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Knife sharpening programs in the red meat processing industry

Between 2015 and 2018, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) ran a knife sharpness campaign to reduce the incidence of serious injuries in red meat processing workplaces.

This industry has one of the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and cuts and laceration injuries associated with knife work.One in two workers suffering from serious injuries have a MSD injury with an average claim cost of approximately $68,550.

The issue

Knife related MSD injuries are commonly caused by workplace practices such as using knives that are not sharp or not effectively maintaining the blade.

Using dull knives requires workers to apply more force when cutting meat. Over time, this repeated force can lead to a range of MSDs including overuse injuries of the upper limb, elbow and shoulder, and muscular sprains and strains including the neck and lower back areas. Using dull knives can also cause a worker to lose their grip and sustain cuts and lacerations to parts of their body.

A sharp knife requires 30 per cent less force to cut than a dull knife. Workers with a sharp knife and a well maintained blade often report:

  • smoother and more productive knife work
  • high quality knife work
  • feeling less discomfort and fatigue at the end of their shift.


Ten abattoirs across Queensland had their workers' knives tested on at least one occasion. These abattoirs make up approximately half of the red meat processing workplaces in Queensland.

A knife sharpness analyser was used to provide an objective measure of sharpness. Sharpness tests involved measuring a workers' knife across several points of the blade to obtain a sharpness score. This score is a strong indicator of how hard a worker is working during the cutting task. Analysis of all sharpness scores indicated that over half the workers across Queensland may be working up to two to three times harder than required during the cutting task and could be at risk of developing a musculoskeletal or laceration injury.

What a good knife sharpening program looks like

Management/safety systems:

  • Provide suitable knife sharpening equipment, knives and steels fit for task (if supplying) as well as appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the non-knife hand/arm.
  • Ensure access to suitable and maintained knife sharpening equipment.
  • Review and update knife sharpening policies and procedures.
  • Provide knife holders with specific knife handling training at induction. Training should include safe handling practices, knife procurement and requirements for knife sharpening and steeling.
  • Provide training on how to use knife sharpening equipment, including the hollow grinder and how to steel efficiently.
  • Ensure workers have sufficient time to sharpen their knives during work hours (i.e. not in their rest breaks).
  • Have a dedicated and/or skilled knife sharpening trainer that is available to all knife holders onsite to promote knife sharpening as a valuable skill.
  • Use a buddy system to monitor less skilled and/or new process workers (in addition to active supervision).


  • Regularly inspect workers' knives and promote knife sharpness maintenance throughout the shift.
  • Ensure knife holders are wearing PPE on their non-knife hand/arm when working.
  • Look for signs of working with a blunt knife and encourage knife holders to work with a trainer if having difficulty maintaining a sharp knife.
  • Ensure workers have sufficient time to sharpen their knives during work hours (i.e. not in their rest breaks).

Other safety considerations for knife holders:

  • Promote the use of available adjustable platforms, cutting boards and other hand tools that support good working postures when using knives.
  • Provide the opportunity for new starters to build up tolerances to gripping a knife such as a buddy system.
  • Encourage early reporting of signs and symptoms such as consistent pain, numbness or change in function of the upper limb.
  • Ensure knives are pouched when not in use.

Watch the knife sharpening webinar for more on developing a knife sharpening program.