Consumer Product Safety Commission to discuss stricter regulations for table saws

September 23, 2011

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is poised to take action on safety standards for table saws, eight years after concerns about injuries were brought to its attention.

Lengthy study of the issue, bureaucratic hurdles and a crush of other regulatory work prolonged the process, commissioners and consumer advocates said. In the meantime, table saws used by hobbyists, shop class students and other consumers caused an estimated 10 amputations on average a day, according to government statistics.

But as the agency gets ready to act, its five commissioners must consider whether any regulation they craft will effectively limit marketplace competition by favoring the maker of so-called “flesh-sensing” technology designed to prevent serious saw injuries. The agency is tasked with writing performance standards without mandating design.

“None of us really wants to create a monopoly,” said Robert Adler, a commissioner since 2009. “Does government have authority to write a performance standard that results in one and only one technology? I don’t know the answer to that. But as a policy matter, it’s something I don’t feel comfortable with.”

The technology on the market today belongs to Stephen Gass, an Oregon patent lawyer with a physics degree who created a table saw with a blade designed to sense contact with skin and stop within milliseconds — ten times faster than an air bag inflates.

When Gass created the technology in 1999, he shopped it around to several table saw manufacturers. But he said they dismissed it as costly and unproven.

By 2002, Gass and two patent attorneys at his firm decided to go at it alone and started making their own table saws. A year later, they filed a petition asking the commission to impose a standard that would reduce or prevent injury from contact with table saw blades. “We turned it loose, sort of like throwing a bottle in the ocean,” Gass said. “We didn’t hear anything for a long time.”

Nancy Nord, a commissioner since 2005, said that after the agency received the petition, staff members prepared background documents and presented them in 2006. At that time, the commission had only three members.

Then-chairman Harold Stratton and Thomas Moore voted to consider stricter regulation. But Nord voted against it. Stratton resigned soon after and the commission lacked the necessary votes to move forward.

“Frankly, I could not vote to start down the rule-making road at that point based on the information that was in front of me,” Nord said.

But now the commission has expanded to five members. Its staff has dug deeper into the issue, and Nord said she is “much more sanguine about starting down the regulatory road.” The number of injuries revealed in a recent study by the agency’s staff is “eye-popping,” she said.

The study estimates that 66,900 people sought emergency room treatment for injuries involving table saw blade contact in 2007 and 2008. Lacerations ranked as the most common injury, followed by fractures and amputation.

The industry casts the findings as outdated. The Power Tool Institute, which represents the nation’s largest table saw makers, said that it has improved blade guards that protect against injuries and that it has not identified any new lawsuits on those products since 2010. The agency’s staff said the improvements are not good enough.

Ed Krenik, the institute’s lobbyist, said Gass has locked up all the patents on flesh-sensing technologies, making it difficult for the industry to compete. If the commission mandates this type of technology, the industry will have to pay hefty licensing fees and re-engineering costs that could hike the price of some table saws by several hundred dollars.

Gass “has patented this product up one side and down the other,” Krenik said. “It’s clear that his motivation is to ensure that no matter what type of sensing technology is developed, it will be a patent fight.”

In about two weeks, the commission will vote on whether to start the first step toward mandatory regulation, by soliciting public comment about imposing tougher table saw safety standards.

Inez Tenenbaum, the commission’s chairman, said that this type of patent issue is very rare for her agency. But “if there’s new technology on the market or pending technology that could protect consumers, then now is the time for this information to be given to the commission.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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