Building a safer saw

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Building a safer saw
Responding to the problem
Machine mandates
Other paths to safety
So what's new?
The final responsibility
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He was in a hurry. About six years ago Thomas Skaggs, a studio furniture maker in Champaign, Ill., was cutting stock on his cabinet saw and hadn't realized that he'd started the cut without locking down the fence securely.

"As I was pushing the stock through, I noticed that the kerf was drifting," he recalled. "I looked down at the fence, and at that point realized that the fence was moving. But it was too late and the cut had gone through. The waste side of the cut caught the blade and kicked back."

The waste side Skaggs referred to was a narrow, tapered piece of cherry he described as "spear-like."

"It happened in an instant, and there was no time to react or do anything. I felt a huge kick to my abdomen, and without looking down I kind of just moved my hand there and realized a piece of wood had impaled me. Without even thinking I pulled on the stick, and that was when it really clicked that, 'Hey, this was inside me.' "

Skaggs' wife — by chance a registered nurse — was in the house and she rushed him to the emergency room where he underwent two hours of trauma surgery. Afterward, the doctor told Skaggs that the piece of wood, which had thrust 5" deep into his abdomen, had missed his liver by a fraction of an inch.

At this point, you're probably wondering: Was he using the guard and splitter?

"No," he admitted. "I wasn't.

Like the guard and splitter arrangements of many stationary machines at the time, Skaggs' guard system wasn't easy to use, easy to see through or easy to remove and re-attach. And, like many woodworkers (few of whom ever admit it), he took it off. This issue, and the danger it imposes, isn't exactly an industry secret.

"There are two reasons why people don't use their barrier guards," said Jason Feldner, product manager for Bosch. "One is that they can't see what they're doing. The other is that they're just two darned hard to get on and off. Once it gets taken off, it stays off."

Responding to the problem
No manufacturer of power woodworking machinery can force customers to practice safety in the shop, but are there things they can do to make safety easier for the end-user to achieve? Judging by the appearance of new technology in the woodworking machinery industry, mandates from government and other bodies for safer equipment, and the efforts of the manufacturers themselves as evidenced by the features on their latest tools, the answer appears to be a solid yes. The first of these is to make saw safety equipment easier to use, particularly at times when guarding has to be removed temporarily for special cuts.