National Consumers League

National Consumers League responses to question from the June 15, 2016 public hearing on CPSC's agenda and priorities for FY 2017 and FY 2018


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July 1, 2016

 Question 1: During the hearing, Commissioner Buerkle inquired whether the Active Injury Mitigation System (AIMS) technology could be used on all different sizes of table saws.  You answered tentatively that you thought it could be used on all, but indicated that you would like to check and get back to CPSC on that.

NCL Response: AIMS technology is currently being used on both larger and smaller table saws.  Indeed, one manufacturer, SawStop, is currently selling larger cabinet saws and smaller benchtop style jobsite saws, both with an AIMS design.  Another manufacturer, Bosch, is currently selling benchtop style jobsite saws with an AIMS design.  Hence, it is technologically and economically feasible to produce table saws in any size with an AIMS design. 

It is very important that any table saw safety standard that CPSC promulgates include an AIMS requirement for all table saws.  There are significant injury patterns associated with the use of each size of table saw—they all present an unreasonable risk to users, regardless of size.  It is important to stress that the smaller benchtop saws, which are less expensive, are often used by consumers and hobbyists.  For the same reasons that every passenger vehicle sold in the U.S., regardless of size or cost, must provide its occupants with adequate crash protection, so, too, table saws should provide all users with adequate protection from the foreseeable and all-too-frequent injuries from hand-blade contact.  Table saw safety is not a luxury and should not be reserved only for users who can afford to buy larger, better equipped machines.  It is important for hobbyists and less-experienced table saw users to have the same protection as users with more experience who might purchase bigger and more expensive table saws. 

We recognize that adding AIMS technology to table saws will increase the price at retail.  However, as consumers, we believe that, given the frequency and severity of injuries endured by consumers and other users over the past many years, the presence of AIMS is a significant value added to the product and to the overall well-being of society—the benefits far outweigh the costs.  Moreover, as we have seen with many other product categories that have undergone significant safety improvements, once an industry begins to focus its expertise and technological prowess on compliance, the cost of such compliance will fall significantly.

In short, AIMS technology can be applied to all table saws regardless of size—and AIMS technology should be required for all table saws regardless of size.

Question 2:  During the hearing, you commented that the UL Technical Panel on table saws is “heavily dominated by industry members” who have voted against AIMS requirements.  My understanding is that even one of the strongest proponents of a particular mitigation technology voted against including it in the voluntary standard, and that the technology was also omitted from the recently updated IEC standard.  Do these events suggest that industry’s representation on the UL panel is not the key issue?

NCL Response: The industry’s dominant control of the UL committee that votes whether to allow implementation of UL’s safety proposals is very much a key issue.  When CPSC published its ANPR for table saws in October 2011, UL came to the commission in February 2012 and presented a plan for reducing the predictable injuries associated with table saw use by developing and adopting an AIMS requirement for use in its own table saw standard, UL 987.  In essence, working with a special outside Working Group of technical experts, UL would direct its technical staff and test laboratories to develop the performance criteria and test methods needed to upgrade its standard for table saws that would greatly reduce the enormous risks associated with most table saws sold in today’s market.  The final step would put the proposal to a vote of one of UL’s standing Scientific Technical Panels (STP). 

Today, more than four years after UL made that commitment, its effort has ended in failure.  To be clear, UL completed the research and developed the requisite performance criteria and test methods for an AIMS that it believed would reduce or eliminate the types of tragic injuries that occur by the tens of thousands each year.  UL proposed including the AIMS requirement in the next version of its table saw standard.  The decision-making mechanism for final acceptance of the proposal for its own standard was handed over to STP 745 for a vote. 

For table saws, STP 745 was comprised of 21 voting members.  Fifteen members are either employees of the table saw industry, former senior employees of the table saw industry, or staff of the industry trade association, the Power Tool Institute (PTI).  The other six voting members represent consumers, specialty users, etc.  After more than four years of research and laboratory testing, UL developed the performance criteria and test methods for including an AIMS requirement in its own standard, UL 987, the STP voted 14 to 7 against adoption.  With the exception of SawStop, all the industry members and their surrogates voted NO.  SawStop voted YES, as did the other six voting members of the committee, including the three consumer members and the UL member on the committee. 

UL then made adjustments to its first AIMS proposal and proposed adoption of the second version.  Again the industry and its surrogates voted NO via the same overwhelming bloc of votes, thus blocking the adoption of AIMS a second time. 

Clearly, the composition of this committee overwhelmingly favors the industry perspective, and their unified stance on issues controls and dominates the outcome of the committee’s decisions.  The fact that UL’s proposal to upgrade its own table saw standard with an AIMS requirement to protect consumers was summarily blocked by the industry is a prime example of how the application of the consensus process in practice can impede progress in matters of public safety. 

In fact, many of the voluntary standards committees that deal with consumer product safety are severely imbalanced by a dearth of consumer and non-industry representatives, the predictable effect of which is that committee decisions are controlled by the interests of the industry.  While the application of a balance of interests is the theoretical goal for consensus-based decision making, the reality is that far too often there is a tiny number—often zero—of consumers and non-industry members to balance, challenge, and negotiate with the industry members when the critical decisions are being made.  Such circumstances leave the industry free to write standards that suit its specific needs, and then masquerade behind the banner of using a consensus process that offers the opportunity for balanced inputs. 

The same structural flaw exists with international product safety standards.  In this case, for example, the committee that controls the U.S. national position, and therefore its vote, on the IEC standard for table saws is comprised of most of the same industry organizations and surrogates as the industry bloc that controls UL’s STP, with virtually no consumer participation or input.  Indeed, the U.S. committee is managed by the staff of the Power Tool Institute.  Hence, the absence of an AIMS requirement in the “updated” IEC standard is entirely predictable. 

In summary, the lack of committee balance to articulate the needs of consumers and other key safety-focused stakeholders cannot help but result in weak voluntary safety standards, especially where the industry chooses for whatever reason to resist making the changes needed to address serious injury patterns.  The practical effect of relying on the voluntary consensus standards process is that it is virtually impossible to make progress to protect consumers from unreasonable risks unless the industry agrees to negotiate the issue in good faith. 

Fortunately, in the long painful journey for table saw users where meaningful voluntary corrective action has been stalled for years, CPSC has the statutory mandate and the authority to intervene on behalf of consumers. 

  

Sally Greenberg
NCL Executive Director

Karin Bolte
NCL Health Policy Director