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The Media Sees Politics in CPSC’s Proposed Table Saw Safety Rules

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Mass media have picked up on the recent US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) rulemaking activity, where they’re once again working towards a safety standard that would require every table saw to have SawStop-like injury avoidance tech.

To my surprise, recent news articles painted the rulemaking process as being political in nature.

Theatrics? Absolutely. But politics? I wouldn’t agree with that.

According to the NY Times, lines have been drawn across democrat vs republican sides.

NYTimes on 3/30/24 (thanks Bob!):

At a testy agency hearing in February, Richard Trumka Jr., a Democratic commissioner, accused large power tool companies of not caring about the safety of their consumers and held up photos of people who had amputations after table saw injuries.

Peter Feldman, the lone Republican commissioner, chastised SawStop’s chief executive for not agreeing to license the technology. “Rather than seeking to compete fairly,” Mr. Feldman told him, “I see what you’re doing as rent-seeking behavior, pure and simple.”

The commission has debated table saw safety on and off ever since that 2003 SawStop petition. In 2017, a Republican commissioner argued that regulation was unnecessary, pointing out that consumers knew how dangerous the saws were but most made the choice not to pay the SawStop premium.

But in an interview, Robert S. Adler, a Democratic commissioner from 2009 to 2021, said that table saw injuries are not a “reasonable” risk outside the reach of the agency. “All it takes” to slice a finger, he said, “is a sneeze or a knot in the wood.”

The commissioners’ vote is likely to fall along partisan lines: Three of the four current commissioners are Democrats, and the rule will probably pass.

The most recent vote to further the rulemaking to its next steps, did apparently fall along partisan lines towards the end of 2023, with a 3-1 vote.

There are now 5 Commissioners, including the Chair, and if the newest appointee votes along “partisan lines,” then the vote would likely be 5 to 1.

From NPR on 4/2/2024:

Over the years, Republicans on the commission have sided with the power tool industry in opposing further regulations. But with new Biden administration appointees, proponents on the commission appear to have a majority. In October, the CPSC voted to move forward on the mandate, which is expected to get approval later this year.

2 of the 4 Commissioners that participated in the recent hearing and proposed rule progression haven’t commented much about the issue, while the other 2 have been in heated debate, not with each other – at least not publicly – but with stakeholder parties.

Feldman is opposed to furthering the proposed rulemaking at this time, but doesn’t make any talking points that I would consider as being typically Republican in nature. From his statements, Feldman seems to feels more information is needed.

In a statement made in October 2023, Feldman started off by saying:

I voted against this measure because I believe the proposal is simply not ready.

His concerns are centered around how SawStop’s patents:

We do not know basic information such as the status of most of these patents, how they might affect the feasibility of the standard, who else might hold other AIM patents, and under what terms these patents might be licensed, if at all.

Trumka seems moved by the number of amputations and injuries that are suffered by woodworkers on a continuous basis. I have’t seen him make any points that I would consider as being typically Democratic.

Here is part of what Trumka said in October:

[SawStop’s] inventor, by the way, went from idea to prototype in less than a month, entirely by himself. So, perhaps it wouldn’t be difficult for major saw manufacturers to quickly come up with safe solutions. But they might not even need to. Because they might already have those solutions. Other saw makers have created and implemented equivalent solutions

Saw sellers appear to be scared that if they start selling safer saws, they will open themselves up to product liability lawsuits when injuries occur in great numbers on their other saws. So, we’re in danger…to protect their bottom line. I don’t appreciate that.

Feldman and Trumka’s statements can be found here: Safety Standard Addressing Blade-Contact Injuries on Table Saws, Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPR) – October 2023 Minutes (PDF), and they doubled-down on their stances at the recent hearing – Latest Table Saw Safety Tech Hearing is Full of Drama.

This matter is complex, such as with the PTI lobbying group refusing to answer questions or substantiate their claims, SawStop pledging to conditionally release one specific patent, and the revelation that Bosch could have been selling their Reaxx table saw for the past few years but haven’t.

The PTI (Power Tool Institute) complained that Trumka was grandstanding at the hearing – and in my opinion he was – all the while still refusing to answer the Commission’s questions.

But now we have mass media sites seeing – or installing – politics in the mix. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t see strong connections.

new Biden administration appointees

The vote was already 3 to 1, with Feldman the only Commissioner wanting to delay – but not cancel – the rulemaking process until there was more clarity on the patent situation.

Here’s the current list of Commissioners:

Alexander Hoehn-Saric – Chair, appointed in 2021
Peter A. Feldman – appointed in 2018
Richard Trumka – appointed in 2021
Mary T. Boyle – appointed in 2022
Douglas Dziak – appointed in 2024

Whether the CPSC is moving in the right direction or not is a matter of opinion, but it seems they’re at least trying to listen to all sides, even if not literally at all times. As an example of some of the theatrics at the recent hearing, Commissioner Trumka talked over the PTI rep (via YouTube) – “I’m going to finish my statement instead.”

From covering the CPSC rulemaking process on table saw safety over the years, I’d say the government agency been moving in the direction of table saw safety regulations the whole time, with the pace only slowing down between stints of activity. At some point, and maybe that time is now, they’ll get to the finish line.

At no point has the CPSC said “no, we’re not doing this,” it’s always been “this isn’t ready yet.”

The rulemaking can has been kicked down the road for more than a decade, and there are still relevant and highly influential consumer interest and safety groups, such as UL Solutions, advocating for it.

Consumer Reports, in a recent statement (PDF), said:

The proposed performance requirements would result in inherently safer table saws, and significantly reduce the tens of thousands of injuries that occur every year due to unreasonably hazardous products within the scope of the rule. We urge the CPSC to finalize its proposed rule as soon as is feasible.

Some of SawStop’s patents have expired, and consumer interest groups continue to urge that modern table saw guards haven’t reduced the number of severe injuries.

Maybe there are politics are at play here, but if so it’s not at the surface.

NPR’s statement about “Republicans on the commission have sided with the power tool industry in opposing further regulations” doesn’t seem to be fully supported, or at least I don’t see how.

In 2019, the Commissioners at the time voted (PDF) to:

I. Do not approve the NEISS special study or exposure survey; and

II. Direct staff to prepare a Final Rule on a Safety Standard Addressing Blade-Contact Injuries on Table Saws

Feldman, who the NY Times describes as “the lone Republican commissioner,” voted for this action, directing CPSC staff to “prepare a Final Rule” about the matter. That doesn’t sound like politically-motivated opposition to me.

Saying things like “Republicans” have “sided with the power tool industry” and that it’ll be furthered because of “Biden appointees” seem like red herrings to me, and will only serve to make a messy topic even messier.

If you read up on Feldman’s statements, or his line of questioning to SawStop at the recent hearing, there’s not even the hint that he’s “siding with the power tool industry.”

The most significant obstacle in the path of the CPSC finalizing their table saw safety rules, over the years and still today, are SawStop’s “web of patents.”

Am I somehow missing how this is political?

According to the Crowell Retail & Consumer Products Law Observer, in a story about Boyle’s appointment titled “Senate Confirms Mary Boyle to CPSC; Democrats Reclaim Majority”:

Although many say that product safety is not political, partisanship does often rear its head in Commission deliberations regarding agency operations and priorities, rulemakings, and compliance and enforcement matters, such as the pursuit of civil penalties.

Maybe the NY Times and NPR have a point, and that politics could help push the rulemaking to fruition.

On the other hand, Feldman – a Republican – has demonstrated approval for the spirit of the rulemaking process. His comment about SawStop engaging in “rent-seeking” behavior, as well as his other statements, suggest that he’d be on board if or when he can be convinced that SawStop’s patents are no longer an obstacle to the billion-dollar power tool companies the PTI has been lobbying for.

If it comes down to political party lines, are all the hearings, open comment sessions, deliberations, and work being done just for show?

I think the politics are inconsequential, at least as it pertains to the CPSC rulemaking on a table saw safety standard.

An editorial from the Hill, titled “Consumer Product Safety Commission is politicized and buyers face safety risks,” refers to Trump’s appointment of Ann Marie Buerkle to Commissioner Chair in 2017. They say:

In this case, the president’s appointed chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle, overrode the expertise of longstanding, non-political employees and even other commissioners by allowing Britax’s jogging strollers to remain on the market and available for purchase. Her decision to forego pursuit of a product recall was made in spite of more than 200 consumer reports citing dangerous stroller defects.

Apparently there’s lots of politics at the CPSC.

But with respect to table saw safety regulations, are the Commissioners politically motivated here? There’s no obvious connection or evidence to support this.

After reexamining many of the Commissioners’ recent statements and arguments – mainly Feldman’s and Trumka’s – as well as historical arguments and justifications for both progress and delays, I don’t see partisan politics being an active or major influence.