Every year, table saw accidents injure about 40,000 people and these injuries are often serious enough to require amputation. Working with exposed rotary blades poses an ever present risk to the woodworker, even to the most experienced professional working in extremely safe conditions. Many of these injuries are caused by “kickback.” Occasionally, wood can catch a high speed blade and cause the machine to throw it back, possibly into the woodworker. This alone can result in serious trauma and kickback can be powerful enough to embed a piece of wood into a wall or sheet of metal. However, the more serious concern is when kickback causes a person to lose his balance and fall onto the blade.
These table saw accidents aren’t the user’s fault. While there are several precautions a woodworker can take while operating the machine, kickback is difficult to predict and may occur with no warning. This is because kickback is often the result of the internal structure of the wood. There is little an operator can do to predict what wood is more likely to cause a malfunction. However, recent safety developments have made it possible to avoid serious injury, no matter the cause of the incident.
In 2000, Steve Gass debuted the prototype for the SawStop, a piece of safety technology capable of preventing serious injuries due to table saw accidents. It works by charging the blade with a slight electrical current. The machine monitors the state of this current at all times and looks for any changes in electrical conductivity. If the blade comes in contact with any part of the human body, the machine notices the change in conductivity and uses angular momentum to retract the blade within milliseconds of contact. An aluminum block is also forced into the teeth of the blade, bringing it to a complete stop instantly. As a result, the woodworker only suffers a small cut or scratch instead of a serious, possibly fatal, injury.
Getting this technology implemented has proven to be a challenge for Gass, though, because the Power Tool Institute, or PTI, has resisted it. The PTI represents several major manufacturers, including Black & Decker, Makita, Metabo, Hilti, Bosch, Hitachi Koki, WMH Tool Group and Techtronic Industries. These companies have argued that the technology is unproven and expensive to build into the blade. The PTI has also argued that it can damage the blade when activated, though this is something that most woodworkers would prefer to severe table saw accidents.
Because manufacturers have the option to outfit their products with this comprehensive safety method, they put their customers at risk by ignoring it. People harmed in table saw accidents are not at fault and may be able to pursue a product liability case against the manufacturer as long as the case meets certain criteria. For one, the injury must be serious enough to warrant amputation or surgery. The machine must have been manufactured during or after 2002 and the brand and model must be known. The date of the injury must also be within the relevant statute of limitations. Because these are product liability claims, they can be processed even if the injured party pursues workers’ compensation, so there is no risk of losing out on insurance coverage.