Building a safer saw - Machine mandates

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Building a safer saw
Responding to the problem
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Box agreed, noting that groups such as the Power Tool Institute, a consortium of tool manufacturers, were instrumental in getting the ball rolling.

"These guys got together to counter SawStop, and that was one of their solutions, to petition UL to come up with a different set of standards that they could achieve at a cost-effective manner and still promote safety," said Box.

Sound advice from ... 

Thomas Skaggs' kickback experience has made him a better, safer woodworker. He knows he could have prevented his accident if he'd been using his guard and splitter, but the experience also taught him a lot about himself and about a better way to work.

Here's what he'd like you to know.

"Learn about shop safety, and learn the dynamics of how accidents happen. Learn what causes them, so that you understand what actions you might do that could be dangerous to you. Never be in a hurry to do anything on the table saw. Nothing is that important. I think when I had my accident I was trying to get something done before a certain time period, and I think what you have to really do is stop for a moment and rehearse the cut.

"That's my message; rehearse what you're going to do before you turn the saw on. If you rehearse it, then you know: This is what I'm going to do. I've got the fence locked. I've got the splitter in place. This is how I'm going to push it through. This is the push stick I'm going to use. This is where I'm going to stand.

"Because with each cut you're doing something slightly different, and if you just stop for a second and just mentally and even physically rehearse it — just for a second, that's all it takes — then you're more than likely going to make a safer cut."

Back in 2003 Gass' company filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Council, encouraging the production of safer equipment, with an eye toward the SawStop device technology. Manufacturers, reluctant to incorporate the device into their saws, pressured organizations such as Underwriter's Laboratory to revise standards to mandate safety measures they felt more achievable. The result was UL 987, a set of standards that includes a mandate for riving knives. As of Jan. 1, 2008, to garner UL approval all new table saws must include a riving knife. After a period of years, older equipment not equipped with the knives must be converted to receive approval, or phased out of production. In a few years it will be difficult to buy a saw that doesn't have a riving knife.

To clarify, UL sets standards for table saws (and a host of other industrial and consumer products) that are not legal requirements in the sense that a company can't sell a saw without them, but they do constitute a practical requirement. Few customers will buy equipment without the UL seal.

Mandates, although formed with the best of intentions, aren't always easy to implement. And, in some cases, may even be counter-productive.

"The danger there is that something may be mandated that's not possible or practical for everyday use, very difficult for the manufacturer to implement or even unproven designs that do not have long-term testing, thereby not improving the situation," said Grizzly's Crofutt. "And there could be mandates that would raise the price of the machines to the point of forcing people to keep their old one."

Further, Crofutt said that many mandates can sometimes be hard to comprehend. Wading through the thick stack of pages that make up UL 987, for example, one can quickly get lost.

"If you read the UL recommendation it's very confusing," he said. "As a matter of fact the CPSC letter to UL states that they don't even understand what UL is trying to say. From a manufacturer's standpoint, we want to comply, but if the mandates are confusing it makes it very difficult."

"I don't think anyone in the industry is going to argue with any legislative body against more or better safety features — safe equipment is in everyone's interest," added Norman Frampton of General International. "Research and development costs are a concern of course and no one wants to be forced to make changes that price them out of the market. But as long as the rule is the same for everyone and the playing field is level, in the long run everyone benefits. Being able to design affordable and retrofit-able versions of new safety features to fit previously built equipment is also a major concern and can be a challenge. We'd also like to see government-mandated training be more emphasized as well. Again, if the user doesn't understand how or why a safety features works and what it is protecting him/her from, then even safety features won't protect those who don't use them properly."