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Advocates seek new table-saw safety rules

After California bill fails, supporters of new technology to prevent injuries ask U.S. agency to act.

September 06, 2012|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
  • Anaheim cabinetmaker Joe Kehoe likes that the SawStop table saw can halt itself almost instantly if its blade touches flesh.
Anaheim cabinetmaker Joe Kehoe likes that the SawStop table saw can halt… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Backers of new technology that can prevent woodworkers from losing fingers in accidents are turning to the federal government for help after California legislators failed to pass a table-saw safety law.

Supporters of the concept are trying to spur the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to complete its investigation and rule-making process into a requirement that all table saws sold nationally be equipped with technology that prevents catastrophic injuries.

Emergency rooms nationwide treated 66,900 saw blade-related injuries in 2007 and 2008, with amputations accounting for 12% of those cases, according to the latest data available from the commission.

"With 11 amputations per day, this is an extremely important issue for the CPSC," said commission spokesman Scott Wolfson.

The task of crafting regulations, which began a year ago, is open-ended, he said, because of "complex legal and technical issues," including finding technologies that work and sorting through scores of patents.

Last week, the state Senate failed to act on a controversial consumer safety bill to require that all table saws be equipped with so-called injury-mitigation technology.

The legislation was backed by unions, consumer advocates and an Oregon company that makes the SawStop brand table saw, the only one on the market now that can stop a whirling, circular blade the instant it senses contact with human flesh.

The saw's inventor, patent attorney Stephen Gass, said he had altruistic motives in trying to pass a California law that could eliminate thousands of serious woodworking accidents, including amputations, that bedevil professional cabinet makers, contractors and home hobbyists.

"I think there's still obviously a significant need for a change in the status quo," Gass said. "Table saws are maiming people every day."

But Gass' opponents in California — retailers and toolmakers such as Home Depot Inc., Stanley Black & Decker Inc., Makita USA Inc. and Skil Power Tools — openly questioned Gass' motives for seeking legislation.

They publicly denounced the Oregonian as a would-be monopolist, trying to grab control of the large, lucrative California market under the guise of workplace safety.

The bill, AB 2218, by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) was "about legislating market share and attempting to create a monopoly," lobbyists for the Power Tool Institute, a Cleveland trade group, said in a letter to state senators.

Gass holds about 90 patents that other tool makers contended could make it expensive, if not impossible, for rival manufacturers to match his technology because of the risk of patent-infringement lawsuits.

The institute also complained that being forced to add finger-saving sensors to saws could increase table saw prices by hundreds of dollars.

Williams' bill seemed to be a winner in May when it passed the Assembly on a lopsided 64-4 bipartisan vote. It cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 3 to 1 in July but bogged down when it reached the full Senate.

The bill sat on the Senate floor for more than three weeks, never attracting a debate or a vote, and died at the end of a legislative session.

The bill couldn't muster the requisite 21 votes to pass the Senate, Capitol insiders said. They said it appeared that opponents locked up a sufficient number of Republicans and business-friendly Democrats to block the measure until the clock ran out.

"It didn't have the votes because there was a misunderstanding that it was anticompetitive and would add costs," said supporter Danny Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters. "It's hard to believe that a bill that actually would stop all the accidents couldn't pass."

Williams said he broadened his proposal so that a variety of manufacturers could independently develop their own finger-saving technology. The compromise, he said, wasn't enough to overcome the power tool industry's influence.

Gass dismissed opponents' charges that he would benefit financially from the bill and stressed that he doesn't need the added business.

"Sales so far this year are up 25% over last year," he said. "We're doing great, making good money. Whether they mandate it in California doesn't make much difference to me."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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