Safety knives: Cutting the risks and boosting the benefits
22 September 2021
FAMILIARITY WITH knives in everyday life can lead to a widespread blind spot when it comes to their provision and use in the workplace. Here, Ian Crellin outlines factors to consider when choosing safety knives to ensure they are both fit-for-purpose and safe to use
Safety knives are hybrids: part cutting tool, part safety equipment. The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER 1998) applies to safety knives, as does the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Remember, too, that PUWER applies to all knives on site being used as work equipment, including those provided by staff, agency workers and contractors.
Enhanced risk assessment
An enhanced risk assessment combines the requirements of both regulations in one assessment process and can be summarised under five criteria:
- Knife suitable for use, and for purpose and conditions in which it is to be used.
- Risk of cut injuries created by using the knife eliminated where possible, or controlled as far as reasonably practicable.
- Risk of avoidable damage and spoilage to products, material and other assets created whilst using the knife, are eliminated.
- Knife maintained to be safe so that health and safety are not at risk and it remains suitable for its intended purpose.
- Staff wellbeing is prioritised by involving knife users in the selection process.
Observe, engage, consult
The HSE’s 'Five steps to risk assessment' provides a tried and tested template, but with extra focus on the first step of identifying the current position with knives throughout the workplace in order to overcome blind spots. To assist future selection, a record of the assessment should include information, such as material being cut, cutting task, intensity of knife use, department, and knife currently used.
- Observe: The person with overall responsibility for safety in a workplace needs to see for themselves, or delegate to a competent person, actual knife use throughout the site. Assessment and records need to cover all criteria of the enhanced risk assessment to get the best outcome. Observations should be supplemented by checking the accident book for cut injuries and spoilage records for avoidable damage and waste associated with knife use. Check the organisation has a policy for knives in the workplace and the extent to which these arrangements are being practised. Be prepared for surprises: Illustrations from knife amnesties in just two companies, as recently as 2019, are examples of the knife blind spot.
- Engage: From the outset onwards, engage and consult with individual users and their representatives. They have experience and direct responsibility for making a success of implementing any agreed changes.
- Consult: Seek free advice from safety industry suppliers, trade associations and safety knife manufactures.
Safety knife choices
In its information sheet 'How to reduce hand knife injuries', HSE groups safety knives into five basic types of safety mechanism, summarised below in order of inherent safety.
- Group1 includes bladeless cutters, such as reel snails and disposable concealed blade knives.
- Group 2 are concealed blade cutters with the facility to replace the blades.
- Group 3 fully automatic blade retraction knives
- Group 4 semi-automatic blade retraction knives
- Group 5 manually retracted blade knives
Each group has benefits and limitations. Group 1 safety knives, for example, have restricted uses; Group 5 offer limited protection against accidents to people and products.
Groups 2, 3 and 4 include the largest range of options, with features that address fitness-for-purpose and safety. Achieving this balance is the best way of reducing risk; users are more likely to adopt a change that makes their job both easier and safer.
Efficiency and wellbeing
Beyond the safety groups, the focus is on fitness for required tasks, individual users and specific workplaces. Factors include:
- Ease of use and user acceptance
- Blade length required for task
- Blade specification – depth, thickness, round or pointed tip, shape and bevel
- Functional efficiency of knife: accuracy and speed of use
- Ease and safety of blade change
- Ergonomics of blade holder
- Robustness and reliability of blade holder and blade
- Storage: eg holster or work station tidy
- Safe disposal of used blades
- Stock of replacement blades and knives
The final choice is best made after arranging on-site demonstrations and trials involving existing staff. Where possible, seek support from the safety knife supplier to train staff in correct use of knives to be trialled to ensure a fair assessment.
Be prepared for surprises – not just on knife blind spots, but on the scale of potential benefits the right knife can deliver.
Ian Crellin is marketing manager at the BSIF