Thursday, January 23, 2014

Table Saw Story

Published in the Sun January 19, 2014

Habitat volunteer using a table saw without safety guards
As an occasional but timid user of a table saw, I was fascinated by the picture in the January 8 edition of the Sun which showed a man, presumably a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, ripping a small piece of wood on a table saw.  All blade guards and safety devices have been removed from the saw.  The man is not identified, but the wrinkles of his hand suggest he is a carpenter of many years experience.  He is wisely using a stick to push the wood through the saw, but his left hand is holding the wood steady, and is about an inch from the blade.  He appears to have all his fingers.

I personally know two experienced carpenters who have lost multiple fingers to encounters with saws.  One of them is Matt Scavarelli, the father of my son-in-law.  Matt’s story occurred on March 26, 1989 at 8:05 pm.  He remembers the time exactly, because his wife had just yelled down to his home shop that he should quit for the evening.  Matt, a carpenter for almost 40 years, was working late trying to finish some kitchen cabinets for a client.  He told his wife he would make just one more cut.  He was ripping a piece of wood on a radial arm saw, which is generally a safer saw than the table saw in the picture.  Suddenly the wood “kicked back” and he felt like he had slammed his right thumb is a car door.  Then he looked.  Half his thumb and index finger were gone, and his middle finger was hanging by some flesh.  At that moment he was sure his career was finished. 

In the emergency room the surgeon gave him a choice.  He could have the three fingers amputated, or he could undergo multiple surgeries to reattach the fingers, but they would most likely stick out uselessly and never function properly.  Matt chose the amputations.

The accident was physically and psychologically devastating.  Matt had been working with power saws since he was a kid and had never had so much as a splinter.  He had lost all fear of his equipment.  That confidence, combined with hurrying to finish up and the fatigue of a long day, caused an accident that put him into rehabilitation for a year.  He was right-handed, so he had to learn new ways to do everything, from zippering his jacket to picking up small objects.  He had to learn to write.  He learned to use his carpentry tools again, but his hand was so weak he needed a lighter hammer.  He still can’t properly open a bag of potato chips.

Matt had to rehabilitate mentally as well.  As he describes the process, you mourn the loss of part of your body the same way you would mourn the loss of a friend.  The loss was made even more difficult by phantom pain in the missing fingers.  He had suffered with arthritis in the tip of his index finger.  After the accident he could still feel the pain of the arthritis, even though the affected joint was gone. 

Matt is also self-conscious about his hand and notices people staring at it.  It’s awkward at social events.  People are reluctant to shake a hand that has three fingers missing.

Habitat for Humanity is a super organization that has done wonderful things in Georgetown.  I hope their volunteers will be very careful with the saws, put the safety equipment back on, and keep their hands away from the blade.  An estimated 4000 amputations a year in the US result from power saw accidents, mostly fingers of course.  Although he still uses power saws in his work, Matt has retained a healthy respect.  As he puts it, “The machine has no conscience.”

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