How does this affect manufacturers?
Last year we published a post about SawStop, a line of table saws equipped with a patented safety brake that stops a saw blade instantly when it senses human skin. In our post we praised Steve Gass, inventor of the SawStop, for his persistence and ingenuity in bringing his technology to market, despite resistance from the power tool industry.
Now SawStop is back in the news, and at the center of a heated debate between power tool manufacturers and consumer advocate agencies.
Recently, Gass petitioned the Consumer Producer Safety Commission (CPSC) to require emergency brakes for all table saws. The request is being met with opposition from the industry—not only because the mandate would increase costs for manufacturers and consumers, but because Gass’s product is patented and would create a monopoly in the market.
The heated blogs, forums and comments I’ve seen online already show just how close-to-home this issue hits for manufacturers—and no wonder. This decision could have long-range implications for the industry, as it raises some important questions about the acceptable level of risk in manufactured goods, and how that risk should be addressed.
Walking the line between consumer and manufacturing interests to determine harm
With more than 40,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 amputations a year, it’s not surprising that table-saw safety has come to the attention of consumer advocates. Sally Greenberg, head of the National Consumers League, believes a mandate for safety-brake technology is a no-brainer. “You have a pattern of injury, you have a technology that can address the injury and it can address the injury for a reasonable cost,” she says. “The vast majority of table-saw manufacturers haven’t changed their technology in 50 years...this is a major public health and safety issue that cries out for a public policy response.”
While Gass and supporters argue that power toolmakers have an ethical obligation to add the safety device to their saws to prevent injury, there are those who doubt the motivations of Gass’s petition. A group representing the power tool industry has presented a counter-petition, saying there are major problems with an imposed design requirement that mandates the use of technology patented by one company.
As the sole owner of safety-brake technology, Gass would be able to charge whatever he wants for the safety-brake system—at present, Gass’s proposed cost adds about $100 in manufacturing costs for each saw, not including royalties. While this may be a negligible increase for high-end saws, it would double the price of cheaper saws. In addition to the added production costs, industry representatives say it would cost manufacturers tens of millions of dollars to re-tool to build saws with the device. The industry hopes they will be given a chance to investigate and adopt alternate safety protections, saying they aren’t against safety mechanisms, they just want choices.
In this case, I feel the CPSC has a tough decision to make. The cost to manufacturers represents a widespread, but less individually devastating harm, while the injuries caused by table saws represent a more limited harm, but one that is more severe for the individuals who experience it. Both sides present a compelling case, and the CPSC will have to weigh the evidence carefully to make a fair decision that protects consumers without hampering the industry.
How far should manufacturers go to minimize consumer risk?
At the crux of this issue is the ethical and practical management of risk. When looking at this case, lawmakers must ask themselves: What is an acceptable level of risk in consumer products? At what point should manufacturers be required to mitigate that risk? And how much of a financial hit should they be expected to sustain to do so?
I believe that most manufacturers strive to improve the community around them, introducing new products that better the lives of the people and businesses they serve. But it takes money to stay in business. So when it comes to something useful yet potentially destructive, like a table saw, there is a balancing act that must be done between the estimated magnitude of harm versus the cost of mitigating that harm. The Power Tool Institute says that in 2007 its members adopted their own guarding system that reasonably addresses safety concerns when table saws are properly used. But does that really solve the problem? With 4,000 amputations a year due to table saws, are table saw safety concerns really being reasonably addressed?
Today’s manufacturers are required to not only make intended usage safe, but are also expected to minimize risk for anticipated alternative uses of the product—this is why you can run your lawn-mower over gravel without getting killed. It’s true that manufacturers have an obligation to anticipate abuse or harm that might come from their products and take reasonable steps to minimize that harm—in this case, protecting distracted users from chopping off a finger—but power tool manufacturers don’t feel they should be required to implement a specific type of safety mechanism to minimize that risk.
What are the potential repercussions of mandating an invention?
As if the issue weren’t complex enough, Gass’s patent on safety-break technology adds another layer of complication to the risk vs. cost debate. Industry representatives are concerned that if the CPSC grants Gass’s petition, a new standard will be set in which inventors regularly seek mandates for patented inventions.
Although the law would be written to mandate a feature, rather than a product, if the CPSC requires that all table saws come with a safety shut-off feature that happens to be patented, they have effectively mandated the invention. The concern is that other inventors may follow Gass’s lead and attempt to bypass the current safety standards process to request their own mandate—even if there isn’t a legitimate reason for doing so.
On the other hand, it could be argued that patents are granted to create a limited-time monopoly—that by allowing people or companies who come up with great ideas to reap the rewards of those ideas, the patent system encourages them to continue investing in new ideas. If the original purpose of patents was to encourage the advancement of technology that serves the public good, then shouldn’t Gass benefit from developing a patented limb-saving safety feature?
The CPSC pushes for a quick resolution
Ultimately, this issue will be resolved as a matter of public policy. If the commission decides that the patented safety-brake technology should be implemented by table saw makers, they will announce an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and provide a comment period for consumers and those in the industry to respond. Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, believes this could be decided in the next few months, saying, “Our job is that this table saw safety does not go on the back burner the way it has been for the last 10 years.”
On my end, I will continue to follow the case, as I think the decision could have larger implications for both manufacturers and consumers. This has been a heated debate, and I imagine that will only continue as lawmakers approach a decision. If you have an opinion on the issue, I’d love to hear what you think. What is a manufacturer’s responsibility when it comes to minimizing risk in consumer goods? What is a reasonable price to pay for minimizing this risk? And are there any other factors that you think should be examined by the CPSC in determining the outcome of this particular case?