Knife Safety in Commercial Kitchens, Catering and Food Processing

Knife Safety in Commercial Kitchens, Catering and Food Processing

Working in the catering industry it’s impossible to avoid using knives and cleavers, they are the workhorse of the kitchen, used in everything from food preparation to opening packaging. Injuries from knives make up an estimated 22% of all incidents in commercial kitchens, the highest single cause and can range from simple cuts, usually to the non-knife holding hand, through to debilitating tendon and nerve damage up to loss of limbs. It’s rare to find an experienced chef without some hand scars, and a dark joke in the industry is that no real chef has all his fingertips.

What are my Responsibilities?

If you run a food business or even just work for one, you have a responsibility to act in a safe way and ensure that others around you do the same. There should be a risk assessment taken on the use of knifes, and appropriate processes put into place to limit the dangers present, as removing knives completely from a kitchen is not feasible. This is what is referred to as taking reasonable precautions. Appropriate actions to take based on a knife use risk assessment would usually include, ensuring that staff are sufficiently trained in knife use, having appropriate personal protective equipment (Known as PPE) available for use at all times and having safe knife storage in use.
You should also ensure that all equipment used is appropriately maintained and replaced or repaired as needed, employees have a responsibility to report and remove from use, unsafe equipment, follow all training given and behave in a safe manner, as well as the business manager having a responsibility to ensure everything is safe.

What are the most Common Causes of Knife and Blade Injuries?

  • Having a body part in the cutting line; usually the hand holding the object being cut.
  • Handling the knife before or after the cut has been made, for example passing a knife to another worker or picking up an unguarded knife from a worktop or draw.
  • Whilst cutting an unstable object the blade slipping when the item moves.
  • Whilst using a blunt blade, this causes you to use extra force to make the cut which increases the risk that the knife will slip.
  • Not using the correct protective equipment such as cut resistant gloves or butchers aprons.
  • Using the wrong type or shape of knife for the task, or using a knife when a different tool would be more appropriate. A knife is not a garlic press, tenderising mallet or can opener.

How can I Improve the Safe Handling of Knives?

To ensure you and your team are working safely with knives a considered, consistent, common sense approach is needed. Some safe working procedures you should adopt include:

  • You should look at you kitchen processes and see where the use of knives can be eliminated, this can often be achieved by mechanisation using items such as a veg prep machine or by purchasing pre-chopped, sliced or portioned foods from suppliers.
  • After use knives should be stored securely on wall mounted magnetic strips or a knife block and ideally not unsheathed within drawers where people could reach in and cut themselves. Some chefs like to store them in sheathes and take them home after their shifts.
  • Ensure that knives have comfortable handles and are waterproof so that they can be cleaned properly.
  • Ideally all knives should be made of either stainless steel or carbon as they resist corrosion and rust the best.
  • Ensure there is plenty of room around the areas where cutting takes place so there is no chance of being knocked by other workers whilst cutting.
  • Knives should always be carried with the blade pointing downwards, by your side and close to your body.
  • Knives should be kept sharp. When you use a blunt or dull knife to cut, you have to apply more a lot more force. This means that your have less control of the knife and are more likely to slip. You should use a sharpening stone or knife sharpener regularly to maintain the original edge of the blade. Most knives are sharpened to a 20 degree angle.
  • Making sure that your sharpening steel has hand guards to avoid cutting yourself if you slip whilst sharpening.
  • Make sure your staff have had full training in the safe use of knives and how to sharpen them. Refresh this regularly.
  • Make sure you use the correct knife for the job at hand. Knives have different blade lengths, weights and cutting angles for a reason, ensure you know what each knives use is.
  • When chopping ensure you use the correct “Chefs claw” position with fingertips curled under the knuckles whilst holding the item being cut.
  • Always cut on a stable flat surface such as a cutting board and cut away from the body. When cutting boards get too badly scored they should be replaced to ensure the knife blade doesn’t follow an old channel in an unexpected direction.
  • Always wash and clean knives separately from other items. Handle them carefully and never leave them submerged in water where someone could put their hand in without seeing them. You should always wash a knife with the sharp edge facing away and down and wipe from the base towards the tip.
  • Ensure that knife hands give you good grip and are grease free to avoid slipping.
  • Use the correct protective equipment when appropriate. Items such as a Cutting glove worn on the non-knife hand and a chainmail butcher’s apron could be appropriate.
  • You should take care when placing knives into a dishwasher. They should always be laid flat, never with points sticking up.
  • You should never try to catch a falling knife. It is often an instant reaction to try and catch something when dropped so you need to take car at all times to ensure you don’t.
  • Knives should never be left unattended on benches or worktops. If they need to be placed down then they should be well away from any edges where they could get knocked or bumped.
  • Never hold or carry a knife by the blade or in your pocket or whilst trying to carry other objects.

What PPE is available?

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate Personal Protective Equipment is provided for use by staff. Specifically dealing with knives you should consider:

Cut-Resistant Gloves

If your work involves butchering large amounts, cutting meat from the bone or difficult cuts then a cut resistant glove is recommended. We would always recommend you get gloves with an EN388 level 5 cut resistance certification. This is the highest level of cut protection available. 
EN 388 uses a rotating circular blade to work out how resistant something is to repeated sharp cuts at 0.5kg of pressure. A cut level 5 product would withstand more than 20 attempts at the same exact spot. 
Our recommended glove for this is made with 13 Gauge Knitted Seamless HHPE/Nylon which is fully machine washable. Before these new materials were available the classic chainmail gauntlet was the glove of choice, which provides the same level of protection.

Chain Mail Apron

The chainmail apron is often used in abattoirs and restaurants the butcher their own animals. Protecting the main torso from knife cuts, these are usually made from stainless steel. Our recommended chain mail apron is the Manabo Chainmail apron.

How to Choose the Right Knife

Using the wrong knife for the job is a big cause of knife based injuries. You should ensure you understand the basics of choosing the right knife and seek advice if necessary.
When choosing which knife to use, you should consider

  • Blade size - You should choose a knife with an appropriate blade length and depth so the job. A cleaver would not be appropriate for chopping garlic any more than a paring knife would be suitable for butchering a whole cow.
  • Blade edge – Think about what type of edge you need, serrated knives are excellent for cutting through breads , while non-serrated blades give a cleaner cut when carving meats. 
  • Blade Flexibility - Certain tasks require a flexible blade, while others need a firm one. You would want a slightly flexible blade to remove meat from a bone and a less flexible knife to cut potatoes.

How to look after your chef knives

Looking after your knives properly is very important to your safety. Keeping them sharp will help stop them slipping, but you must also check them regularly for chips and other damage which could either form a weakness in the blade or a hazard to others.
You should look at your knives and see if there are any areas where dirt or bacteria could collect and ensure that they are washed properly. Do not throw them in soapy water with other items as this forms not only a risk of cutting your hands whilst washing nut also risks them chipping against other items and remember not all knives are dishwasher safe.

Give the Knife your Full Attention

Commercial kitchens are often loud and busy places, however you must give your knives your full attention when cutting. If someone calls your or there is a risk of passing colleagues knocking you then you should stop and wait for the danger to pass before resuming cutting. Your safety and the safety of others should be your number one priority when using knives. And if all else fails, make sure you know the location of your first aid kits.

For information on ensuring you meet you legal safety requirements see our article What Level Food Hygiene Certificate Do I Need? 
If you are interested in other chef’s equipment see our article What is the Best Chef Uniform for your Business?

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