In the world of product safety, if there’s one item that’s been able to slide under the radar, it’s the table saw. The power tool is in popular demand because it’s great at what it does and can slice through wood like it’s butter. Unfortunately, table saws can also be dangerous for the users. In America alone, the table saw is the cause of more than 4,000 amputations every year—or over 10 amputations a day.
The biggest problem with table saw safety isn’t trying to figure out a new design or invention. The right technology already exists. It just comes down to updating the mandatory safety standards. If the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) ends up passing a new rule, all new models will be required to include a feature that could potentially prevent 99% of table saw injuries.
A physicist named Steve Gass invented the safety feature that the new rule would adopt. In a nutshell, he designed a saw that can tell the difference between a piece of wood and your fingers. The science behind this “smart saw” relates to electrical currents.
Since wood doesn’t conduct electricity, Gass rigged his saw with a small and inexpensive sensor. If that sensing device picks up on an electrical current (e.g., the salty water in our human bodies), the blade comes to a full stop. The same thing works with a hot dog, too. (Again—salty water.)
As soon as the table saw’s sensor registers a current, it throws on the blade brakes within just 3/1,000ths of a second. Gass even petitioned the CPSC back in 2003 to make the table saw industry require this technology.
As it currently stands, the proposed rule would require table saws to limit cuts to 3.5 millimeters when they encounter a test probe/body part. These performance standards could be an incredible game changer for table saw safety, yet some question whether it’s fair to hold all three types of table saws (i.e., bench, contractor, and cabinet saws) to the same requirements. The use of patented technology is also creating opposition. According to the CPSC acting commissioner, manufacturers do not have the assurance they need that the new technology will be licensed on reasonable terms. From that point of view, the tool’s technology could eventually become cost-prohibitive to consumers.
On the other hand, it’s estimated that 54,800 blade injuries needing medical treatment could be avoided every year. In that sense, creating a mandatory standard for sensing technology on table saws wouldn’t just protect consumers—it could be a major benefit for the greater economy, too, potentially saving millions in medical costs.
The CPSC has implemented new standards for other products in recent months, including infant bouncers and bath tubs. But the road to new regulations is always long, and in an anti-regulatory climate, it can get even longer.
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