The table saw is arguably the most dangerous tool in the shop. You should treat it with respect, however, there is no need to be afraid of it. Instead learn how to use it safely and that means learning about kickback.
(More on woodworking safety here).
That means among other things:
* knowing your table saw
* understanding and preventing kickback
* using push sticks
* using a miter gauge for cross cuts
* making sure your wood is properly milled
*using a splitter or riving knife
*and, most importantly, working smart.
*the kerf closes behind the cut pinching the blade
Let's start with kickback. Most people know kickback is dangerous, but often people don't understand why.
Kickback happens when the wood hits the back of the blade or the wood binds. Common causes of kickback are:
In each case, the velocity of the spinning blade can lift the board and send it flying. I've seen a piece of wood fly so hard it stuck in a plywood wall. You don't want to be hit by that! (Perhaps this is an opportune time to mention safety glasses.)
Preventing kickback can also save fingers. People do serious injury to their hands when the blade grabs the board pulling it and the hand into the blade.
Kickback is over before you are even aware it happened, so don't think you can react in time to pull your hand out of the way. You can't.
Instead learn to prevent kickback altogether.
New table saws are finally starting to come with decent safety equipment that can help prevent kickback. If you have an older model table saw your options are more limited. You can sometimes find an aftermarket splitter. (For a good site on table saw reviews check out www.tablesawchoice.com.)
I have yet to see a decent after market riving knife. Be aware that the dust collection systems on the market help keep fingers from traveling into the blade, but mostly don't do much to actually prevent kickback. Look at the specifics before getting one.
Other ways to help prevent kickback are to make sure your wood is flat and the side against the fence is straight. Keep your blade parallel to the fence. Never try to free hand a cut. I've seen it done a couple times. I think the people doing it are nuts.
In the same vein, don't use the fence when cross cutting narrow stock. There isn't enough wood against the fence to control the cut. Instead use the miter gauge to push the wood and leave your table saw fence to the side.
If you need to have a stop, either clamp one to your miter gauge or clamp a short piece of wood to the fence. Butt your stock against it to get your measurement, but make sure the stop is behind the blade. You don't want to get the cut-off trapped between the blade and the fence.