Consumer Safety: A Fight Over Table Saws

Chris Hackler was making routine cuts on his front porch table saw earlier this year when the wood jammed and yanked his hand into the spinning blade. In an instant, the Enola (Ark.) preacher lost the tips of two fingers. Hackler is one of an estimated 4,000 Americans who will lose a finger, hand, or arm while using the tool this year. What most of them probably don't know is that technology exists that could prevent injuries. It isn't being put to use in many saws on the market, in part because of a long-running dispute over whether the federal government should force saw companies to include a safety device in their products.

SawStop, a small manufacturer in Tualatin, Ore., markets a line of table saws equipped with a sensor system that immediately halts and retracts a saw blade when it contacts flesh. Its founder, Stephen Gass, an inventor and—importantly—a patent lawyer, likes to demonstrate his product by pushing a hot dog into a whirring blade. The weenie comes away with barely a scratch.

For eight years, Gass has lobbied the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to require all table saws sold in the U.S. to be equipped with SawStop or a similar safety device. Agency officials have studied the question but stopped short of acting. They may soon take it up again, and if they impose the requirement, that will make Gass a happy—and potentially rich—man.

His rivals are anything but happy. The Power Tool Institute, a Cleveland-based trade group of major manufacturers including Robert Bosch, Stanley Black & Decker (SWK), Ryobi, and Techtronic Industries, is fighting Gass's efforts. They say requiring a blade brake would destroy the market for the cheapest, most popular saws, adding $100 or more to the price of consumer models that typically sell for less than $200. The CPSC puts the industry's cost at about $70 million a year.

A saw brake requirement would amount to a government-granted monopoly for Gass, the companies argue. Although in theory saw makers could develop their own versions, they say Gass has so effectively locked up the process with patents that they would be forced to license the system from him or risk getting sued for infringement. "He wants to make sure the only option is his technology," says Edward D. Krenik, the Power Tool Institute's lobbyist in Washington.

Gass says he approached major saw manufacturers a decade ago and tried to sell them on his product. When they turned him away, he took his case to the government. "The rulemaking should be about protecting customers," Gass says. "Whether SawStop has a windfall or goes broke shouldn't make any difference."

He has found at least one sympathetic ear at the commission. In March he demonstrated his invention for Robert S. Adler, a former University of North Carolina business professor and recent Barack Obama appointee to the CPSC. "I couldn't believe anything could work that fast," says Adler, who is now in favor of revisiting the issue. CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum says in an e-mail that she will decide whether to recommend moving ahead in the next few months.

Power tool manufacturers intend to fight all the way. In place of federal rules, they are pushing for stronger voluntary measures. Newer table saws are made with improved blade guards and other safety devices that they say protect users at a much lower cost.

Adler is hopeful Gass and the industry can still work out a deal. But he says brokering peace is less important to him than protecting woodworkers' fingers. "There's [products] you look at one day and say, there's not a damn thing we can do about it," Adler says. "Then somebody comes along and invents a technology and changes the picture."

The bottom line: Mandating safety blades on table saws could save thousands of hands a year. It could also price the tools beyond many people's reach.

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