A longer version of this story appears at FairWarning.
Gerald Wheeler caught the hot dog demonstration at the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta in 2002. A man took an Oscar Meyer wiener and pushed it into the blade of a table saw spinning 4,000 times per minute. As the hot dog touched the whirring saw, the blade came to a dead stop in about three one-thousandths of a second, leaving the dog with only a minor nick.
The saw was equipped with a safety device called SawStop that could distinguish between wood and flesh and then stop the blade fast enough to prevent a gruesome injury. Wheeler was amazed. As the operator of a wood shop in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he was all too aware of the unforgiving nature of table saws. Not long before, two of his employees had been maimed within a few weeks of each other. 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. Watching SawStop in action, Wheeler thought: If only this had come along sooner.
Those kinds of injuries are all too common: Each year, more than 67,000 workers and do-it-yourselfers are injured by table saws, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (PDF), resulting in more than 33,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 amputations. At an average cost of $35,000 each, these accidents lead to more than $2.3 billion in societal costs annually including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Since it started making table saws in in 2004, SawStop 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 also has acknowledged two reports of amputations.) Wheeler bought two of the company’s first saws. In March 2006, Carl Seymour, a foreman at his shop, accidentally touched a whirring blade. A photo on SawStop’s website shows Seymour beaming in triumph as he displays his thumb, which looks like it has a paper cut. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off him after this,” Wheeler says, adding that he, too, was “totally ecstatic.” All saws should have this technology, Wheeler says. “I mean, we’re dealing with human beings.”
However, SawStop still makes the only saws with skin-sensing technology, and accounts for a tiny fraction of total saw sales. Tens of thousands of digits have been sliced off in the past decade, but the rest of power tool industry has snubbed the technology and carried on as before.
For more than a decade, toolmakers and the Power Tool Institute, their trade group, have defended the design of conventional table saws and their decision to not adopt SawStop or a similar safety device. Publicly they’ve offered several arguments: The number of saw injuries and their impact are exaggerated; the market for popular, lightweight saws, which cost as little as $100, would be destroyed by the added expense of SawStop; SawStop may stop a blade when it touches conductive materials like metal or very wet wood, usually destroying the blade. But as court records and testimony have shown, the power tool companies have rejected the safety advance for another reason: They are worried that if a new way to prevent severe injuries became widespread, they would face a wave of liability suits for accidents involving conventional saws.
The SawStop story is about an industry’s ability to resist a major safety advance that could have prevented countless disfiguring injuries, but might have been bad for business. It also highlights the bureaucratic obstacles that make it virtually impossible for regulators to enact safety measures over the unified objections of industry. The power tool industry representatives contacted for this story declined interview requests or did not return calls and emails. The Robert Bosch Tool Corporation provided a statement: “Safety has historically been one of the Bosch principles…and is reflected in our slogan ‘Invented for life.'”
“Safety doesn’t sell”
Stephen Gass, an energetic, intense 49-year-old, grew up on a horse farm in eastern Oregon and learned woodworking from his father. He earned a doctorate in physics and a law degree, then joined a patent law firm in Portland, but never lost his interest in building things. One fall day in 1999, while out in his home workshop, he was struck by a question: Would it be possible to stop a table saw quickly enough to keep it from slicing off your fingers? After a doing a series of calculations and using parts you could buy at Radio Shack, he showed it could be done.
His invention works by running a weak electrical current through the saw blade. When someone comes in contact with the blade, the body absorbs part of the current. A sensor detects the change in current and activates a spring, which jams an aluminum wedge between the teeth of the blade, acting as a brake. The blade also drops below the surface of the table. It all happens so quickly that unless the hand is moving unusually fast when it hits the blade, any injury is minor.
It’s a mystery why the power tool industry, with its engineering prowess, didn’t invent SawStop before Gass did. Maybe it didn’t because there were no clear financial or legal incentives to do so. Table saws are must-have tools for millions of construction workers, carpenters, and do-it-yourselfers. There are about 9.5 million of them in use in the United States. About 500,000 sold each year, 85 percent of them made by members of the Cleveland-based Power Tool Institute, which represents well-known brands such as Black & Decker, DeWalt, Makita, Skil, Bosch, and Ryobi.
For decades, the companies were shielded from liability by a few unquestioned assumptions: Table saws are inherently dangerous; everyone knows this; accidents typically involve carelessness or failure to follow directions; therefore, when people get hurt it is their own fault. As an industry lawyer told a jury in a recent injury lawsuit: “This is a table saw. It cuts wood. And if you’re not careful, you can get injured.”
The companies are guided by voluntary safety standards developed by an industry-dominated technical committee and Underwriters Laboratories. When SawStop came along, the voluntary standard called for table saws to have a guard that fits like a hood over the blade. Because a hand can slip under the guard, many thousands of injuries occurred even with the guard in place. However, the guard usually wasn’t used. Because it limited visibility, had to be removed for certain cuts, and took a long time to detach and put on again, most saw users worked without it.
Gass thought his invention would be an easy sell. SawStop meant that saw makers now had the ability to prevent the tragedies they knew would happen otherwise. “I couldn’t imagine that anyone would not want to put this on the saws that they were offering to people,” he says. But the industry’s initial reaction was not encouraging. Gass recalled one tool executive telling him, “The marketing guys say safety doesn’t sell.”
The industry took notice after Gass did the hot dog demo at the 2000 International Woodworking Fair and SawStop was awarded a top prize for technological advancement. Gass and his partners visited the offices of Black & Decker (now Stanley Black & Decker), Emerson Electric, Ryobi, and Bosch. In November 2000, they briefed members of the Power Tool Institute in Cleveland. Gass was overconfident. “We think you don’t have any choice here,” Gass recalls telling one executive. “It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t do it, you’re going to be liable for the injuries—and there’s a lot of injuries happening.” Still, the power tool companies seemed wary. Gass says a Black & Decker executive warned him, “If you guys don’t cooperate with us, the industry is going to get together and squish you.”
SawStop’s prospects seemed to rise in July 2001 when CPSC engineers announced the results of a technical evaluation, finding that “The SawStop concept is valid and the prototype impressively demonstrates its feasibility.” Ann Brown, then head of the agency, awarded SawStop a Chairman’s Commendation for safety innovation. SawStop held negotiations with several companies, and nearly finalized a deal with Ryobi, but none ended up adopting the technology.
“Liability exposure has increased”
One of the power tool companies’ main concerns about SawStop, court testimony and corporate documents reveal, was that it would worsen their liability risk. According to courtroom testimony by David Peot, Ryobi’s former director of advanced technologies, “There certainly was a feeling that if a single company invents or improves a product that could have an effect on product liability, then other manufacturers could be at a disadvantage if they don’t have that on their product.”
Without naming SawStop, an April 2002 Bosch memo, revealed in a lawsuit, 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. This “will create a new and significant liability concern for our corporation because of this enhanced safety performance.” Or, as minutes of the Power Tool Institute’s product liability committee in September 2002 put it: “Liability exposure has increased based on the product’s introduction at IWF [International Woodworking Fair].”
“What the industry saw as a problem was not the amputations and injuries occurring on their product, but the advent of a technology that could prevent those injuries. That was the problem we created,” says Gass. He recalled Peter Domeny, the former chairman of the Power Tool Institute’s product liability committee and Bosch’s director of product safety, telling him that SawStop had kept him awake wondering how the industry could defend itself from lawsuits. Domeny was questioned about this in 2008 at a deposition in the case of a Pennsylvania man who had four fingers amputated. “We had discussions as far as the liability implication, but not in that form as he [Gass] quotes it,” Domeny replied. “I don’t think I have discussed my sleep patterns with Mr. Gass.”
Shut out by the toolmakers, Gass and his partners faced a stark choice: Either let their invention die or make their own saws. They chose the latter and raised $3 million from about 30 investors. Along with flesh-detection technology, the SawStop saws came with an important safety device called a riving knife that had been mostly limited to models sold in Europe. 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. About 40,000 SawStop saws have been sold.
In response to the threat from SawStop, the power tool industry sprang into action. Five companies, including Black & Decker, Bosch, and Ryobi, formed a joint venture to develop their own injury reduction system. To head off possible antitrust problems, they alerted the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission that they would pursue “research and development of technology for power saw blade contact injury avoidance, including skin sensing systems, blade braking systems, and/or blade guarding systems.”
The joint venture ended in 2009, when the companies said they had developed a system superior to SawStop. Their design retracts the saw blade into the table immediately upon skin contact. Unlike SawStop, it does not use a brake, which damages the blade. Yet this safety system has yet to be offered in a single saw. Ryobi, Black & Decker, and Bosch did not return calls about when or if the technology will be used. Industry comments filed with the CPSC suggest that SawStop’s patents were holding them back, potentially forcing them to pay royalties or engage in expensive patent litigation to roll out their system.
In April 2003, SawStop submitted a petition signed by more than 300 woodworkers, shop teachers, and others, asking the CPSC to require injury reduction technology. Prompted by the petition, in July 2006 the CPSC commissioners voted 2 to 1 to begin the initial stages of the rulemaking process. Yet within days of the vote, commission chairman Hal Stratton, who had voted yes, resigned to join a law firm. The resulting 1-1 stalemate meant the rulemaking notice could not be approved. It would be another five years before the commission would address the issue again. Yet while regulation stalled, the battle over table-saw injuries moved to the courts.
“there was blood on my face”
Carlos Osorio moved to the Boston area from Colombia in 2003. Unable to find work as a computer technician, he took a job as a flooring installer. He was working at a home in Lexington, Massachusetts, in April 2005 when a piece of flooring got stuck in his Ryobi table saw and his hand slid into the blade. “There was blood on my face, my body. It was everywhere,” Osorio later testified. “I was able to see my tendons.”
The first of five surgeries lasted 12 hours and reattached Osorio’s pinky finger. Another transferred tendons from a toe to his hand in an attempt to restore movement. Osorio said he endured so much pain that one doctor suggested he have two of the injured fingers surgically removed. Osorio had 95 physical therapy sessions. His medical bills topped $384,000. He kept all his fingers but still has limited use of his left hand. “The damage that was done to my hand, it’s something that stays with you for the rest of your life,” he said. “I think the manufacturers should think less about cost, but more about people who are using the saws.”
Osorio sued Ryobi for damages. During the trial of his lawsuit in February 2010, in federal court in Boston, Osorio admitted he’d been working without a guard on the saw. Before SawStop came along, this fact alone would have made a successful lawsuit unthinkable. But Gass testified about his efforts to license SawStop to Ryobi and other companies. He said that Osorio almost certainly would have escaped serious injury had SawStop or another skin-detection system been in use. The jury awarded Osorio $1.5 million.
Roughly 150 liability suits have been filed against power tool companies since SawStop saws were introduced. SawStop was a “game changer,” says Osorio’s attorney, Richard Sullivan, whose firm has been involved in most of the cases. The industry position, he says, was “‘Hey, don’t blame us.’ Now with Saw Stop it was ‘Oops, we actually can prevent these accidents from taking place.'” About 70 of the cases have been settled out of court, according to Sullivan. Only two others besides Osorio’s have gone to trial. A case in Los Angeles last year ended in a hung jury and then was settled. In the other, tried last July in Chicago, Ryobi was victorious.
The plaintiff was Brandon Stollings, who cut off two fingers while installing flooring at his mother’s house in Wisconsin in May 2007. He testified that after the blade sliced into his hand, he began running around in circles in the yard, screaming in pain and terror. “Am I ever going to be able to do carpentry?” he remembered thinking. “If I cut off my ring finger, who’s going to want to marry me if I can’t even put a ring on my finger?” Lying in the ambulance, the then-23-year-old told his mother to let him die. “I thought my life was over.”
His ring finger was reattached after nine hours of surgery, but Stollings lost his index finger. Five years after the accident, Stollings said he remained self-conscious about his injury. “If I’m meeting new people, my hands will be in my pocket,” he said. “I never had this hand really out in the open.”
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. Gass testified that Stollings would have escaped serious injury if his saw had skin-sensing technology. “If the manufacturers had to pay the cost of those injuries,” Gass said, “they would have adopted technology like this within months of the time they heard about it instead of looking for excuse after excuse to delay for year after year.”
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. The jury found Ryobi not liable.
“we have the means to prevent these accidents”
SawStop employs about 40 people in its headquarters in the Portland suburb of Tualatin. Its table saws aren’t actually manufactured here; they’re made in Taiwan, like nearly all saws sold in the United States. Inside its offices, rows of shiny mounted patents for saw components cover entire walls. Those patents have become an obsession of the power tool industry as it fights to keep federal safety regulators off its back.
In 2008, Congress resuscitated the CPSC, expanding its funding and adding two new commissioners. Yet the table saw issue remained stalled. In November 2010, the National Consumers League fired off a letter to commission chairman Inez Tenenbaum protesting the delay. “Every day ten new amputations associated with the use of table saws occur,” the letter stated. “The hazards posed by table saws are unacceptable, especially when we have the means to prevent these accidents.” In October 2011, the five CPSC commissioners voted unanimously to restart the rulemaking process that had been frozen nearly five years earlier. “This is a serious hazard which has greatly impacted far too many lives,” commission spokesman Scott Wolfson says. “This is a rulemaking that can make a difference…if we can reach the final rulemaking stage.”
Yet the Power Tool Institute maintains that a new federal regulation would grant a “monopolistic advantage” to SawStop, whose patents might shut out rival safety systems, such as the one developed by the toolmakers. “There can be little question that Mr. Gass and the SawStop company primarily are motivated by their own monetary gain,” the institute declared in comments filed with the CPSC in March 2012, “rather than purely to improve public safety.” (SawStop isn’t the only company with an interest in promoting its saw-safety device: The Massachusetts-based Whirlwind Tool says it has developed a “proximity detection” system that will shut down a saw when a hand comes close to the blade.)
The industry also reminded the commission of a legal constraint that could make regulating it extremely difficult. Legally, the commission must defer to voluntary standards that could adequately reduce safety risks. By revising its voluntary standards or by simply working on revisions, the power tool industry might be able to forestall regulation indefinitely. The industry has made a couple of changes to its safety standards since SawStop was introduced. A 2005 revision provided for use of a riving knife, another in 2007 called for an improved blade guard. Hundreds of thousands of saws with the new guard are now in use. Therefore, the industry has insisted, the CPSC must investigate the impact of these changes before adopting any new regulations. The agency has agreed to study the new guards.
Ann Brown, who left the CPSC chairmanship in 2001 soon after giving the commendation to SawStop, says she is “shocked” that the issue remains unresolved. “The industry has managed to delay every step of the way,” she says. Former commission chairman Stratton is not surprised. “How could I be, after being there and experiencing working at the agency?” he asks. “The way the law is written, there’s a lot of hurdles to get over to get a regulation passed.”
Expecting little action from the CPSC, SawStop tried another way to move ahead. Last year, it lobbied the California legislature to pass a bill requiring injury reduction technology for all table saws sold in the state. California is such a huge market that when companies are forced to meet its design standards, they sometimes apply the changes across entire product lines. The bill was defeated, however.
Gass admits that SawStop could make plenty of money if a table saw standard were adopted, but he says it’s making good money just selling saws. “I feel like I’m doing a good thing,” he says. But he says he doesn’t take “a lot of moral credit” for inventing and promoting his safety device. “I’m doing what I also think is in my financial interest.”
Lilly Fowler of FairWarning contributed to this story. FairWarning is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.