WASHINGTON — About 10 people lose a finger or mangle a hand in a table saw each day. And for years there has been a technology designed to prevent those injuries, prompting consumer advocates to demand that Washington speed up new rules to make table saws safer.
The technology, which has a sensor that can stop the blade if a finger gets too close, was first developed in the late 1990s. Most manufacturers so far haven't embraced it, and part of the reason seems to be a perennial Washington one: a fight over money.
The manufacturers say adding the technology would make saws considerably more expensive. On the other side, the technology's inventor wants to be paid for his creation — something he says the companies making saws aren't willing to do.
The manufacturers, through a trade association, have hired high-powered Washington lobbyists — paying Bracewell & Giuliani $30,000 in the first quarter of the year — to press their case before Congress and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with overseeing the safety of thousands of products.
Stephen Gass, the inventor of the SawStop technology that safety advocates would like to see on table saws, has retained Pamela Gilbert, a former executive director at the CPSC, to lobby for a saw safety rule that could help make Gass wealthy. Gass, of Tualatin, Ore., paid Gilbert $20,000 over a two-month period in the first quarter of the year.
The saw safety issue has languished at the CPSC for nearly a decade. In 2006, the commission was poised to take up table saw safety based on a petition Gass filed three years earlier asking the agency to require that saws have a technology to halt the blade if flesh is sensed. But a change in leadership at CPSC, to a Republican who wanted to see more research on the problem, forced a delay.
"Each year, tens of thousands of people are brutally injured by table saws, including 4,000 amputations, at a cost of more than $2 billion a year to treat victims," Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, said at a news conference Wednesday. "This is a major public health and safety issue that cries out for a public policy response."
A few hundred lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers over table saw injuries.
For its part, the industry says it developed new plastic guards to shield table saw users from the dangers of a spinning blade. The manufacturers also say Gass, a patent attorney, has so many patents, about 60, on his SawStop invention that it makes it difficult to develop their own similar technology. His licensing fees are also too high, they say.
Manufacturers started placing the new plastic safety guards on saws in 2007 and have sold some 750,000 since then. The Power Tool Institute, a trade association for manufacturers such as Black & Decker and Bosch, says its member companies have received no reports of injuries on table saws with the new guard design.
But that doesn't appear to be enough for the head of the commission now, Democrat Inez Tenenbaum. She has signaled that she wants stronger standards and said she'll push the agency to act if the industry doesn't.
"There are far too many amputations and injuries," Tenenbaum said in an interview. "I have reached out to the industry, but I am prepared to support the start of federal rulemaking if that is what is needed."
Federal action cannot come quickly enough for Curtis Harper, 54, a firefighter from Provo, Utah, who was maimed in a power saw accident in 2006.
"I do not want anyone to suffer these accidents ... ever again," said Harper, whose hand accidentally ran through the blade of his table saw — even with a safety guard on the machine.
The pinky finger on his right hand had to be amputated and it has been a long, painful recovery for him.
Harper said the guards that manufacturers herald as a safety device to prevent injuries don't work well, even the newer ones. He said most woodworkers don't use them because they are cumbersome and get in the way, making it hard to see the wood.
Harper and others who suffered life-altering injuries from table saw accidents met with members of Congress this week as well as commissioners at the CPSC to press for stronger safety rules for saws.