Stephen Gass is just a patent attorney, an inventor who came up with a device that can stop a table saw’s spinning electric blade the moment it hits human flesh. That’s not enough to generate much buzz in Washington, D.C.
So Gass came to town this week with a four-fingered firefighter who almost lost his job after a saw blade sliced his hand in half — and three other sympathetic victims of table-saw accidents — to plead the case for tougher saw safety rules with lawmakers and regulators.
For more than a decade, Gass has been trying to sell his table-saw safety mechanism to the nation’s big power-tool companies. When they didn’t bite, he turned to the government for help.
The technology, he said, would save millions of dollars in medical bills paid to cover about 40,000 injuries sustained every year on table saws.
“The table saw is the most dangerous tool in a wood shop or construction site, and it can be made the least dangerous,” said Chris Hackler of Enola, Ark., who lost a finger in an accident in March. “How often do we have a chance to do something like that?”
The invention, sold by a company called SawStop, relies on electrical currents to trigger a brake that stops the spinning saw blade within microseconds of contact with human skin.
In 2003, Gass petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require all table saws to include technology such as his, which he says can sense the difference between wood and a human finger.
Three years later, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of moving ahead with the new regulation, but its chairman left the agency before it could take the next step in the rulemaking process. The two remaining commissioners were split on the issue, and the rule could not proceed.
At the same time, the Power Tool Institute, which represents the major table- saw manufactures including Ryobi, Black & Decker and Craftsman, hired Ed Krenik, a lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani, to help fight the regulation. Since 2007, the institute has paid Krenik $775,000 to work on the saw issue and other matters, according to federal lobbying records.
The industry argues that requiring the use of the technology constitutes a federally mandated monopoly that would more than double the price of the least expensive saws on the market, which sell for less than $100 now. Plus, companies would have to pay a licensing fee to use Gass’ technology, which is protected by more than 60 patents. The companies insist they’ve developed a new safety shield since Gass invented his device, rendering it unnecessary.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration requires the use of a guard, but carpenters say it’s rarely used in practice. Gass argues that the regulation is toothless when it comes to in-home businesses and private use.
President Barack Obama appointed a new Democratic chairman and two new members of the CPSC in 2009, creating a quorum for the commission to take action and giving Gass another opportunity to get a rule approved.
He hired a lobbyist in March who has thus far charged him $20,000 to contact the CPSC, according to federal records. Gass also teamed up the National Consumers League, the century-old consumer advocacy group, to promote the cause.
“This is the kind of situation that is custom-made for the Consumer Product Safety Commission,” said Sally Greenberg, director of the National Consumers League.
Over the years, Greenberg had heard about Gass, his invention and his fight for stricter table-saw safety requirements in news reports. But when she learned that the CPSC had never moved forward with the new rules, she decided to step in, writing a letter to the CPSC urging speedy action. And a coalition was born.
Greenberg, Gass and the four victims of saw accidents spent this week in meetings with the CPSC commissioners as well as three Members of the House and Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
The CPSC chairwoman told National Public Radio this week that the commission could propose a rule in the coming months that would require a safety technology such as Gass’ invention.
But agency commissioners still have concerns about how the industry would implement the regulation given the many patents protecting Gass’ technology.
“Historically, the agency doesn’t put out regulations that drive people to one company,” said Joe Martyak, counsel to Nancy Nord, the Republican commissioner who voted against the idea in 2006. “It has nothing to do with the injuries or the risk; that is clear.”
Others wonder whether Gass is using the federal regulatory process to advance his business interests.
“I can’t recall another time when the patent holder of the technology has approached the commission and asked the committee to mandate his product be used,” said Krenik, the lobbyist for the power-tool association.