In a moment of distraction, Carl Seymour, foreman at the Cabinet Door Shop in Hot Springs, Ark., nearly became a statistic. One morning in March, he was cutting a piece of wood paneling on a power saw when his thumb made contact with the blade. Seymour jerked his hand away, grabbed his thumb in pain and peeked to see how badly it was mangled. To his surprise, it was no worse than a bad paper cut. "I was so happy and excited, I started screaming and jumping up and down," Seymour recalls.
It wasn't just thumb luck. The Cabinet Door Shop is one of 1,800 companies that use a new kind of power saw, the SawStop, that is designed to stop as soon as the blade makes contact with flesh. Its inventor, Steve Gass, an amateur woodworker and patent attorney with a Ph.D. in physics, came up with the idea in 1999. Says Gass: "I was tinkering around in my shop and looked over at my saw and thought, I wonder, if you ran your hand under the blade, if you could stop it quick enough, then you wouldn't get a serious injury." With 40,000 Americans injured by power saws every year, 4,000 badly enough to need amputation, Gass figured there would be a ready market for a safer saw, particularly in our litigious society. But safety, he quickly found out, wasn't an easy sell.
Gass started his experiments by running a small electrical charge through the blade of his Delta power saw. Whenever the blade was touched, the body would absorb some of the charge like a circuit breaker and immediately trigger the brake. He built a prototype, videotaped the demonstration and tried to license his invention to power-tool manufacturers like Delta. "One company said, 'We decided not to pursue this because the marketing guys say safety doesn't sell,'" he recalls.
Over the next two years, Gass got the same response from every other major power-tool company. He was stunned. "Everybody in woodworking knows someone who's lost a finger or had an accident," says Gass. "I felt this technology should really be out there." He and two other lawyers from his firm launched SawStop in 2001, setting up shop in his barn and contracting with a manufacturer in Taiwan to build the devices. With about $5 million in sales, 16 employees and nearly 50 reports from customers of undetached digits, SawStop is thriving.
But Gass's efforts to make the technology an industrywide standard have gone nowhere. James O'Reilley, a product-liability expert at the University of Cincinnati, says other companies are probably concerned about risk and cost. "Product-liability issues are typically low on the agenda when introducing new products," he says. "Then the focus is going to be, What happens if it doesn't work?"
Concerns about liability may, however, ultimately force manufacturers to adopt SawStop or a similar feature. "It is very difficult to say that this is not a viable and safe technology when it's been on the market and preventing terrible injuries for more than a year," says Stuart Singer, a partner in the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. If plaintiffs argue that power-saw makers irresponsibly ignored a better technology, "the industry might get the message and adopt this technology," Singer says.