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Knife sharpness in red meat processing

This webinar looks at our key findings from a state wide knife sharpness assessment program conducted by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and addresses:

  • why knife sharpness is an issue for the industry
  • work health and safety risks and controls
  • guidance and resources for industry – what you can do at your workplace.

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Webinar: Knife sharpness in red meat processing

Good afternoon, and welcome to the knife sharpening webinar – My name is Anthony Lloyd and I am an inspector with Workplace Health and Safety Queensland. I will be the facilitator for today's webinar. In this webinar we will discuss the findings from a state-wide knife sharpening program led by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, as well as the resources available for industry. This session will go for approximately 40 minutes. At the end of this pre-recorded webinar, you will have the opportunity to email questions to the presenters via the online link.

Our presenters today are Nicky Sherwood, Senior Project Officer, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, and Caroline Higgins, Work Health and Safety Officer, Oakey Beef Exports Proprietary Limited. Nicky has been working with WHSQ for nine years in the manufacturing transport and logistics team, more specifically, on projects related to meat processing. In this webinar, Nicky will talk about the meat processing statistics, research, development, and management of the state-wide campaign called the Knife Sharpening Program. Caroline joins us from Oakey Beef Exports, who participated in the knife sharpening program. Oakey Beef Exports currently employs approximately 780 workers. Caroline has been a WHS officer with Oakey Beef Exports for over two years. During this time she has helped the business implement improved safety systems, and compliant policies and procedures. Caroline has 16 years of experience in various work health and safety roles and she is passionate about assisting businesses improve their safety procedures. Her moto is “see something, say something”. Thank you Caroline for being our guest.

Topics for this webinar include, why knife sharpness is an issue for the industry, specific work, health and safety risks and available controls, WHSQ Knife sharpness campaign, industry experience, what you can do to manage risks to workers from blunt knives. Please note any questions you may have during the webinar and you can submit them via the online link.  The risks associated with knives not only apply to the meat processing industry, but to all businesses where knives are used. The information contained in this presentation is generic therefore, even if you are not a meat processing plant, you will benefit from understanding your legal obligations and ways you can manage risks within your workplace. Now I will hand over to our presenter Nicky.

Hi everyone and welcome, thank you for joining us today. Thanks for the introduction Anthony and welcome again Caroline. Firstly I am going to talk about a few statistics, to give you an insight why WHSQ is interested in this industry. The red meat and meat processing industry is high priority area due to a spike in claim rates across a ten year period. In 2013, the non-fatal serious claim rate was 66 injuries per 1000 workers, this was the highest out of 47 subsectors within manufacturing industry. Compare that to the average of all QLD claims in manufacturing which was sitting much lower at 14.8 injuries per 1000 workers. In other words, meat and meat processing was almost five times the industry average.

Musculoskeletal, MSDs and, cuts and lacerations are two most common types of injuries in the red meat processing industry within Queensland. There's a strong correlation between blunter knives and these injury types. Because of these rising claims, WHSQ works closely with industry and overtime has undertaken arrange of interventions to support and raise awareness of these issues. One of the activities WHSQ has carried out was assigning a small but dedicated team to provide engagement projects and interventions to the meat and meat processing sector to help workplaces manage these risks. The outcome sought was a reduction of claims. Our overarching goal being workers deserve to go home safe and free from injury and illness. Some if the intervention including visits to Queensland abattoirs and other meat processing plants. This included cattle, and other animals such as horse, chicken, pig, kangaroo, offal, goat and boar.

A relatively common argument, when WHSQ started working with the red meat processing industry was that injuries are going to happen because it is a 'high risk' industry and that's the 'nature' of the work. Although the nature of work conducted in meat workplaces is regarded as high risk by industry experts the argument is that every worker deserves the right to go home in equal or better health as they arrive at work. Persons conducting a business or undertaking, managers and supervisors have duties to ensure their workers are safe from risks so far as reasonably practicable. Refreshingly, over the past five years, and from working closely with the industry, it appears that perceptions or risks are starting to change. From our experience in working with the industry safety managers have been working hard on changing the safety culture within their organisations, and they more clearly understand the fundamental importance of making their workplaces safe. Positively too this can be backed up by statistics showing that across the state we have seen a 46% reduction in notified incidents from the red meat processing sector over the past four year period.

I would like to just quickly touch on the WHS legislation to help you understand why WHSQ run these types of campaigns and bring it back to your legislative obligations. As a PCBU you have a general duty to ensure as so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety to your workers. Now when I am talking about reasonably practicable, I am talking about what the likelihood of the hazard or risk is, the degree of harm that might result from the hazard or risk, what the person concerned knows or ought to know about the hazard or risk and ways to eliminate or minimise risk, the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise risk, what the cost associated with ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, as an example, it wouldn't be considered disproportionate to introduce a knife sharpening program to reduce risks of injury from blunt knives, especially given that we know now that blunt knives is the leading cause of cuts and lacerations and MSDs. Throughout this webinar when I use the word 'workers' I am talking about, an employee, a contractor or subcontractor, an employee of a labour hire company who has been assigned to work in the person's business or undertaking, an apprentice or trainee, a student gaining work experience. When I am talking about a PCBU and their duty to comply, we are talking about things such as; providing and maintaining a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including the entering and exiting of the workplace, providing and maintaining plant, structure and systems of work that are safe and do not pose health risks, such as knife sharpening facilities, maintained equipment and correct tools for the task, ensuring the plant is safe to use, the structure and the substances, providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers at workplaces, providing workers with information, instruction, and training and supervision needed for them to work safely and without risks to their health, monitoring the health of their workers and the conditions of the workplace under their management and control to prevent injury or illness. We recommend that you monitor safety practices at your workplace, talk with your workers about their role in managing their work health and safety. As we know people rarely get it right the first time.  For those managers and supervisors listening in here, we know you understand that you have a key role in managing health and safety by ensuring you operate within a safe system of work and have appropriate policies and procedures to ensure workers are following your systems. By having these procedures and processes in place you are encouraging a proactive approach to knife sharpening. In some ways you do this is by, ensuring workers regularly sharpen their knives, providing sufficient time for sharpening of knives – if workers are expected to sharpen their knives in the lunch breaks, we know that they are unlikely to do so. You cannot expect your workers to use their lunch break to sharpen their knives. Maintaining sharpening equipment, providing safe storage of knives if you store on site, and by seeking worker feedback.

As you can gather by now, WHSQ has a strong focus on supporting industry as evident by their engagement campaigns run over the past five years. We have seen a huge reduction in injuries during this time. We have worked closely with key stakeholders to deliver our programs, and some of you listening in on the webinar may have been involved in some of these. Some activities include the fact that we have coordinated MIAG for over 10 years. We have run mobile red meat program, where we looked at WHS systems. We have run various workshops held in conjunction with WorkCover, and we have had information stands at industry trade events. We have conducted a supervisor capacity program which looked at the role of supervisors in the red meat industry. And more recently, and the purpose of this webinar is to talk about the most recent campaign which was called the Knife sharpening program. A key feature of this program was the use of a knife sharpness analyser, and this was used to provide objective facts in 'real time' to measure of the knife's sharpness and immediately provide the worker their scores for their knives.

We have learnt a lot from working with industry, thank you, and we know that people within the meat industry like their numbers and data, and additionally, you are a fast-paced environment who enjoy state of the art technology. We also know that workplace culture plays a massive part in safety and can be the key contributor in a healthy, more productive workplace. An initial finding is that, some workplaces manage safety, really well, but there is not a lot of technology around to accurately measure your knives, and as a result in some workplaces there is a lot of guess work happening, and some workplaces are struggling to manage the risks associated with knives. Lastly, we understand that you know that knife sharpening is not the only area related to managing safety of knives, but the statistics show us that it is due to blunt knives are clearly linked to an increase in these injuries.

A couple more interesting facts provided by a Grip Force Study conducted by the Southern Queensland institute of TAFE. A sharp knife requires 30 percent less force to cut than an average knife. A sharp knife enables a task to be performed 30 percent faster, and requires less grip force. By testing a knife we are able to tell how much force is required to use that knife – therefore able to calculate how much cutting force a worker is using over a day's work. Based on this and WHSQ's knowledge of industry, we saw an opportunity to bring industry along a journey to achieve sharper knives by the use of technology and awareness raising. WHSQ purchased a knife analyser in 2014 to assist with engaging industry on the importance of knife sharpness. The intent of using this analyser was to measure sharpness of individual knives and provide immediate feedback to the worker and management. Where scores were low this demonstrated how hard the worker may be unnecessarily working due to a blunt knife based off their actual scores. Additionally, the test results provided a conversation starter with management to explain that by having blunt knives within their workplace they may not be meeting their legislative obligations. In summary WHSQ understands that there is only one scientific way to accurately measure knife sharpness without bias and that was with the knife sharpness analyser. And this is the whole reason we have been traveling around the state using a knife analyser.

For those of you who have never seen a knife analyser before, this is a picture of one similar to what we used in 2014. WHSQ purchased a knife sharpness analyser because the cost of the analyser itself is out of reach for most small to medium sized businesses and because we wanted to support industry in creating awareness of their knife sharpness. How it works, the knife analyser measures the pressure required to cut a piece of meat by mimicking a worker cutting through an average piece of meat, the knife is placed into a cradle up the top of the analyser and drives down a steel rod to cut through a piece of media tape. The media tape measures the blade across approximately 50 points from the tip to the heel and produces in average score between 0 and 10. The science behind that the average score shows the force required of a worker using that particular knife. A graph can also show where the nicks and the burrs on the blade and the sharper areas and the more dull areas of the blade. The sharpness score provides real-time objective feedback for the worker. Essentially a small change in the score means a large change in cutting effort, for example if a worker produced a score of 5 out of a possible 10 they are working nearly 5 and a half times harder than they need to be. A score of 3 means a worker is working 18 times harder than they need to work with, and a worker with the score of 8 shows no additional force to cut.

The goal for the knife sharpening program was to create awareness around the importance of working with a sharp knife; raise awareness around the correlation of blunt knives and injuries; improve industry practices by providing objective feedback, this was known as the score; identify workers that may need further support and discuss a buddy system with workplace management; identify best practice within Queensland workplaces to highlight how these workplaces are more effectively managing risks associated with blunt knives.

As part of the goals for the program, we also wanted to assess general workplace management of WHS through their safety systems. In terms of knife sharpness, we looked at the following. How consultation took place between worker and management, and this included questions around whether a worker felt they were able to approach management if their knife is not a good fit, needs replacing and whether workers had the ability to come off the line to sharpen their knife if needed. We then looked at design of the workplace including, the types of knives available for the specific tasks being undertaken. We then looked at knife maintenance including knife sharpening room availability, its location, sharpening practices and knife testing. We looked at work planning and this included opportunities for minimisation of risks from repetition, through task rotation for example. And lastly we looked at personal protective equipment, PPE, and the provision of correct PPE for the tasks performed, bearing in mind that PPE is the lowest form of control in the hierarchy of controls for managing risks.

A safe system of work for knife sharpness would look at elements I have previously mentioned and some further examples could include ensuring that knives are consistently sharp across a shift, steeling where possible. That there is adequate worker training and supervision, and that correct skills assessments are being conducted during recruitment. That effective consultation exists in the workplace and that workers have the ability to communicate their concerns or feedback. And this could be simply done during toolbox talks, or noticeboards, or a solution box.

We will now look at what the WHSQ knife sharpness program delivered. Overall, we visited 13 Abattoirs across Queensland. We tested over 470 knives and we had conversations with over 500 workers and asked questions to gauge their level of training, understanding and knife sharpening behaviour. Some of the questions we asked were: how they learnt to sharpen their knives? What area of production they were working in that particular day that the knife was being tested? This was of particular interest because, say for example they were cutting along the cheeks, or muzzle, and there might have been a lot of bone and gristle involved, therefore we could anticipate that their knife might be more dull than some of the workers in other areas. We asked when they last sharpened their knife and how they sharpened it, and this varied from every morning before their shift, to once or twice every couple of weeks. If they told us that they had previous injuries and for example, we could observe that they were wearing compression bandages or had tape on their hands, or had large calluses, we were able to use that information to demonstrate the correlation between their blunt knife and their subsequent injury. The information given was analysed and a report of every knife tested was given to the safety team to provide feedback on the overall effectiveness of the knife sharpness program.

I would like clarify, that just because the findings in the slide does not mean that all of the workplaces visited had gaps in their WHS systems. Some workplaces had no major issues and tight frameworks around knife sharpening. Some workplaces require no additional support. The results from knife sharpness testing was for research and education purposes. The data was not used for any punitive actions against the workplace or individual workers. And what we know from the project is that there is no right or wrong way to manage risks to workers from the sharpness of their knives. We do know that workers knives need to be sharp to lessen the risk of injury and the most effective way of doing this is through the use of a knife sharpening program. Some of the project findings were: that there were some ad-hoc processes and approaches to training workers on how to sharpen knives, some workplaces don't show workers how to sharpen their knives at all, they rely on either the worker coming with the best level skill or workplaces expect that their supervisors will pick up on a worker with a blunt knife and pull them off the line and sharpen it with them.  We have recognized that where workplaces manage risks well, they have introduced strong induction processes to identify the level of skill the worker has before progressing them on to the floor. They have graduation of workers to skill them up and have probation periods for ensuring that workers maintain their knife sharpening skills. They have strong processes around behavioural expectations of wearing PPE and this can even extend to workers when they are sharpening their knives.  Additionally, these workplaces had performance based indicators and disciplinary processes if workers were not adhering to such procedures. Additionally, these workers had performance based indicators and disciplinary processes of workers were not adhering to such procedures. Where improvements could be made was where workplaces didn't have an actual program, but they did identify, for example during an employment process, whether a worker had knife sharpening experience or not. And this is neither good nor bad, but it meant that there was not competency checks or up skilling during the employment. There was a risk of complacency setting in and worker's knives could start to be impacted. Currently, the industry averages in the knife sharpness analyser across Queensland is sitting at approximately 7.2, out of a possible 10. And as you know now, that this is below the ideal score of an 8. To be clear, a score of an 8 means that a worker is using no additional force to carry out their tasks. We also know that workers agree with us that working with blunt knives is frustrating. Suggestions: as many of you know, in Australia we have an ageing workforce. The impact on industry is that as older workers retire, there is a potential gap in skills at the workplace. Workplaces ideally should have a buddy system to start transferring these skills to younger workers.

So what you can do? Some suggestions on how you can manage risks to workers from blunt knives, can be through the development or improvement of your system or work that looks at the following: policies and procedures and processes that include a knife sharpening program; performance processes if workers are not following your procedures around your knife sharpening; and replacement of knives and the knife sharpening equipment; training and induction, including ensuring good behaviour around carrying, handling, and sharpening of knives; consultation and communication, including consulting with workers around the replacement of items; knives that are fit for purpose and ensuring the grip of the knife is good; supervision of workers, supervisors are properly trained and that there is adequate supervision across different locations of your plant; and the introduction of the buddy system; reporting and monitoring of injuries, always looking for opportunities for improvements, using your own internal injury data and near miss incidents statistics to assist, measure, and develop activities to reduce these injuries.

For those of you who don't know what a knife sharpening program should include, I'd like to just give you some pointers based on what we've seen as best practice within your industry. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list. Having access to a hollow grinder by an authorized person to maintain an edge; knowledge and training of how to stone correctly and steel; a good procurement process around acquisition of both knives and steels and PPE based on worker feedback; ensuring the correct knife is being used for the task; ensuring workers understand how to create a good feather; ensuring use of a good steel and knowledge of how to remove burrs and straighten the edge, there are some poor quality steels on the market and we've seen this during our travels, and we can actually prove with the knife analyser that these were blunting most of the knives; a training program that caters to all workers, regardless of their ability at the commencement of their employment and ongoing monitoring; allowing and teaching a worker to use a knife setter if you have one available; and training a worker in testing the bite. Important factors: evenly grinding knives to the correct shape on both sides from tip to heel, and then ensuring that the angle is mimicked for the steel.

Nicky: I would now like to welcome Caroline.

Caroline: Thanks for inviting me here today, Nicky.

Nicky: Caroline, in regards to WHS's legislation, I understand that for a higher risk workplace such as an abattoir, it may seem like there's a lot of WHS stuff to do. How do you juggle it all?

Caroline: Well, Nicky, abattoirs have a lot of competing priorities insight, and years ago, safety wasn't seen as a priority. The most challenging thing we face in industry is change, and encouraging people to think differently about how they conduct themselves, and how they conduct a task.

Nicky: Caroline, what challenges do you face with managing safety, especially around knife sharpness?

Caroline: Well, knife sharpening is a skill that takes a long time and a skill learned from other people within the industry. And the staff turnover can change rapidly, and therefore the art of sharpening is become a disappearing trade.

Nicky: So do you have an action plan?

Caroline: Currently we have personnel operating in a knife sharpening room, where knives are sharpened by a trained dedicated member of staff. This is located in the boning room and the kill floor can also get their knives delivered there. This provides the opportunity for staff members to obtain the use of a sharp knife. This is a very skilled job and a costly machine, and couldn't be operated by just anyone. Full length cut proof gloves, rating cut 5, have started to be implemented within the kill floor. And once we've changed all the operators, we'll proceed to change over to the boning room. This will remove the need for arm guards and the human error aspect of incorrect positioning and them failing to perform.

Nicky: Caroline, have you had any quick wins during your employment at Oakey?

Caroline: Well, the boning room knife uses ... used to sharpen their own knives after a start-up period, and this has changed to allow them to access a knife sharpening facility at all times throughout their day, through their supervisors. We have allowed the opportunity for workers to sharpen, during the day and to be relieved from the line by other staff members to do this. This has also increased PPE usage and the review of new types of PPE with feedback from staff and increase the awareness of knife safety too.

Nicky: So following on from that, have you noticed a reduction in your injuries since implementing any programs to support your workers?

Caroline: In 2012, we engaged ergonomic specialists to look at manual handling risks that led to soft tissue injuries. Since then, we've noticed a significant decrease in MSD WorkCover claims, and around an overall 50% reduction.

Nicky: So following your involvement in the knife sharpening program, have you noticed any behavioural changes? For example, has there been a shift in the awareness and attitude from your workers around knife safety?

Caroline: We had lots of positive feedback from staff following the WHSQ visit, and it gave us the opportunity to learn about knife sharpening processes and what their score was. We have been made aware through the use of the analyser, who our strong knife sharpeners are, and we intend on using them as support and training for other workers. For example, incorporating a buddy system as part of our training system, we use the trainers that we have on site as part of our knife sharpening program with the supervisors. It has been noted the staff were very excited about the results and some low scoring workers helped to identify where improvements were needed. It helped Oakey identify areas of improvement for training requirements, and the workers are now understanding the advantage of having a sharp knife.

Nicky: That's great. Thank you so much, Caroline.

Anthony: You don't need a knife analyser to manage your risks. You know your workplace and having a knife sharpening program will help you manage these risks. Start with where you're at. Measure, monitor, and talk with your workers. And review your injury statistics. Implement controls and try different approaches until you find one that works. Thank you for listening to the webinar.

Relevant resources are available for you on the Worksafe Queensland website.

Thank you all for watching. Please click the link underneath this video to send us any questions, or provide feedback. Thank you again to our guests, Caroline from Oakey Beef, and to Nicky.

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