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Regulators Consider Safety Brakes For Table Saws

Federal regulators are moving closer to implementing new safety standards for table saws. Every year, several thousand Americans cut off their fingers using the tools.

Engineers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency tasked with ensuring safety standards on a range of consumer products, say almost all of those injuries could be prevented with a better safety brake system.

Currently, such a brake is only available on one brand of table saw, called SawStop, but the vast majority of saws sold today don't have the safety brake.

CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum spoke at a hearing on the issue Wednesday.

"I have personally met with victims of table saw blade injuries, and I have deep sympathy for the pain and the suffering they've endured and that will continue for the rest of their lives, all due to one split-second miscalculation when using a table saw," Tenenbaum said.

A few months ago, a group of injured woodworkers came to Washington to meet with the CPSC and members of Congress. Their current situations ranged from running small contractor businesses to being on food stamps after mangling their hands on table saws.

The trip was organized by Sally Greenberg, head of the National Consumers League, who also attended this week's hearing.

"They are in constant pain, they have mounting medical bills, [and] they are unable to make a living, many of them, because they can no longer use their hands," Greenberg said in a phone interview.

A Common Injury

Anne Northup, a current CPSC commissioner and former Republican congresswoman, says government data show these sorts of injuries are common.

"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, [and] maybe an arm," Northup says. "Now, there's something wrong with the product."

Northup says it's at least worth a hard look to see if the product could be made to be much safer; Tenenbaum agrees.

"The severity of these injuries and the frequency of their occurrence is something that demands action. These injuries can and they should be prevented," Tenenbaum said at Wednesday's hearing.

One thing the commission is considering would be to require a safety brake like SawStop's. An entrepreneur named Steve Gass invented SawStop, which allows the saw to sense when the blade nicks a person skin.

Within 3/1000ths of a second, the brake fires and the blade drops down into the table, preventing injury.

"I have to say, when I saw [Gass'] technology demonstrated I was dazzled," CPSC Commissioner Robert Adler said. "I had trouble believing that it really works. But it does really work, and it seems to me some variation on his approach makes sense."

A Safety Brake Requirement?

SawStop sells thousands of table saws all around the country now, but other major saw manufacturers — including Black & Decker, Ryobi, Bosch and many others — have resisted adopting the SawStop technology for years.

Instead, to address the safety concerns, they have come up with a new and improved plastic guard for the saw blade.

"We think it's an improvement of an existing technology," Caroleene Paul, an engineer with CPSC who's studying the issue, said at the hearing.

But Paul says that table saws have had guards for decades, and woodworkers commonly remove the guards because they get in the way for certain cuts. She thinks the new and improved guards will similarly fail to stop injuries.

"We think the limitations of that technology have been evident in all the table saw injuries that we see each year," she added.

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 it. Most table saw manufacturers cite cost as a primary reason they haven't adopted the technology, since the safety brake could add between $100 and $200 to the price of a saw.

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NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.