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Tualatin company is on the cutting edge

Fast-growing table saw company is saving fingers and revolutionizing industry
by: Jaime Valdez Steve Gass, the CEO of SawStop, was an attorney before he invented a table saw blade with a sensor that can detect the electrical currents in flesh.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that there are about 10 table saw amputations each day in the United States, but one Tualatin company is hoping to change that statistic with its cutting-edge technology.

'You don't really think about it, but table saws are really ubiquitous,' said Matt Howard, marketing director for SawStop, a Tualatin table saw manufacturer. 'Almost any large business needs pallets, large-scale farms need wooden crates, theater companies need sets. They're everywhere - and they're all extremely dangerous.'

Beating out companies that have been around for decades, SawStop has surged to become the No. 1 seller of table saws in the nation since hitting the market in 2005. The company's success is thanks to an innovative technology that prevents table saw injuries by turning the saw blade into a sensor. The sensor enables the blade to distinguish between a piece of wood and a piece of human because flesh conducts electrical currents and wood doesn't. In the event that a finger gets too close to the blade during operation, a brake-mechanism activates, bringing the blade to an instant halt. Out of 30,000 saws sold, there have been zero documented failures.

'It's high school-level physics, in some ways,' said SawStop founder and inventor Steve Gass, who was a patent attorney at the time of his discovery in 1999. Gass studied physics and law, providing him with all the basic knowledge necessary to both conceptualize SawStop's technology and patent it with three law partners. The partners shopped the idea around to existing manufacturers, who were uninterested in picking up the license.

'They aren't paying for the costs (incurred by table saw accidents), so there's no real incentive to do anything about it,' Gas explained. 'The taxpayer is paying for it through increased premiums and disability. It wasn't their problem. Finally, we realized, 'They're not going to license it. We're going to have to build our own saws.''

'The manufacturers were betting we couldn't do it. It probably wasn't a bad bet to make. But it turns out they were wrong.'

From saw to law?

According to a study published in the Journal of Trauma, a professional journal for Emergency Room staff, more than 31,000 people are treated in emergency rooms every year for home table saw injuries.

'Injuries cost taxpayers more than $2.36 billion per year, but the total retail market is less than $400 million a year,' Howard said. 'It's extraordinary that it hasn't gotten as much attention as it has. There's a need - that's why (our product) is doing so well.'

Gass and his partners sent a petition to the national Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2003 requesting that it instate a federal regulation requiring safety technology on every table saw sold. The commission voted to move forward with the rule-making process.

'The commission is made up of democrats, republicans, independents - it's usually very bi-partisan - so it's remarkable that they all agreed on this,' Gass said. 'They don't take this step lightly. It's pretty clear that something needs to be done.'

The Commission is coordinating a period of until Dec. 12, during which the public will be asked to answer questions about the cost efficiency and effectiveness of table saw safety technologies. If the commission decides to move forward based on the public input, the law could be established and implemented in the next few years.

'It's something I'm proud to have been a part of,' Gass said. 'I'm hoping that someday in the future it'll just be a normality, like seat belts. When I was a kid we rode around all the time without seat belts. Now, my kids are shocked if you forget to put your seatbelt on.'

SawStop, which moved to Tualatin from Wilsonville four years ago, partners with 320 distributors throughout the United States and Canada and sells three different products ranging from $1,599 to $5,000. In about a year, Gass said the company plans to release a model that will cost less than $1,000.

'It's amazing; you go to these wood shows, and tons of people walk up to you with missing fingers. It's normal. It's normal. People go into (these professions) knowing it's a dangerous job and just assume there's no other, safer way,' Gass said.

'The danger is proven present. This (technology) actually does stop it. It's not just a claim.'

Have your say

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is accepting public input about table saw safety until Dec. 12. To leave a comment, visit www.regulations.gov and do a keyword search for 'table saw.'