Safe use of knives in the meat and food industry

Guidance about how to reduce the health and safety risks of using knives in the meat and food industries. The guidance may benefit employers and employees.

Personal protective equipment

Hand protection

As a minimum, employers should ensure employees wear:

  • cut-resistant gloves on the knife hand
  • a mesh gauntlet or a combination of a mesh glove and arm guard on the non-knife hand

Mesh aprons

It is essential employees wear mesh aprons where the blade passes across the abdomen or comes towards the body during table and rail boning.

Common injuries

Cuts to the non-knife hand or arm are the most common type of injury in the meat industry. But cuts can occur on both hands and both arms because some employees swap hands while cutting. Other common injuries include:

  • cuts to the hand holding the knife when the hand slips off the handle. For example, run-through injuries
  • cuts that occur with a reverse grip while pulling back towards the body
  • accidental cuts to another person where people are working too close to each other. For example, left-handers working close to right-handers
  • sprains or strains from, for example, the extra effort required to use knives that are not sharp enough for the task

Reducing health and safety risks

The following guidance may help employers in the meat and food industries fulfil their duties and reduce the health and safety risks of using knives.

Choosing a knife

Using a well-designed and sharp knife can reduce cuts and sprain and strain injuries. The following information explains recommended safety features for knives. If employees use their own knives, employers should ensure the knives are:

  • well designed
  • sharp
  • have adequate safety features, as described in the following information

Knife safety features to look for

  1. Stop the hand slipping down the knife

    Look for:

    • an easy-to-clean non-slip handle
    • an anti-slip guard
  2. Enable cuts with less exertion

    Look for:

    • a sharp blade suitable for the task
    • the smallest blade suitable to complete the task so less pressure is required
  3. Ease hand or wrist strain

    Look for a handle that:

    • has been shaped to reduce excessive bending of the wrist
    • is the right size for the user's hand
      • the handle should be large enough in diameter to reduce the tendency for an excessively tight grip but not so large it causes an inadequate grip
      • take into consideration that employees wear cut-resistant gloves on the knife hand

Knife sharpening

Knives with a dull or blunt edge contribute to the risk of cuts and sprains and strains. This is especially so where the work requires many cuts each day. Knives should be sharpened as often as required. The frequency of sharpening will depend on the knife's use and contact with objects.

Sharpening machines

Sharpening machines are generally a reliable way to keep knives consistently sharp.

For workplaces with sharpening machines, employers should ensure employees are trained how to use the machines.

Employees should also follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the sharpening machine.

Manual sharpening

Manual knife sharpening is a difficult skill to learn and requires caution. In workplaces where manual knife sharpening takes place, employers should ensure employees are fully trained by competent people. Employers should maintain training records.

Knife disposal

Dispose of knives in an appropriate manner. For example, employers should install a securely sealed container with a letterbox-type slot and have an approved scrap collection service collect the container for disposal. Employees should insert worn knives through the slot. This method of disposal will reduce the risk of cuts from knives disposed of in rubbish bins.

Training

So far as reasonably practicable, employers must provide information, instruction and training so employees can do their work safely. Employees should only use knives after thorough training and competency testing. Employers should keep training and testing records.

In particular, employers should provide training that covers:

  • using and selecting the most suitable knife for the job
  • keeping knives in good condition. For example, handle clean and blade sharp
  • holding a knife correctly. For example, grip should be firm but not excessively tight
  • sharpening a knife
  • correct cutting methods
  • using knives near other employees
  • techniques of cutting towards the body where this type of cut is unavoidable
  • putting knives away. For example, in a scabbard when not in use

Supervision

So far as reasonably practicable, employers must provide the supervision employees need to perform their work safely and without risks to health. Employees, particularly young and new workers, should be supervised.

Employers/supervisors should:

  • closely monitor employees' work practices
  • correct unsafe work habits
  • be available to answer questions

Safety tips for work with knives

Employers

  • Change job design. For example, job rotation to reduce the frequency and duration of the cutting task may help reduce the risk of injury.
  • Provide and ensure employees wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Ensure there is adequate room between employees to do their job safely. This will help ensure employees using a knife will not be bumped or inadvertently slip and cut someone else. Left-handers should not work beside right-handers.
  • Ensure employees do not use knives to transfer meat by piercing and levering.
  • Ensure employees only perform cutting at a height that is ergonomically safe.
  • Provide appropriate cutting tables and boards. Instruct employees to ensure boards are clear and uncluttered and do not have a build-up of product.
  • Keep floors clean and free of obstacles to prevent slips, trips and falls.
  • Provide appropriate non-slip safety footwear for employees. Ensure the tread is not worn.
  • Ensure lighting provides good visibility and that employees do not work in low lighting, shadows, glare or bright reflections. Badly positioned lights can create work hazards.
  • Instruct employees to exercise before starting work and during breaks to reduce the risk of injury. Wrist stretches can reduce the risk of strains and sprains.
  • Make sure suitable first aid arrangements are in place. For example, ensure:
    • the first aid kit is fully stocked
    • all employees know who the first aiders are
    • all employees know the business's first aid protocols

Employees

  • Wear PPE.
  • Maintain enough room between people to help avoid bumping a person using a knife or slipping and cutting someone else. Left-handers should not work beside right-handers.
  • Do not use a knife to transfer meat by piercing and levering.
  • Only do cutting at a height that is ergonomically safe.
  • Ensure cutting surfaces such as tables and boards are clear and uncluttered and do not have a build-up of product.
  • Wear appropriate non-slip safety footwear. Ensure the tread is not worn.
  • Do not work in low lighting, shadows, glare or bright reflections.
  • Do exercises. Wrist stretches before starting work and during breaks can reduce the risk of strains and sprains.
  • Do not grip the knife all day. Place the knife in a scabbard as often as possible to release hand pressure and avoid cramp. This is especially important for learners.
  • Always place knives in a scabbard when not in use. Do not store knives on wall fittings or locker shelves.
  • Do not wipe soiled blades on clothing.
  • Always be aware of the non-knife hand position before placing blade onto product.
  • Use designated stoning benches to sharpen knives, not sinks or handheld stones.
  • Never walk and steel a knife.

Legal duties

Employers

Employers have duties, so far as reasonably practicable, to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. Those duties include, so far as reasonably practicable:

  • providing and maintaining plant and systems of work that are safe and without risks to health
  • ensuring safety and the absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant and substances
  • maintaining each workplace under the employer's management and control in a safe condition  and without risks to health
  • providing employees with the information, instruction, training or supervision they need to perform their work safely and without risks to health
  • providing adequate facilities for the welfare of employees

Employees

Employees have a general duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety. They must also take reasonable care for the health and safety of others who may be affected by their acts or omissions at the workplace.

In addition, employees must cooperate with their employer's efforts by:

  • following the workplace safety policies and procedures
  • attending health and safety training and following the instructions and advice provided
  • using equipment supplied by the employer, such as PPE

Further information