Guards on table saws are there for a reason

Posted March 28, 2010, at 7:16 p.m.

A case decided recently in U.S. District Court in Boston has drawn reactions from woodworkers all over the country.

The jury awarded $1.5 million to a man who suffered serious injuries while using a table saw to cut oak flooring. Carlos Osorio of Malden, Mass., had charged One World Technologies, makers of Ryobi power tools, with negligence.

His claim was based on the existence of technology that can stop a saw blade a fraction of a second after it touches human skin. The result is a cut about an eighth of an inch deep, rather than the near amputation of one of Osorio’s fingers and damages to others.

The blade-braking technology was unveiled several years ago by Stephen Gass. After shopping the invention unsuccessfully to several major saw manufacturers, then trying to force it on manufacturers through legislation, Gass launched his own line, called SawStop.

In a nutshell, a sensor monitors a slight electrical charge as the blade turns. When the blade touches skin (or in the company video, a hot dog), the charge changes and a sensor reacts. An aluminum brake stops the blade, with momentum retracting it out of harm’s way.

The saws are not cheap; when he first introduced the technology, Gass estimated it would add about $150 to the cost of manufacturing. He was quoted as saying manufacturers seemed to prefer allowing some deforming injuries to retrofitting their machinery to make a safer product.

The rest of the story gets complicated. A table saw is the single most used piece of equipment in a shop, according to Bob Mowdy of Bradford. Mowdy has been teaching woodworking for many years, and he said increasing safety isn’t a one-step process.

The most common table saw accident involves kickback, when the wood being cut becomes pinched or trapped; when the blade can’t cut it, it may fling the wood violently backward toward whatever was pushing it — mostly likely, the operator of the saw.

Kickback is minimized by the presence of a rip fence — along which the wood is slid while it’s being cut — and a splitter or riving knife, which helps prevent the pinching effect. Information published by Popular Woodworking magazine suggests both devices had been removed from the saw Osorio was using.

A suit against One World-Ryobi in New Jersey was thrown out when it was revealed that safety equipment had been removed. Manufacturers’ instructions usually include repeated warnings not to use power tools unless safety features are in place.

So, what are the lessons from the Boston case? Northeast CONTACT treads lightly around legal fine points; we are not lawyers. But we think common sense tells us to use our best judgment when working in the shop. Guards are not perfect, and they sometimes get in the way. Bottom line: They’re there for a reason. Bob Mowdy puts it succinctly: “People need to take responsibility for what they do.”

It’s unlikely many hobbyists — or even pros — will put their old table saws in the classifieds and shell out big bucks for a new saw with the blade-braking technology. Even if they did, it wouldn’t eliminate all accidents.

Whether all manufacturers should be required to offer the technology is a debate that may rage for years. There are dozens of similar court cases yet to be heard, and an appeal in the Boston case is likely.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412 or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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