Power saws (and other power tools) are widely used by people who work with wood, whether in employment, as students or at home as a hobby. They are very powerful and also very dangerous machines, responsible for tens of thousands of hand injuries a year in the US alone. Especially at risk are youngsters new to the workplace. It is estimated that 4,000 cases a year require the amputation of mangled fingers, or sometimes the whole hand. The nervous and circulatory systems may suffer permanent damage.
Stopping the Saw
In 1999 a physicist and amateur woodworker by the name of Stephen Gass invented a safety device designed to stop a saw blade within milliseconds of penetrating human flesh, before the cut goes any deeper than 3 millimetres. There is still pain, and plenty of blood, but no serious injury. The sudden drop in the electrical signal upon contact triggers the release of a spring, pushing a piece of aluminum or plastic into the teeth of the blade to stop it spinning.
In 2000 Gass displayed a prototype of his device under the brand name SawStop at the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair in Atlanta, Georgia. His demonstrations of how it worked, using a hot dog in place of a human finger, attracted considerable attention.
Next Gass registered a series of patents on various versions of SawStop and tried to persuade the big power tool companies to license them. He was disappointed by their reluctance to do so. They offered various excuses, some more convincing than others. Their main objections – surprise, surprise! – were to do with money. Retooling assembly lines would cost them tens of millions of dollars. Firms would have to charge higher prices for products incorporating the device, and that would weaken their competitive position. They did not believe that most customers would willingly pay more for safety.
A Get-rich Scheme
In April 2003 Gass petitioned the Consumer Producer Safety Commission to make an emergency brake obligatory for all table power saws. While he framed his case in terms of ethics and the public interest, his opponents viewed the petition as a get-rich scheme. He had comprehensively patented the SawStop concept: any competing devices based on the same concept would infringe his patents. And no one had any alternative concept. Gass was claiming the rights of a monopolist. If he had his way, every table saw would have to be equipped with his device and he would receive license fees amounting to 8% of the wholesale cost of all the saws sold. If preventing avoidable injuries was his overriding concern, why had he not placed his patents in the public domain?
In 2005 Gass and his associates established SawStop as a company – “the world’s leading maker of safe 10-inch table saws.” It has found a market niche, but the makers of unsafe saws remain in business and hands continue to be mangled.
This story shows how the workings of capitalism and its patents system can impede a socially useful technological innovation, delaying its introduction by several years and restricting its scope. The outcome might have been worse. If one of the major power tool companies had bought up SawStop or its patents, the new safety device could have been suppressed altogether for decades (see my article Patents: capitalism versus technological advance).
Safety Doesn’t Sell
The story also raises the issue of the relative priority given to safety in designing not only power tools but many other products. According to conventional economics, it is consumers who ultimately make such decisions through the use they choose to make of their (very unequal) purchasing power. In fact, producer firms actively shape consumer behavior through manipulative advertising.
Although marketers admit that safety considerations may influence some consumers, on the whole they are guided by the maxim that “safety doesn’t sell”. Young people in particular are disinclined to think about safety, even though they tend to be the group at greatest risk, whether as users of power tools or as drivers of cars.
Keen skiers, car racers or do-it-yourself enthusiasts may also prefer not to dwell upon the dangers to which their pastime exposes them. Perversely, they may turn away from safety-oriented advertising because it reminds them of those dangers. Or they may react to such advertising not by buying the safer product on offer but by giving up the dangerous activity altogether. Potential first-time buyers may be discouraged from even starting. These outcomes are not exactly what the advertiser was hoping to achieve!
A special situation arises when power tools, for example, are purchased not by hobbyists as consumer goods but by employers as capital equipment to be operated by hired labour. A few decent employers may sincerely care about the safety of their workers, but in general capitalists seek to maximize profit. That means they will pay more for safety only insofar as they are forced to bear medical and other costs associated with injuries – through workers’ compensation, for instance.
In a socialist society, producers will be motivated by an inner need to do the best they can for other members of the community, including those who are going to use the things they make. Safety will undoubtedly be one of their top priorities.