California’s table-saw safety bill is facing a fight

SACRAMENTO — Stephen Gass is either a savior of fingers or a greedy monopolist, depending on who’s describing a controversial bill making its way through the California Legislature.

The Oregon inventor has developed a table saw that can stop a whirling blade almost the instant it comes into contact with human flesh. The machine, known as the SawStop, has been hailed by some woodworkers as a godsend to prevent injuries and amputations that cost their industry and hobbyists billions of dollars a year.

But Gass also is a patent attorney who stands to gain from tough new safety standards proposed in California. He’s pushing legislation that would require all new table saws sold in the state to be equipped with so-called injury mitigation technology. His SawStop is the only product currently on the market that is likely to meet the bill’s requirements.

With little opposition, the measure sailed through the Assembly on a 64-4 vote, and it gets its first hearing in the Senate on Tuesday before the Judiciary Committee.

Now, however, retailers and toolmakers such as Home Depot Inc., Stanley Black & Decker Inc., Makita USA Inc. and Skil Power Tools are powering up for a fight.

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

What’s more, adding finger-saving sensors could boost table-saw prices by hundreds of dollars per unit, says the Power Tool Institute, a Cleveland trade group.

This “is about legislating market share and attempting to create a monopoly,” the group said in a recent letter to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the bill’s author, Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara).

Supporters of the bill, AB 2218, say that such fears are overblown and that big manufacturers are dragging their feet on making needed safety improvements to their own products.

Legislation is needed “to push industry along with technology when it’s been unwilling to move before,” Williams said. Companies that do business in California have a history of fighting regulators’ calls for safety improvements, such as removing toxic chemicals from household products, he said.

What’s clear is that power saws and fingers have long made uneasy companions.

U.S. emergency rooms treated 66,900 saw blade-related injuries in 2007 and 2008, with amputations accounting for 12% of those cases, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The economic cost of those accidents topped $2.3 billion each year, the agency said.

No specific California figures are available, but officials estimate that the state accounts for 1 in 10 table-saw injuries nationwide.

Gass, who has a doctorate in physics from UC San Diego and a law degree from UC Berkeley, said he was using a table saw in his Wilsonville, Ore., wood shop in 1999 “when the idea came to me: Could you stop a blade fast enough to avoid serious injury?”

Over the next five years, he developed a technology that can halt a saw blade whirling at 4,000 revolutions per minute within one-hundredth of a second after human flesh touches the teeth. The invention’s central component is a sensor that can detect changes in electrical conductivity. If it detects a change associated with human flesh, it halts the blade’s spinning by applying a powerful brake.

Gass’ company, SD3 of Tualatin, Ore., has sold about 35,000 SawStop table saws in the last eight years. Gass said his technology or something similar could add as much as $75 to the cost of manufacturing a table saw, which currently sell for $220 to $3,500.

The saw’s fans include Doug Pannabecker, 55, a San Jose-area cabinetmaker and the owner of Three Trees Woodshop. Pannabecker, who needed 17 stitches on two fingers after being cut by a conventional saw, bought a SawStop saw in 2007. Two years later, the SawStop prevented a friend of his from having a similar accident.

“He was sawing along and a portion of his thumb touched the blade. “Everything stopped, instantaneous,” Pannabecker recalled. “My father and I looked at his thumb, and there was just a little mark on it. I can’t remember if it even had a Band-Aid.”

Federal regulators have taken notice as well. The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted Oct. 5 to begin pursuing national performance standards for table saws, in part because of the success of Gass’ SawStop in reducing injuries.

The technology “seems to virtually eliminate the amputations and severe lacerations that result from contact with a blade saw,” Commissioner Robert S. Adler said at the October meeting.

With those kinds of endorsements, Gass said he hired a Sacramento lobbyist in January to persuade lawmakers to pass a saw safety bill, similar to previous California mandates for the use of automobile seat belts, motorcycle helmets and other consumer protection innovations.

Passing a law in California would spur change in the power tool industry faster than waiting for the national regulators, who have been studying table-saw safety since 2003, he said.

With a population of 38 million people, California offers manufacturers a massive market, Gass said. They probably would find it uneconomical to make one product for the Golden State customers and a different one for the rest of the country.

“It seemed like a long shot, but it seemed like the right thing to do,” Gass said. Gass’ company has given political contributions — $46,400 — to 21 Democrats and half a dozen key Republicans in the last couple of months. Williams, the bill’s author, got a $2,500 contribution in May.

But the big saw makers aren’t about to be split. They’ve put together an all-star, deep-pocketed business coalition that includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., the California Business Properties Assn., the California Retailers Assn., Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears.

The business groups, which contribute tens of millions of dollars to political campaigns, have tremendous influence with Senate Republicans and an important cadre of moderate Democratic swing voters.

Woodworkers, both professionals and hobbyists, appear divided over the prospect of mandatory safety technology on table saws.

“I just wish California & government in general would stop butting into every aspect of our lives ‘to make it better!’” Joe Lyddon wrote on an Internet forum on the website LumberJocks.

Joe Kehoe, an Anaheim professional cabinetmaker, said he’s a big fan of his 8-year-old SawStop table saw. He supports Williams’ bill, even though he said his personal politics are in line with tea party conservatives’ call for cutting the size of government.

“From an employer’s standpoint, I’d be foolish not to have one. I have a vested interest in keeping my [eight] employees healthy and safe,” he said. “From a personal standpoint, if I lose my finger, I lose my livelihood.”