In March, a Massachusetts jury ordered Ryobi to pay Carlos Osorio $1.5 million. According to news reports, he nearly lost his pinky, as well as severely cutting the thumb and two other fingers on his left hand, in an accident with a Ryobi table saw. Osorio, an employee of a wood-flooring company, was apparently using the saw with the blade guard and splitter removed. Additionally, he was reportedly ripping a piece of 21⁄4-inch wood flooring without a fence. I’ll be honest — very few of the many table saws I’ve used had the splitter and guard in place. I don’t know a single carpenter who thinks that most of these contraptions are worth the powder and shot to blow them to Hell. But no rip fence?! That literally makes me shudder.
So who’s responsible for table saw and other power tool accidents? Absent some gross failure of the machine itself, I hold the user primarily responsible. Look at the table saw. Its blade will slice oak and ipe all day. What it can do to you should be self-evident. Yet people do things with it and other power tools that horrify me. We each have a responsibility to ourselves and to our families to learn how to use tools safely.
Speaking from my own sense of what’s right, and not necessarily about what the law says, when it’s an employee who gets hurt, the employer probably shares the blame. I’ve been an employer and always felt it my duty to make sure my workers were well trained and worked safely. I would have fired on the spot anyone I caught ripping on a table saw without a fence. But you can’t watch every move your employees make. If they get hurt working in a way that differs from their training, to my mind they’re at fault. That reasoning would not likely hold up in court, but I’d bet the majority of you reading this agree with it.
Back to Mr. Osorio. I’ve been hurt on the job, and I feel for the guy. He was new to the job, and I have no idea about his training. But still, how is it that Ryobi ended up on the hook for a million and a half bucks when their tool was apparently being used improperly?
Turns out there is technology available that stops the blade the instant it touches flesh. The SawStop (503/570-3200, sawstop.com) runs a microcurrent through the saw and the body of whoever is touching it. If the user’s flesh touches the blade, a circuit is completed that releases a powerful spring. The spring throws an aluminum block into the blade, stopping it before it can do much more than nick the skin. It’s a great idea. But because the SawStop could have prevented Mr. Osorio’s injuries, the jury found that Ryobi was at fault for not installing SawStops on their tools — never mind the reality of the marketplace, where the additional cost would have put Ryobi, or any other power-tool maker, at a huge competitive disadvantage.
I think this verdict is outrageous. With this as a precedent, it would seem that every saw manufacturer that doesn’t incorporate the SawStop (as of this writing, that would be all of them except SawStop) is liable for every injury that happens with any of their tools made since the advent of SawStop. The user and his employer apparently bear little or no responsibility, even when one or the other has deliberately disabled the existing safety devices. How is that right? Troublesome as they are, table-saw guards left in place make it a lot harder to stick our hands in the blade. In this case, though, we’ll never know if they would have worked. And for the love of Mike, how is it Ryobi’s fault if the fence it almost certainly supplied, which used properly is a quantum leap safer than free-hand ripping, wasn’t being used? I wish I’d been on that jury.
I’m out of rant mode now. I’d like to hear your take on this. Feel free to write to the magazine, or e-mail me at email@example.com, or sound off on our forums at deckmagazine.com.