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Saws Cut Off 4,000 Fingers a Year. This Gadget Could Fix That.

So why are the big power tool companies refusing to use it?

| Thu May 16, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

"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.

"If the manufacturers had to pay the cost of those injuries, they would have adopted technology like this within months of the time they heard about it."

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."

The Power Tool Institute maintains that a new federal safety rules would grant a "monopolistic advantage" to SawStop.

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.

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Front page image: Antaoli Styf/Shutterstock (blade); Mark Scott/Shutterstock (finger)

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