Are Affordable Table Saws About to Become a Memory? Product Safety or Profit Margin, What is the Real Issue Here?

By: Hal Jones

First off, I don’t hear anyone begging to return the days of anything goes when it comes to manufacturing safe products. But when I read the proceedings of the Table Saw dialogues, I cringe at the prospect of companies being told not only to make the table saws safer, but use a specific remedy to accomplish this.  Many of you have seen the technology of the SawStop products in use, whether at trade shows, television or on the internet. Yes, it is cool technology. But then so are some of the other technologies out there that accomplish the same task,  namely stop the saw blade within a millisecond after contacting flesh, usually a hot dog wienie is used. I have seen an actual contact injury from a woodworker who contacted the SawStop blade accidentally. A small cut was his only injury.  When the technology first came out, I supported its adoption in beginning woodworking classes and educational settings. I still stand by that statement.  Other than that, I still believe at some point in our future, Americans should stand up and take responsibility for exercising common sense when using power tools.  Two years ago, I ran a cordless saw across the top of my leg and the saw not knowing the difference between my leg and wainscoting, did what saws do, they cut.  I violated safety rules I injured myself.  It wasn’t the saw manufacturer’s fault, nor was it the blade manufacturers fault. The fault lay entirely with me.  Imagine that, taking ownership of doing something stupid and then admitting it.  Try it sometime, it’s called being honest with yourself first and that makes being honest with others much easier.

That is the main crux, I am asking you to wear big boy shoes and accept responsibility for your actions.  The problems with the lawsuit that has led to this discussion are rife with shifting blame from the actual negligent parties to the manufacturers. The product itself is not defective, but you use it in unsafe way, I say the liability lies with you.  I don’t expect my chainsaw to know the difference between my leg and the tree branch. Therefore I wear chaps  and plan my cuts so if things go wrong the saw doesn’t contact me with its business end.

I am not going to win that argument in today’s litigious climate. But maybe on this table saw regulation cooler heads will prevail.  So for argument’s sake, let’s agree that incorporating a feature that minimizes injury into table saws is a good thing.  We want to have products in the marketplace that are safe. Ok, no problem with that. If I am a manufacturer of products, I ask my engineers to design a means of accomplishing this task. My brilliant engineers , come back with a design that accomplishes this safety feature.  In recent memory, we have added rives, guards and other items to accomplish safety features. These items work great, but sometimes they are inconvenient. And sometimes these features are removed to avoid inconvenience.  But as a manufacturer I know we can deliver the product at a price point that is affordable to many users. If the end user modifies or removes the safety equipment, he has just shifted liability to himself, at least in my thought process.

Sawstop in an effort to monopolize the entire technology surrounding not just the technology it employs in its products, but also patent similar methods in an effort to block other manufacturers from stepping in with competing solutions.  In the South, our colleges employed this method when recruiting football players.  Certain colleges would sign players not expecting them to contribute significantly to its program, but the player was good enough that they didn’t want the competition to have him. So they tied him up and gave him a scholarship.  This wasn’t done to build up the university’s team, but was done to keep the other guy from filling his needs and keeping him down.  Needless to say, this led to scholarship and signing limits.  The problem I have all of this is with what Sawstop is selling to us as doing this for safety, smells a lot like they are really doing for profit alone.  The longer this drags out, then no technological improvements will be offered up by the larger manufacturers. The reason, fear of litigation due to patent infringement. Not on the actual Sawstop technology, but on the other ancillary patents that have been filed for.  And if SawStop could offer a saw at a lower price point, it has failed to do so to this point.  Why?

If this is really about safety, then I see a compromise as possible and possibly setting a reasonable licensing fee to use the technology. But I have heard nothing along these lines of the government stepping in and determining what is reasonable compensation.  If there were competition allowed for competing technologies, then the market would set the price. But on a government mandated safety issue, should one company monopolize the technology surrounding the solution.  If this technology is mandated and implemented, do we believe that end users will not simply bypass the feature?   Woodworkers unfamiliar with how the technology works may think that once the feature has been tripped it can be reset similar to a GFCI outlet, but this is not the case. I found the cartridges for $69 each online. Yes, each time the device is triggered, drop another $69 for the replacement cartridge.

When it comes to safety,  I expect a tool to perform as designed. Tools designed to cut wood or metal, also will cut flesh and I know to treat the tool with great respect.  I just don’t think safety is entirely the responsibility of the manufacturer.


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