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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Ankles, Seat Belts & Table Saws – A Market Trajectory

The blogs are afire and the email inboxes are overflowing. It seems everyone is jabbering about new table saw safety regulations to potentially be imposed by government. I've not blogged, tweeted, or emailed on this subject for one very simple fact… new safety technologies are inevitable. Wailing, gnashing of teeth, complaining, cheering, or championing, it makes no difference. It is a fait accompli.

I'm old enough to remember the uproar over automobile seat belt regulations, and vividly remember the people who made cottage businesses of turning off the warning bells and disconnecting the seat belt safety interlocks. I remember a few Luddites that bought a belt-less car the last year they were available and swore they would keep it running forever. Today the overwhelming majority of us enter our vehicles and by second nature reach for the belt, wrap, and click with one fluid motion. We have subconsciously incorporated it into our daily lives. Since seat belts, additional incredible safety advances have been made with airbags, strategic crush (impact absorption) zones, rollover protection and now proximity detection systems and even computers that sense if the driver is getting sleepy. Inexorably, progress marches on.

In the not too distant future, safety measures incorporated into power tools will be as ubiquitous as the seat belt. The primary reason is money… money to lose or money to make.

Lawsuits cost money. Win, lose, or settle, they cost a lot of money. And if there is a way that someone can get injured, there will be a way to sue someone for that injury.

Figure 1 - Ankle X-ray

It is natural to include in any discussion about table saw safety and accidents the associated health care costs, which provides segue into a parallel and instructional dimension. Time was, if you twisted your ankle on a slippery sidewalk, you might take a trek to your family doctor; he would observe your walk (or limp), feel the tendons and muscles, have you move your foot or move it for you, and gauge the pain attendant to each movement. After his or her examination, the doctor might proclaim the joint sprained, use an elastic bandage to provide compression and Figure 1 - Ankle X-ray additional support, and send you home with the old "rice" prescription (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). The doctor would instruct, "Call in a couple of weeks if it does not get better."

That few-minute, few-dollar diagnosis sufficed for hundreds of thousands of people and decades of time. But somewhere along the trajectory of history, a couple of interrelated things occurred.

Figure 2 - Ultrasound image

Improved diagnostic tools became widely available… first X-ray and later Ultrasound and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. Contemporaneously, out of the hundreds of thousands of sprained ankles, someone went home with the normal doctor's diagnosis and directions, and the ankle got worse instead of better. Ultimately the patient developed a permanent, irreversible problem. Perhaps it was an undetected break, a torn ligament, or a pulled hamstring, but the injury did not heal properly, and that person's temporary limp and pain became a permanent Figure 3 - Ultrasound image way of life. An attorney reasoned that this missed diagnosis was the responsibility of the doctor and cited the availability of better diagnostic tools as proof of malpractice. Legal costs accrued and ultimately a monetary award resulted.

Figure 3 - MRI image…
and the technology continues to advance
Other attorneys saw the potential, and the growth trajectory for two interrelated medical industries was set… malpractice insurance and medical litigation.

As a conjunctive to these new industries, continues to advance… expensive diagnostic machinery became ubiquitous because the cost justification could now include defense against potential malpractice lawsuits. The insurance industry, hoping to mitigate financial settlements, eagerly agreed to reimburse doctors for the use of these machines. The perfect storm was set in motion.

New technologies make possible ever-more precise analyses and diagnoses, failure to use all available technologies puts doctors at risk of being accused of not using every available diagnostic tool, and attorneys seek out (and sometimes encourage) patients to sue.

Today, depending on your age and other factors, a twisted ankle might result in a day or more at the doctor's office or hospital. You may get X-rays, bone density Figure 2 - MRI image… and the technology scans, MRIs, ultrasound exams, blood tests, CT scans, or other diagnostic tests… it just depends on what the insurance company is willing to pay for given the symptoms presented. And in a twist of logic that only Cirque Du Soleil could interpret, even if the doctor is 99.9999% certain that your ankle is merely sprained, if the insurance will cover an MRI, you are going to get an MRI. Got to pay for that machine and keep the lawyers at bay, remember? Some refer to this as "defensive medicine."

So, here we are, discussing sprained ankles and seat belts, when the subject at hand (pun intentional) is unintentional injury via table saw. Just like it took the "perfect storm" of a sprained ankle, a misdiagnosis, a successful lawsuit, the insurance industry, and enhanced technology to launch new industries and a cost spiral that now consumes 17% of our gross domestic production, it only took a careless untrained worker freehand cutting a board (and his hand) on an unguarded table saw, a lawsuit, an insurance settlement, and technology that can prevent severe injury to create the perfect storm that will eventually spiral and consume and forever change our little hobby. You see, the course of events and the trajectory is simply inalterable.

You may view this trajectory as good or bad, but make no mistake; it is inalterable. In a normal free market dynamic, a market need is determined (the negation of unintentional and accidental injuries), an enterprise invents a product that answers that market need (flesh-sensing and blade-braking technology), injuries promulgate lawsuits, insurance companies pay settlements then raise the rates for manufacturers who do not use the available safety technology, and over time, manufacturers either adopt the new technology(ies) or invent their own. The only difference with our current situation is that the government may intervene in this normal free market trajectory, causing what businesspeople refer to as a "market convulsion." A market convulsion is an event that disrupts the normal progression of free-market dynamics. A convulsion in a market can speed up or slow down an inevitable process or it can produce unintended consequences.

While I would argue that the free market usually produces a better aggregate, albeit sometimes slower, outcome; either way, we will see a continued evolution of safety modifications and inventions in our woodworking world.

So, what is the future for our coveted table saw? The government may or may not pass rules. Those rules may or may not be mandatory. Whether the market is "convulsed" or follows a natural market-driven trajectory, manufacturers will adapt, invent, or adopt safety technology. They will be forced to change, be it by regulation or by market forces. Rising insurance rates might make change a sound financial decision, for example. Perhaps the popularity of the new safety technology will simply be a competitive edge that other companies must match or try to outdo. How many automobile advertisements do you see touting safety records and technologies? Safety is a marketplace differentiator that can be a powerful force.

Get ready for new safety accessories and devices on future table saws, and probably other tools as well. Prepare to pay more, at least until volume and competition drives the prices down. And look for a spate of lawsuits promulgated by the success of one and the availability of mitigating technology. We may also expect those lawsuits to spread to other power tools. A friend was recently holding a piece of trim in place and drove an 18 gauge brad through his finger inadvertently located on the back side of the work piece. Could a proximity-sensing device have prevented the firing of the nail gun if flesh were in the line of fire?

We may also logically expect that there will be a spike in sales for current table saw designs. There will be Luddites that will buy before changes, or rules, take effect, just like there was a spike in car sales the year before seat belts became mandatory. Some will buy less-safe machines in order to save money.

These buyers may well save money, but they may also impact the marketplace by providing their own "convulsive action." An early and unanticipated spike in sales necessarily removes money from the market pool for future sales.

Some manufacturers that are forced to add safety technology to their product lineup, either by mandate or by competitive market dynamics, may not be able to weather the dual convulsion of technological change and a reduced market pool size. Some may go away, through consolidation or liquidation. Some manufacturers may simply drop table saws from their lineup and concentrate on other machinery.

Regardless how you feel about rules, regulations, government, lawsuits, table saws, flesh-sensing technology, markets, or marketing tactics, there is one indubitable fact… safety is the next marketing frontier and product differentiator for a tool that has otherwise changed little since its invention. We should all have respect for an individual that recognized a marketplace need and invented a solution to meet that need. For that reason, for being first, for being an innovator and for changing the trajectory of an industry, my hat is off and I do a deep and respectful bow to inventor Stephen Gass and to his product, the SawStop table saw.

Personally, I use a table saw very little because they scare the heck out of me. In fact, some twenty-odd years ago I sold my big 220 Volt 3 HP cabinet style table saw, and for fifteen years, built scores of furniture pieces without one. Still, there are some operations that are best done on a table saw, and for that reason, I now own a contractor's saw. Ninety percent of the time it is shoved against a wall, out of the way. When I need it, I use it with liberal dollops of fear, loathing, and precaution.

The new safety technologies will actually goad me into the purchase of a "real" table saw. I'm saving my nickels and dimes for a new "safer" saw that will undoubtedly get much more use. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, so while my goal is to save up $3,000 for that big purchase, the truth is that by the time I accumulate that vast amount of money, the prices will probably be lower, other manufacturers may be competing in the "safety" space, and new safety technologies might be even more exciting. If Apple can make my iPhone keyboard deactivate when it senses proximity to my face, a tool manufacturer can surely stop a motor when a blade or bit gets close to my skin instead of when in physical contact.

So, while I almost always prefer the powerful dynamics of a free-market system, whether the market progresses naturally or is altered by government intervention makes no difference. Now that the technology exists to preserve all ten of my precious digits intact, the technology is here to stay and destined for growth and expansion. Now that the technology exists, I will not buy a table saw until I can afford to get one with every available safety technology built in. Thank you, SawStop, for pointing the way to a bright future!


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