd wager there's prescribed maintenance on Sawstop-equipped saws, and where there are people using tools to perform maintenance (or skipping it entirely...) there will be human error.

    Second, the average table saw rotates its blade somewhere in the vicinity of 3600 RPM. That means there is quite a bit of momentum behind a rotating blade, the shaft it's on, the drive belt, pulleys, the motor armature, etc. Again, I haven't looked, but I'll guess that Sawstop might depend on the blade being belt driven rather than direct drive, because that offers some degree of disconnect between the mass of motor armature and the blade.

    Lightweight portable table saws are AFAIK all direct drive because it's lighter and cheaper.
    In either case, when that rotating mass goes from 3600 RPM to zero in .005 seconds there's quite a bit of energy to be dissipated pretty darn quickly, and that requires sufficient mass in the saw itself to absorb and contain that energy. Stopping the blade in 5/1000 second to save a finger isn't an advantage if the saw frame tears apart and drives a large piece of aluminum or plastic into your femoral artery.

    So say goodbye to light, portable saws, or at the very least, disposable $1,200 contractor saws; one Sawstop event and it's scrap. I used to race enduro karts and motorcycles with engines highly modified to get maximum HP and with some frequency, snapped cranks at the PTO side of the last throw; when that much horsepower is absorbed that fast nothing in or attached to the engine is salvageable.

    Predictions are tough, especially about the future, but I can foresee lots of people crippling Sawstop on their saws, or finding other ways to cut stuff that are more dangerous.

    I've got a portable table saw, and it scares the absolute bejeebus out of me. Which is why I unplug it between cuts while I set up the next cut job and clean up cuttings and sawdust, and spend some time thinking cut strategies and exactly how I'm going to make - and complete - the next cut. Yes, that takes longer, but I like being able to count to ten. If I were dumb enough to think that a mechanical device provided absolute safety I might not be able to.

  12. Saws...
    I work at a small lumberyard.
    We have a mill. Or part of it.
    Back in the 80's there were 3 full time employees back there who would do anything from ripping plywood to build a birdhouse to anything.

    The advent of small, relatively inexpensive tools put it from a single, part time employee to being unable to find an employee. Millwork typically is ripping plywood, and I figure at some point we won't be able to use the table saw anymore. Does it have guards? Yes, but they're awful and make usage difficult. I learned in Shop Classes in high school (good luck finding one around here now) and junior high, to keep a 2" Margin Of Safety between moving machine parts and things you don't want cut. Like me. So I use push sticks or actual, purpose cut "handles" to rip things on the saw. I like being able to count to ten. I also like having a mill so we can do at least some things for people who don't have a spare 1000 Stamps lying around to buy a table saw and use it once or don't know a neighbor who can do it. At some point, I'm sure it'll have to be closed off except for the "Panel Saw", which can be rotated to "rip" but that is like having a table saw on its side and trying to use it. That'd be fun. Not.

    We just "lost" (use of) our bandsaw due to it not having a guard, and due to its age, probably won't find one.

  13. Whenever you make something idiot proof, nature comes up with a better idiot.

    Anon's rules above are it. They put the safety between the operator's ears where it should be.

    Federal regulations are full of unintended consequences (some tacitly intended.) Any necessary regulations should be made by people with personal, hands-on experience with what they're regulating it, or the regulations will just end up being full of wishes. And we all know about those.

  14. A few years ago there was a woodworking show in town and the saw stop people had a booth. It looked interesting and they did the hot dog thing every few hours. After it was done a whole lot on the saw had to be replaced, the motor had to be checked out, the sacrificial block had to be replaced as well as the blade, and maybe few other pieces. "HOw much is all that?" Was asked but they would not give a firm answer, instead saying "how much is your hand worth?" Also a gentleman was there who had bought several for his shop, and who said that it fired on wet wood, and always on pressure treated green playground type wood(can't think of what that is called now, but y'all should know what I'm talking about). Eventually the saw stop guy said yeah, it would activate on cutting wet wood, but you shouldn't be cutting wet wood anyway. Not helpful if you need to make a treehouse or outdoor chairs.

  15. Anon 12/1, 1303 - Thanks. Your report was what I was expecting. It takes a lot of repair after the Saw Stop fires, and to do its job, the thing has to have a hair trigger that will go off in some normal operations.

    There's already one guy with a competing system. Maybe we'll gget a bunch of them.

    Which only leaves bandsaws, routers, drills and how many other tools that can take off a finger?