Three parts to this little essay:
- What happened to me about a month into my retirement, with an old, nearly-free table saw that lacked SawStop safety features (and which I was using totally improperly, because I didn’t know better)
- Table saws are one of the most commonly-used power tools both commercially and at home, and are responsible for an AMAZING number of injuries and amputations every DAY.
- A fix for this exists — the technology included in every single SawStop table saw. The inventor tried, but failed to convince table saw manufacturers to incorporate this essential, and not-terribly-expensive feature, and they ALL turned it down, essentially saying that ‘safety doesn’t sell’. Congress has the power to make this feature mandatory and to save many a hand, finger, or eye.
These are not trick shots. It’s just my left hand, imaged poorly just now with my smart phone. I was really ashamed, embarrassed, and sad when this injury occurred, roughly a month after I retired from teaching, for several reasons:
(1) It turned out that I was using the table saw totally improperly, holding a very small piece of wood as I fed it into the blade
(2) I literally did not know that was an improper way of feeding wood into a table saw; I was treating it like a band saw
(3) I should have read up on safety rules for table saws, even though I had used them without incident quite a few times earlier, and thought that I was safe enough (and I wasn’t)
(4) While I am right-handed, losing part of one’s left-hand index finger and having the adjacent finger be mauled so that it lacks feeling on one side, and doesn’t bend properly, and is crooked, means that there are many things one can never do again – for example typing quickly and efficiently. The letters e, r, t, d, f, g, c, v, and b (look at your keyboard and if you ever learned touch typing, you’ll see why) are all now much harder for me to type. And unfortunately for me, E and T are the two most common letters in the alphabet. (I’m not asking for sympathy! Just don’t do this to yourself!! Wear safety equipment and read the fri&&14& manuals!)
On the good side, I am extremely grateful and amazed at the skill of Dr. Reisin, my hand surgeon. Without any warning that I could see, my hand got dragged into the blade by the tiny piece of wood. My two fingers looked like very fresh hamburger, and I thought I had lost them down to stumps. I was amazed that when I got my first view of the damage, I still had most of them! Yay Dr. Reisin! Really, amazing job!
In addition, we have Kaiser Permanente family high option insurance. It’s not cheap, something like $400 a month that I pay, plus I have a wonderful subsidy from the DC government, which pays something like $1000 a month. All of that adds up to just about 1/3 of my gross retirement pay, but at least I was never asked to liquidate my retirement savings or sell our house to pay for the astronomically huge bills for all of the doctors’ fees (think anaesthesiologist, primary care physician, ER physicians, surgeon, just to name a few) and the hospital stay and the several months of careful and skillful rehabilitation. It was tens of thousands of dollars, though I certainly don’t know the exact total. If we did not have medical insurance, it would have been very, very tough, but we had minimal co-pays for each visit and for the various antibiotics and painkillers. EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE THAT!
Again, I was really embarrassed at my own stupidity. For the first few months, I labored under the misapprehension that the wood had been thrown INTO my hand by kickback. But a more knowledgeable friend (WHR) convinced me otherwise; plus I looked at the sawblade scars on the underside of the other pieces that I had fed through – in each case, the saw had started grabbing the wood and had left its marks on the pieces of plywood — and I was too stupid and ignorant to notice. This video shows how dangerous table saws can be – it’s pretty similar to what happened to me: the blade catches the wood, AND the author’s pushing block, AND just barely misses taking off his finger(s).
It took me a while to realize that I was far from the only person who had suffered this sort of injury. I was quite aware that the workers at my college (Dartmouth) were almost ALL missing a finger or two or five – but that was from industrial accidents in the textile mills that used to exist all over New England, but had moved on to other places, probably because the owners could get labor for even less and spend even less on safety than before… I wish now I had asked them more about those injuries… But I’m pretty sure that they were not operating table saws.
I did not know that anywhere from SCORES to HUNDREDS of Americans have some sort of an injury with a table saw not per year, not per month, not per week, but EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Let that sink in. Somewhere between 40 and 400 people in the USA have an accident with a table saw, EVERY SINGLE DAY. Some of these accidents were worse than mine, some were less so (two sources on numbers: here, here and here, each with links pointing elsewhere. It seems to me reprehensible that Robert Lang, the author of the Popular Woodworking magazine (the second link), belittles the number of injuries, comparing them to the number of kids who are hurt by doors everyday.
‘Back in January 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) required that new tablesaw models include a riving knife and modular guard to prevent these injuries. Since that time injury rates have remained virtually unchanged, which begs the question: “Why are so many people hurt while using tablesaws, despite improvements in guards and splitters?”’ (source)
As soon as I could use my arm again, I supervised getting rid of that old table saw. I think we sold it for scrap iron. (It had been sold to us for a pittance by a friend — who passed away from a heart attack at a very early age, as it happened. I never had the chance to mention to him what happened to me.)
Fortunately, after this event, the same friend (WHB) got wind of someone who wanted to donate funds so that we at the NCA Amateur Telescope Making workshop could actually get a decent, SAFE table saw. We also used the monies to purchase a very nice H-Alpha solar telescope for the astronomy club under whose auspices we operate, as well as a nearly-unused Grizzly milling machine… And while it doesn’t have lots of fancy features, that SawStop table saw will immediately (in 0.003 seconds) if it senses anything like your finger touching the blade while in operation; if it does, it slams the blade down into an aluminum chunk and stops it immediately and OUT OF THE WAY. (Have you seen any of those hot-dog table-saw videos? or ) Sure, it kills the blade and the chunk of aluminum (roughly $60) but that’s way better than cutting off your finger!
In fact, the inventor agrees to put HIS OWN finger into a SawStop table saw, under a high-speed camera and very bright lighting, here. He does so, and the sawblade stops instantly, you can see that no damage to his finger at all: no blood, no bruising, no nothing. The inventor says it felt a little like a buzzing insect or a tickle. Absolutely amazing!
Plus, the saws are really, really well made and easy to put together, and have a very good manual that comes with a spiral-bound notebook with laminated pages and very clear instuctions in English, that you can lay flat at any page you want. In other words, not the incomprehensible hieroglyphics, printed on flimsy paper, that is so common with manuals today. (Think IKEA…) And the prices are well within range of the prices of other table saws with comparable features.
The original inventor has recently testified at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and was interviewed by NPR. He could not get manufacturers to agree to put his device (or one just like it) into their saws, EVEN AS AN OPTION. So he set up his own company to make them.
It’s also reprehensible that something like the Power Tool Institute wants to prevent the government from making this electronic safety feature mandatory, as you can see here.
It’s the usual crapload of hysterical propaganda: higher unemployment, making companies go bankrupt — the same lies that the Big Three carmakers said when they resisted putting in seat belts, antilock brakes, turn signals, doors that have hinges at the front and not the back, unleaded gas, airbags, and so on. But those inventions (and others) have saved untold millions of lives, despite the resistance of the rich and powerful. It’s disgraceful.
Yes, we ordinary humans do make mistakes, each and every single day. People are going to lose focus, or get distracted, or make stupid errors of judgement, like me. It doesn’t matter if you drive (or use a table saw) correctly 99.9% of the time: that still leaves that one time in a thousand where you don’t, AND IT CAN KILL YOU OR MAIM YOU FOR LIFE.
If the fix for that is simple — and even if it costs something — it should be done.
We are only human.
recent article on this:
Bob Bunge said:
Great blog post and some of those videos are really educational! I’ve used table saws for perhaps 30 years. Of course believe that I do so safely, but it only takes a milli-second to make a mistake, especially if you are in a hurry or the job appears to be “easy”!
A couple of thoughts. I find it interesting that no manufacturer has been able to license the technology from SawStop, even though some have tried.
It appears similar technologies have been developed but manufacturers are unwilling to use because of possible patent infringements. The manufacturers seem to think government requirement to use this technology is, in affect, creating a monopoly with a company that, in their eyes, has been unwilling to reach patent terms that are acceptable to them.
Would it be within rights for the government to either force a particular value on the technology, or even void the SawStop patents in lieu of safety?
I had never heard that other companies were refused the right to license the SawStop technology, but I did hear that THEY turned the inventor down, so he set up his own company. Patent law can be a very, very tricky area. However, I am sure that there is more than one way of stopping a spinning sawblade instantly, and I am confident that if the other companies wanted to figure out a way, they could. It sounds to me (not knowing all the facts, obviously) that they are trying to figure out a way to weasel out of doing the right thing.
Bob Bunge said:
My read was they weren’t “refused” but both parties were unable to come to an agreement. Of course that translates into money, eh? Pieces I’ve read over the past week on this very interesting issue suggest the technology doesn’t increase the cost of the saw that much; but I have to wonder since the cheapest Sawstop device is over $1k, but bench saws are much cheaper at the big box stores. I’m no patent expert, but my experience being involved in technology patents is they tend to be very broad, so the patent could very well be “stop and drop the spinning blade” so it really doesn’t matter how it is done. The one industry document you linked to suggested that as well… they had developed a technology but were sure there would be suite over it and they seem to think they would lose.
I also think they raise a good point. If adding the technology – paying the owner of the patent – increases the cost of the product to a certain level, people will find other ways to do the job. They cite a decrease of circular saw injuries as the cost of bench saws dropped, sales of circular saws dropped and sales of bench saws increased. So the injuries were just transferred from one tool to another. As a left handed person who has many hours attempting to manage a right handed designed circular saw, I can really relate to this!
So is the right thing increasing the cost of the table/bench saws and just transferring the injuries to another tool? I don’t know what is right and wrong, but it’s an interesting discussion. Perhaps the right thing is for the government to strip the patent from the inventor and make the technology public domain?
I know PTO and the patent courts were unwilling to do that with a patent regarding how critical weather alerts are sent to cell phones – a technology that is now saving many lives (even though there was lots of prior art, and the patent begged of common sense).
Cheers! And great topic and conversion!
Patent law is sometimes but not always often unconscionable – those with the best lawyers often win, not necessarily the ones who made the actual invention.
Losing fingers and hands can be stopped with the appropriate technology, but is extremely costly. I have no idea what my partial amputation cost Kaiser, but I’m sure it was a huge amount.
The idea of making it that ALL table saws need to have this technology and that the patent owner would get a nice (but not unreasonable) reward sounds quite reasonable to me. The details would be rather important, obviously.