Tool manufacturing giant Harbor Freight recently announced the recall of more than a million chainsaws because of a serious operational defect.
Who Makes The Defective Product(s)?
The chainsaws were actually manufactured in China then imported by Harbor Freight Tools in Camarillo, California. They were then sold under three other brand names: Portland, One Stop Gardens, and Chicago Electric.
Harbor Freight Tools is a chain of discount hardware stores that had its roots in mail-order tool fulfillment, re-selling liquidated and returned merchandise it bought from other chains. It has grown steadily since its founding in 1977 and now operates over 800 stores nationwide.
What's Wrong With The Chainsaws?
Power tools are generally based on the idea that it's better for a tool, not its operator, to handle the lion's share of the work. Hand tools work fine for small jobs, but assembling (or disassembling) on a larger scale (think furniture or buildings) is grueling and labor-intensive without mechanical assistance. Have you ever chopped down a tree with a plain old axe? Fuhgeddaboudit.
That's why all manner of tools like screwdrivers, sandpaper, hammers, and saws have had powered alternatives for decades now, making a lot of laborious jobs significantly easier. For instance, the tree that scoffed at my axemanship would be no match for a chainsaw, our topic du jour.
When their work is complete most power tools are disengaged with the flick of a switch, like almost everything else that uses electricity. The Harbor Freight chainsaws are no different in theory, but they apparently include a dangerous quirk: Sometimes the chainsaws don't stop when users turn the switch off.
The affected models might keep on spinning after they're supposed to stop, presenting enormous hazards for anyone in their radius. I suppose horror-movie villains might not see that as a drawback, per se, but most conventional users are going to be annoyed and/or alarmed to find they can't stop their saws on command.
Which Specific Products Are Affected?
The recall, issued May 14, affects two models of 14-inch electric chainsaws sold under the three brand names mentioned above. Pictures of the models and their related model numbers are shown below.
How Widespread Is the Problem?
The recall supposedly affects just north of a million (1,020,000) chainsaws. Both affected models were sold at Harbor Freight Tools stores and on their website from May 2009 through February 2018 for about $50 each.
Given their nine years' worth of sales and nationwide distributorship, the million affected units are probably scattered pretty thoroughly across the country.
According to a recall page created by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Harbor Freight Tools has received 15 reports of chainsaws continuing to operate after being turned off. This malfunction resulted in three known laceration injuries, including one serious injury to the arm requiring stitches. That's not too bad given the widespread distribution, but chainsaws are extremely dangerous products even when they work right. Knowing that they might not turn off when it's assumed they will, the pessimist in me thinks it's more a matter of "when" than "if" we'll see more serious injuries, or even (God forbid) fatalities. Issuing the recall is definitely a step in the right direction to try and prevent that, but it certainly shouldn't have been necessary in the first place.
What Can Be Done About It?
As with almost any recall, step one recommended by Harbor Freight and the CPSC is to stop using the affected product. Since that's more easily said than done considering the saws might not turn off, be sure to pull their plugs out when trying to shut them down.
If the model number on the underside of your Harbor Freight chainsaw matches one of the model numbers above (67255 or 61592), the company encourages you to take it to your nearest Harbor Freight store, where you can exchange it for a newer model with the flaw fixed.
Consumers with any questions can contact Harbor Freight Tools at (800) 444-3353 Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Pacific Standard time. Customer service can also be reached via email at email@example.com.
What This Means
I believe that there's a direct relationship between a product's inherent complexity and risk factor and the amount of care that should go into both its handling and its manufacture. A product with low risk of injury and a nonexistent learning curve--say, a pillow--ideally should still be made properly, but poses few dangers if it isn't. If a company makes a crummy pillow, it's in little danger of being sued for injuries arising from its design flaws. It'll just get bad Amazon reviews for itchy fabric or uncomfortable stuffing.
However, when a product requires extensive instructions and warnings, and involves complex interactions of circuitry and mechanical systems, I'd argue the manufacturer owes a greater duty to its end-users to make sure all the possible dangers are addressed. A chainsaw is already potentially dangerous even to careful users; the least its manufacturer can do is make sure the dang "off" switch works. To leave such a glaring flaw in a product deemed ready for public consumption reeks of company negligence.
Even though Harbor Freight's products were actually made in an unnamed Chinese factory (which may include the use of substandard or questionable components to keep costs low), the company imported the chainsaws and put them into the American stream of commerce. It's probably fair to assume they even ran them through a battery of quality control tests at their Calabasas facility. Whether they did or not, though, approving them for distribution and sales implied the company's guarantee of safety and reliability for the product they stamped their name on. If they throw their lot in with a low-bid overseas factory and don't adequately test the finished product for safety flaws, then they must be held responsible when a flaw they should have caught seriously hurts someone.