After years of trying, the U.S. government may finally mandate safer table saws

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Tom Noffsinger stands in his garage workshop, where he uses a SawStop table saw for woodworking at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. About 20 years ago, Noffsinger had a table saw accident and almost lost his thumb. (Cornell Watson for NPR)

One day about 20 years ago, Tom Noffsinger experienced every woodworker’s worst nightmare: One final cut on his table saw before knocking off for the day turned into a trip to the emergency room. It was afternoon, and he’d been in his shop since morning.

“I was a little tired. I should’ve quit,” Noffsinger says. “I ran my hand right into the blade and nearly cut my thumb off.”

Table saws are widely considered the most dangerous power tool, and approximately 30,000 blade-contact injuries require medical treatment each year in the United States. About 4,000 result in amputations that can be career-ending for some professional carpenters and contractors. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that when a person is hospitalized, the societal cost per table saw injury exceeds $500,000 when you also factor in loss of income and pain and suffering.

Noffsinger was lucky by comparison. Although he needed 14 stitches, doctors at a hospital near his home in Raleigh, N.C., were able to save his thumb. Reconstructive surgery followed. Even so, all these years later, he says he still has recurring pain.

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Noffsinger opens a wooden box that he made using a SawStop table saw, which uses technology to prevent serious injury. (Cornell Watson for NPR)

Woodworking has been a nearly lifelong passion for Noffsinger, and he was no stranger to power tools. Back before his accident, he’d seen a demonstration of a new and much safer type of table saw at a local woodworking store. Marketed under the name SawStop, it was designed to stop and retract the spinning blade within a few milliseconds of making contact with flesh — fast enough to turn a potentially life-changing injury into little more than a scratch. Noffsinger’s table saw wasn’t equipped with the high-tech safety feature because manufacturers aren’t required to include it.

But that may be about to change. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) appears poised to mandate a SawStop-type safety brake on all new table saws sold in the United States. The move would follow years of failed efforts and false starts by the agency to impose such a standard.

Manufacturers have consistently fought a new rule, saying it would raise the price of table saws for consumers. Safety advocates liken it to air bags in cars and argue that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Over the years, Republicans on the commission have sided with the power tool industry in opposing further regulations. But with new Biden administration appointees, proponents on the commission appear to have a majority. In October, the CPSC voted to move forward on the mandate, which is expected to get approval later this year.

“We’ve got a [proposed] rule that is designed to prevent tens of thousands of medically treated table saw injuries per year,” says CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. “That’s something that I very much support.”

Proponents say a new standard is long overdue

Former acting CPSC Chairman Robert Adler says a standard requiring a blade brake “is long, long overdue.” An average of more than 10 people per day in the U.S. suffer amputations on these types of saws, and “that is staggering when you think about it,” he says. “I’m so thrilled to see it’s very likely to occur now.”

Adler, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and served on the commission for 12 years, is a veteran of the fight for a new table saw safety standard. He calls the failure to require this type of feature on saws “the greatest single frustration I felt” while on the commission. He says that’s because table saws are far and away the most dangerous tool that most Americans ever buy.

SawStop’s competitors are represented by the Power Tool Institute, the trade group that includes big power-tool makers such as Bosch, DeWalt and Milwaukee, as well as lesser-known brands. The group maintains that the new safety rule would be an overreach.

“Small manufacturers may go out of business,” Susan Orenga, the Power Tool Institute’s executive manager, said at a public hearing on the new rule in February. Requiring the safety brake would raise the cost of table saws too much, she said. “Sales of table saws will decrease, resulting in unemployment, and the government could be creating a monopoly.”

The industry has long maintained that since SawStop owns patents surrounding the safety technology, the company would unduly benefit from such a government-imposed standard. But at the same hearing where Orenga spoke, SawStop pledged to allow manufacturers to produce safer saws regardless of those patents.

Table saw safety comes at a price

Exactly how much the safety brake would add to the price of a saw is unclear. An entry-level SawStop retails for $899. A comparable saw without the safety technology goes for several hundred dollars less.

But with the economies of scale enjoyed by larger competitors, the price difference could be narrower down the road.

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SawStops retail for hundreds of dollars more than the competition, depending on the manufacturer and the type of table saw. Unlike less expensive brands sold in big-box stores, SawStops are at the premium end of the market. (Cornell Watson for NPR)

Since SawStop came onto the market in 2004, tens of thousands of the company’s table saws have been sold in the U.S., and the company estimates that this has saved tens of thousands of professional and hobbyist woodworkers from injury.

The key to the SawStop is its active injury mitigation (AIM) system, which sends a small electrical charge through the saw blade, and because skin is conductive, the system senses whether the blade is touched. Basically, wood doesn’t conduct electricity, but people do. When a hand comes in contact with the blade on a SawStop, this triggers a brake to stop the blade from spinning. This occurs so quickly that there’s not enough time for a serious injury.

Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, has been interested in table saw safety since first hearing about the SawStop technology on NPR in 2004. Like Adler, she has been frustrated by the slow progress on a new safety standard.

“This is a category of product that could be made in this case 100% safe, but because of industry foot-dragging and resistance and lobbying power in Congress and with agencies, you have a situation of two steps forward, one step back,” she says.

Until recently, SawStop competitors were largely prevented from developing AIM-type technology by a web of patents now owned by German-based TTS Tooltechnic Systems, which bought SawStop in 2017. But 20 years after the first SawStop was sold, most of those patents have now expired.

SawStop vows to free up a key patent for rivals

However, one key patent — the “840” patent — is not set to expire until 2033. To stave off potential competitors, it describes the AIM technology very broadly. In a surprise move at February’s CPSC hearing, TTS Tooltechnic Systems North America CEO Matt Howard announced that the company would “dedicate the 840 patent to the public” if a new safety standard were adopted. Howard says that this would free up rivals to pursue their own safety devices or simply copy SawStop’s. At the hearing, he challenged them “to get in the game.”

Howard’s concession follows years of bad blood between SawStop and the larger power tool companies. Before starting SawStop, the inventor of its technology, Steve Gass — himself a patent attorney — tried to interest manufacturers in licensing his idea. He got no takers. And years later, when Bosch Power Tools began selling a saw with its own version of an injury-mitigation system, SawStop won a patent-infringement suit against the company. TTS subsequently agreed to let Bosch sell the saw, but Bosch never reintroduced it to the U.S. market.

That lawsuit, however, has been cited by the industry to buttress its claim that any move to develop similar safety features would be aggressively met by SawStop and TTS.

There are other industry objections as well. Orenga notes that manufacturers already comply with a voluntary standard requiring blade guards and anti-kickback features designed to prevent a blade from catching a piece of wood and throwing it violently back at the operator.

“Flimsy, poorly functioning guards” don’t help

But according to the CPSC, it’s common for table saw users to “remove modular blade guards,” often for reasons of “improved visibility” — in other words, because they can’t easily see the cut they are trying to make.

As a result, the CPSC says, it has seen no discernible change in the number of blade-contact injuries since the industry adopted a voluntary requirement for improved blade guards and other safety features in 2010. In short, the voluntary standard “doesn’t adequately reduce the risk of injury,” Trumka says, which is why the commission is pursuing a mandatory standard.

Jim Hamilton, who hosts a popular woodworking channel on YouTube, says most table saw injuries could be prevented if woodworkers consistently used a blade guard. “Sadly, a culture has developed around many power tools, including table saws, that suggests safety devices are unnecessary or obstructive,” he says, noting that even “veteran workers, including those who have worked at the highest levels of their trade, are seriously injured every day.”

The situation is made worse, Hamilton says, by manufacturers including “flimsy, poorly functioning guards” that actually encourage users to remove them.

Table saws cause a “vaporizing” type of injury

Richard Bodor, a San Diego-based plastic surgeon, is all too familiar with the kind of catastrophic hand injuries that saw blades can cause.

The one he remembers most vividly occurred about 25 years ago, before SawStops were on the market. While he was operating one night to replant an amputated finger, the emergency room called about another “four-finger replant” being referred from Bodor’s colleague — a senior surgeon and mentor. At first, Bodor thought his colleague was simply inquiring about another patient. He soon realized it was the surgeon himself who was injured.

That surgeon had been operating a table saw when his glove caught the saw blade and pulled in his hand. Bodor says the injured surgeon was surprisingly calm during pre-op, as the two discussed the complicated procedure to reconstruct the man’s mangled hand.

Referring to each of his shredded fingers, the injured surgeon applied his own expertise to the reconstruction. “‘I think this finger is going to make it. Now, I’m a little worried about this guy. However, I think this small one might be toast,'” Bodor said, recalling their conversation.

After a long recovery, Bodor said, the man eventually was able to resume surgeries. But these types of saw injuries are especially challenging and difficult to repair, he says. Unlike a clean amputation from a sharp cooking knife, he explains, a table saw blade actually obliterates the tissue. “It’s a vaporizing type of injury,” he says, adding that replantation typically requires hours of meticulous microsurgery.

But not everyone is convinced that a new safety standard alone will prevent such devastating injuries. Dale Juntunen owns a contracting firm in Deer River, Minn., that has been building homes for more than 40 years. “In all the years I’ve been in business, we’ve never had anybody get hurt” on a table saw, he says.

“If it’s mandated, you’re going to have people hanging on to their old saws forever,” Juntunen says. “And, you know, that’s when I’d say there will be more injuries on an old saw.”

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Noffsinger purchased a SawStop when he returned from the hospital after his table saw injury, and he has been using it ever since. (Cornell Watson for NPR)

Noffsinger, the North Carolina hobbyist woodworker, says even though he was injured, he’s not sure mandating new safety technology on all saws is the best idea.

Still, when he returned home from the emergency room after nearly severing his thumb on a saw blade, he was met by his wife, “hands on her hips,” he says. “She said, ‘You will buy that SawStop thing.’ So that’s what I did.”

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