An Oscar Meyer wiener, serving as proxy for a finger, was pushed into the spinning blade of a table saw. Gerald Wheeler had other numbers on his mind as he watched hot dog meet blade that day in August, 2002. Faced with the prospect of never getting the invention to market, the little company, also known as SawStop, eventually started making its own saws.
Adam Thull was building a checkout counter for a local bookstore when he noticed a wood panel falling off the edge of his table. However, SawStop still makes the only saws with skin-sensing technology, and accounts for a tiny fraction of sales. Over the years, top saw makers and the Power Tool Institute, their trade group, have defended the design of their saws and the decision to snub SawStop. They’ve argued that injury numbers have been inflated and that the government’s estimate of $2.36 billion in annual costs to society from table saw accidents—including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering—is exaggerated.
But as court records and testimony have shown, the companies rejected the safety advance for  another reason, too: They worried that if a way to prevent severe injuries got traction in the market, they would face liability for accidents with conventional saws. The industry is also trying to keep the Consumer Product Safety Commission from requiring injury reduction systems on all table saws—either SawStop or something similar. The SawStop story is about an industry’s ability to resist a major safety advance that could, by now, have prevented countless disfiguring injuries, but might have been bad for business. It’s also something of a David-and-Goliath story–though in this case David, rather than carry a sling, is armed to the teeth with patents. Several industry representatives declined interview requests or did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Stephen Gass is energetic and intense, a trimly built man of 49 whose home near Portland, Ore, is a manageable drive from some of his favorite whitewater kayaking runs. One of the mysteries is why the power tool industry, with its engineering prowess, didn’t invent SawStop before Gass did.  Maybe he was smarter. Saw designs are governed by a voluntary standard worked out between an industry-dominated technical committee and Underwriters Laboratory.
In a letter to Underwriters Laboratory in April, 1998, an engineer for the CPSC linked the high injury toll to poor design of the guard. He recruited three friends from the law firm, all named David, to put up seed money for the new venture. Hoping to stir grass-roots interest, Gass and the Davids made their first trip to the woodworkers fair in August, 2000. Their prospects seemed to rise when CPSC engineers, in July, 2001, announced the results of a technical evaluation. Gass said a small typo led him to return the contract to Ryobi’s general counsel, who Gass said told him he would immediately fix the mistake and mail the contract back. Years later, in the trial of a lawsuit against Ryobi, a company lawyer explained it this way: “Ryobi decided that it did not want to go forward with this project,” he said. Robert Bugos, the former general counsel Gass said had strung him along, put it another way in a deposition.
However, testimony and documents reveal the industry feared liability exposure should SawStop gain a foothold. Without naming SawStop, an April, 2002 Bosch memo warned of the threat from “competitive technology”  The “expectation will be that the most severe injuries will be mild to moderate lacerations and that amputations will be virtually eliminated,” it said.
Gass recalled being told by Peter Domeny, then chairman of the committee and Bosch’s director of product safety, that SawStop had kept him awake nights wondering how the industry could defend itself in court.
The joint venture ended in 2009, when members said they had developed a system superior to SawStop.
SawStop, for its part, put its first saws on the market in 2004 and has sold about 40,000 since. Gerald Wheeler, who had been wowed by the hot dog show, got two of the first saws.  In March, 2006, Carl Seymour, a foreman at his shop, accidentally touched a whirring blade. In July, 2006, commissioners voted 2-1 to instruct their staff to draft a document starting the rulemaking process. Carlos Osorio was a computer technician from Colombia who moved to the Boston area in 2003 to be near his girlfriend. He was working at a home in Lexington, Mass., in April, 2005 when a piece of flooring got stuck in the Ryobi saw and Osorio’s hand slid into the blade.
Screaming in pain, Osorio and a co-worker ran into the street and flagged down a motorist, who called 911.  The first of five surgeries lasted 12 hours and reattached Osorio’s pinky finger. During the trial of his lawsuit in February, 2010, in federal court in Boston, Osorio admitted he was working without a saw guard, and said guards were not used by anyone on his crew. SawStop was a “game changer,” said Osorio’s attorney Richard Sullivan, whose Wellesley, Mass., firm has been involved in most of the recent cases. The plaintiff was Brandon Stollings, who suffered the amputation of two fingers while installing flooring at his mother’s house in Wisconsin in May, 2007.
After nine hours of surgery the ring finger was reattached, but Stollings lost the index finger.
Stollings, who had years of experience with table saws, testified that he was not using a guard and never did because it got in the way.
This time, however, Ryobi’s lawyers shifted the focus from the maiming of a young man to a purported conspiracy between plaintiffs attorneys and Gass—designed to bleed the industry by, in the case of the lawyers, filing lawsuits; and in the case of Gass, forcing manufacturers to adopt SawStop. SawStop’s headquarters is in the back of a business park in the Portland suburb of Tualatin, next to a marshy field favored by egrets and geese. Legislation passed by Congress in 2008 had resuscitated the agency, adding funding and expanding it to five commissioners.


Further, the industry reminded the commission of a legal constraint that could block regulation.
Since late 2007, hundreds of thousands of saws with the new guard had come into the market. Ann Brown, who left the chairmanship soon after the commendation to SawStop in 2001, told FairWarning she was “shocked” that the issue remains unresolved. SawStop could make plenty of money if a table saw standard were adopted, but is profitable just selling its saws, according to Gass. FairWarning is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues. Having used table saws for years, even made my own about 40 years ago, I have never been happy to use them without the guard in place, even when ripping or rebating.
Having utilized table saws for quite some time, even made my own particular something like 40 years prior, I have never been blissful to utilize them without the watchman as a part of spot, actually when tearing or refunding. Attempting to rip a straight edge along a board with irregular edges can be dangerous or downright impossible. The demonstration, at the International Woodworkers Fair in Atlanta, mimicked the way gruesome table saw injuries often occur. As the operator of a wood shop in Hot Springs, Ark., he was all too aware of the unforgiving nature of table saws.
Since the first went on sale in 2004, SawStop says it has recorded 2,000 “finger saves”—customer reports of  accidents likely to have caused disfiguring injuries with conventional saws, but that resulted in minor cuts or a few stitches at most (SawStop acknowledges two reports of amputations). As he lunged to catch it, his right forearm got caught on the blade of his Ryobi table saw – and the machine quickly cut completely through one of his forearm bones and a nerve.
Tens of thousands of fingers have been sliced off since the system was invented, but the rest of the industry, which is self-regulating, has been allowed to go on as before. They say the market for popular, lightweight saws costing as little as $100 to $200 would be destroyed by the added expense of SawStop. About 150 have been filed in recent years, focusing on the companies’ decision not to use available safety technology.
It highlights the endless due process that makes it virtually impossible for regulators to enact safety measures over the unified objections of industry.
For some reason, while out there on a fall day in 1999 he was struck by a question: Would it be possible to stop a saw blade quickly enough to keep it from slicing off your fingers?
Table saws are a must-have tool for millions of construction workers, cabinet makers and do-it-yourselfers. When SawStop came along, the voluntary standard called for a guard that fit like a hood over the blade. Following a December, 1999 meeting, Paul summarized their position: “Education is the only way to affect the injury hazard patterns seen. Saw makers now had the ability to prevent the tragedies they knew were going to happen, that had always happened.
They were sent to the nosebleed section—a tiny booth in a conference room on the third floor of the Atlanta Convention Center. SawStop vice president David Fanning recalled being asked at Ryobi and Black & Decker: “Have you been to the CPSC?
It called for Ryobi to investigate SawStop’s feasibility, and to incorporate it in Ryobi saws within 18 months if it proved feasible.  SawStop would get a royalty equal to 3 percent of the wholesale cost of each saw, with the fee rising as high as 8 percent should the technology be widely adopted. Domeny was questioned about this in 2008, when his deposition was taken in the case of a Pennsylvania man who suffered the amputation of four fingers. Having failed to license the technology, they faced a stark choice: Either go back to patent law and let the invention die, or find the capital to make their own saws.
Five companies, including Black & Decker, Bosch and Ryobi, formed a joint venture to develop their own injury reduction system.
Along with flesh-detection technology, the company’s saws came with an important safety device called a riving knife that had been mostly limited to models sold in Europe. A photo on SawStop’s website shows Seymour beaming in triumph as he lifts the wounded thumb, which looks like it has a paper cut.
It organized a petition signed by more than 300 woodworkers, shop teachers and others, asking the CPSC to regulate. Given the commission’s limited resources, Gass said Paul told him, the agency would be more likely to investigate the issue if petitioned to do so. Called an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it would have been published in the Federal Register with a request for public comments. Within days of the vote, commission Chairman Hal Stratton, who had voted yes, resigned to join a law firm. Unable to find work in his field, he took a job as a flooring installer and learned to use a table saw.
Stollings, then 23, had been captain of his high school basketball team, and had passed on college to pursue his goal of becoming a homebuilder.
Though five years had passed between the accident and his court appearance, Stollings said he remained self-conscious about his hand. Gass testified that Stollings would have escaped serious injury if the saw had skin-sensing technology. Those patents have become an obsession of the industry as it fights to keep the CPSC off its back.
In October, 2011, they voted 5-0 to publish an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking–the step nearly taken five years earlier. And in comments filed with the commission in March, 2012, it said a federal regulation would grant a “monopolistic advantage’’ to SawStop, whose patents might shut out rival safety systems, such as the one developed by the joint venture.


By law, the commission must defer to voluntary standards that could adequately improve safety. A 2005 revision provided for use of a riving knife; another in 2007 called for an improved blade guard. Therefore, the industry said, before adopting a regulation the CPSC must investigate the impact of the changes.
Last year, it lobbied the California legislature to pass a bill requiring injury reduction technology for table saws sold in the state. As shown above, you can quickly clamp the workpiece to this carrier board, and then rip one edge. I think my blade guard would simply slide over plywood jig and then over the board I'm cutting. It works and since you are not going to do this on a daily basis extra caution just needs to be taken. But this saw was equipped with a safety device called SawStop that allowed the blade to distinguish between wood and flesh, and to stop fast enough to prevent serious harm. Sure enough, the blade came to a dead stop in about three one-thousandths of a second, leaving the dog with only a minor nick.
As the SawStop guys explained, they had been seeking licensing deals with the big power tool makers, but had found no takers. They note that under some circumstances, SawStop can stop a blade without skin contact–such as when the blade touches conductive materials like metal or very wet wood. He earned a doctorate in physics and a law degree, then joined a patent law firm in Portland, but retained his interest in building things. After a series of calculations and with parts you could buy at Radio Shack, he showed it could be done.
Because a hand can slip under the guard, many thousands of injuries occurred even with the guard in place.
Education, not redesigning the guard, is needed to convince the operators to use the blade guard.” The institute pledged to do its bit by making a video. But as word of the hot dog demonstration spread through the fair, they were soon drawing crowds. Gass said he got repeated assurances that Ryobi wanted to proceed, but the contract never came back. To head off possible anti-trust problems, they told the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission what they were doing.
Representatives of Ryobi, Black & Decker and Bosch did not return calls about when, or if, the technology will be used. A riving knife is a curved steel blade that cuts the risk of “kickback,” which occurs when a piece of wood suddenly jerks while being cut, sometimes pulling the operator’s hand into the blade. Filed in April, 2003, it called for a performance standard that would most likely require SawStop or something like it.
Osorio said he endured so much pain that one doctor suggested he have two fingers surgically amputated.
He said that Osorio almost certainly would have escaped serious injury had SawStop or another skin-detection system been in use.
He testified that after the blade sliced into his hand, he began running around in circles in his mother’s yard, screaming in pain and terror about what had just happened. In November, 2010, the National Consumers League fired off a protest letter to commission chairman Inez Tenenbaum. In the notice, the CPSC pegged the average cost of a table saw injury at $35,000—for a total cost to society of $2.36 billion for the estimated 67,300 injuries per year.
As a result, by revising a voluntary standard, or by simply working on revisions, an industry might be able to forestall regulation indefinitely. California is such a huge market that when forced to meet its design standards, companies sometimes apply the changes across entire product lines. But unfortunately, this method leaves small nail marks in the top surface of the workpiece. Remove the workpiece from the carrier board, place the jig aside, and position the just-ripped edge along the fence to straighten the other edge. I like it, it has saved me from wasting boards that are not fully straightalong the length. Wheeler felt awful about the injuries, the loss of two good workers, the $95,000 in medical bills, the doubling of his workers compensation rates. Of about 500,000 sold each year, 85 percent are supplied by members of the Cleveland-based Power Tool Institute, including such well-known brands as Black & Decker, DeWalt, Makita, Skil, Bosch and Ryobi. Industry comments filed with the CPSC asserted that SawStop’s patents were holding them back–potentially forcing them to pay royalties or engage in expensive patent litigation to introduce their system. Because it limited visibility, had to be removed for certain cuts, and took a long time to detach and put on again, most people worked without it.  Critics said the guard did more to protect the manufacturers than users. The commission would go three years before getting a third commissioner and again having a quorum. It all happens in so few milliseconds that, unless the hand is moving unusually fast when it hits the blade, the injury typically is minor.



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