Thinking Out Loud: Cutting Through the SawStop Debate over Table Saw Safety

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For woodworkers, the table saw stands as both a revered tool and a potential danger. One saw, SawStop, uses an innovative technology to prevent the saw from cutting more than wood. The feds are now considering mandating this technology, provoking a web of industry interests and regulatory hurdles.

Table saws are responsible for over 4,000 finger amputations annually. That is more than the carnage from all the other tools tracked by the Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC). As a part-time woodworker, I have a healthy respect for saws in general and table saws in particular, so a recent article in the New York Times on table saw safety regulations caught my interest.

Table saws can pack a great deal of power, and when I was searching for one for a home workshop, I settled on a SawStop, the only brand designed to protect your hands from the spinning blade. Now, all saws come with blade guards, and for nearly all woodworkers, those blade guards are used in word far more often than deed, leaving a rapidly spinning carbide-toothed saw exposed. SawStop has been designed so that there is a slight current running in the blade, and when it comes into contact with a conductive surface, a piece of metal, or more concerning flesh, a circuit is completed, and the blade is rapidly retracted. I know it works because it has saved the tip of my finger.

Let us pause for the obligatory YouTube video involving the saw and standing in for the finger, a hot dog.



Peter Trumka, a CPSC Commissioner and the man who was so concerned about the “hidden hazards” of gas stoves that he said, "Products that can't be made safe can be banned," believes that “Big Tool” has deliberately not embraced SawStop’s safety feature, putting many of us who use table saws at risk. Given that a SawStop will run roughly $1,000 more than a table saw without that “handy” feature, resulting in only about 2% of the market share, he may have a legitimate concern.

As the Times article discusses, several patents cover the SawStop system, and at least one other CPSC commissioner accused SawStop of “rent-seeking,” a financial term for keeping the safety technology proprietary. That view is up for debate since the company had initially asked the CPSC to consider mandating the technology on all table saws, something now being considered, back in 2003 or roughly 80,000 fingers ago. Having lost that decision, the company has protected its research and development costs by bringing suit when they believe their “technology” is being appropriated.

With all things regulatory, a cost-benefit analysis has been performed. The net benefit of $3,000 for each new table saw is offset by the increased cost of “$338 to $1,210 more with the finger-detection system.”

While Commissioner Trumpka is clearly in favor of requiring finger-sparing technologies (also known as Active Injury Mitigation technology or AIM), other commissioners object, pointing out that the CPSC’s mandate is

“to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products.”

Thus moving the debate from the slam dunk that Saw Stop’s technology does save fingers (and costs) to whether table saws for educated consumers pose unreasonable risks. That term of legal art, “unreasonable risk,” is the fuzziness that leads regulatory mandates into court. For the originalists amongst us, here is the thinking of Congress regarding the term unreasonable.

"An unreasonable hazard is clearly one which can be prevented or reduced without affecting the product’s utility, cost, or availability; or one [for] which the effect on the product’s utility, cost, or availability is outweighed by the need to protect the public from the hazard associated with the product.”

From the cost-benefit analysis, one can argue that this is indeed an unreasonable hazard. Alternatively, the Courts have found that

"[A]n important predicate to Commission action is that consumers be unaware of either the severity, frequency, or ways of avoiding the risk. If consumers have accurate information, and still choose to incur the risk, then their judgment may well be reasonable."

Any woodworker contemplating the purchase of a table saw is aware of the severity, frequency, and ways of avoiding the risk.

The Times article suggested that the CPSC would vote along party lines and mandate finger-sparing technology for all new table saws.

I shared this regulatory tempest because it mirrors other more emotionally laden regulatory debates – say, mandating a vaccine. Which side of unreasonable you come down on will vary with your perception of personal risk and your tolerance of risk and uncertainty. For my table saw and me, I chose Saw Stop – it has already paid me back for any additional cost involved. But I am not sure that my decision was based solely on logic and cost-benefits; I like my fingers where they are, so a little bit of belt and suspender safety was quite alright.

Ultimately, embracing technologies like SawStop hinges on a delicate balance of risk and reward. While the debate rages on within regulatory circles, for many woodworkers like myself, the choice is clear: investing in safety measures like SawStop protects our livelihoods and upholds our commitment to responsible woodworking practices.

Disclosure – I have found that the Saw Stop technical support is one of the best in the business. After my finger momentarily met the blade, I had to replace the proprietary “brake” in the system. That brake has a small memory of the event, and Saw Stop will send you a new brake for free if you simply return the damaged one to them so they can refine their product further. These are good people.