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Knives at work

Knives and cutting tools are a common cause of injury at work. They’re used in many workplaces, including meat and food processing, warehousing, construction, and rural environments.

Why are knives a hazard?

Workers who handle knives and cutting tools are at risk of cutting themselves or others, as well as sprain and strain injuries.

What are the risks of using knives?

The most common type of injury is cuts to the non-knife hand or arm. Knives can also cause sprain and strain injuries when they’re not sharp because they require extra force to cut.

Injuries are commonly caused when:

  • the knife isn’t sharp enough
  • knives aren’t placed in a pouch when handling other items
  • workers aren’t wearing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • knives are pulled back towards the body
  • workers attempt to catch falling knives
  • workers do not take adequate breaks or perform repetitive tasks with a knife.

Young workers and knives

Almost one third of all injuries sustained by 15–24-year-olds are cuts from working with knives.

You can read:

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and employers must work together to reduce the risks from knives at work. A safe place of work benefits everyone. You can read more about how you can create safe work.

The How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks Code of Practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB) has detailed advice on your responsibilities and practical advice on how to manage risk.

For workers

You can avoid injuries by making sure you:

  • follow workplace knife safety and sharpening procedures
  • report when your knife is blunt and needs to be sharpened or replaced
  • wear the correct personal protective equipment when handling a knife
  • use the right cutting tool provided for the task
  • keep knives sharp and in good condition.
  • store knives safely when they’re not in use.

For businesses

If you’re a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you must manage the risks in the workplace as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Following a four-step risk management process (PDF, 0.65 MB) will help you to meet this obligation.

Four steps to managing risk

Identify things and situations that could potentially cause harm to people, such as:

  • the physical work environment—for example, if there’s not enough space between workers to use knives without contact
  • the equipment provided—for example, knives that are blunt and not in good condition
  • work design and management—for example, shifts schedules and inadequate staff numbers that cause stress and fatigue for workers
  • work tasks and how they’re performed—for example, without wearing PPE that is suitable for the task being performed.

Inspecting your business

Walk through your workplace and note what tasks use knives and other cutting tools. Note any factors that might increase the risk of cuts, sprains and strains, for example:

  • the positions workers are in to perform the task. Are workers overreaching when cutting, or are they stooping?
  • any knives left unattended or unsheathed on benches
  • any workers carrying knives in environments where they may slip, trip or fall
  • if workers are using the knives correctly and efficiently and choosing the right tools for the job
  • the PPE workers are wearing.

Talking with your workers

Talk with your workers:

  • if they’re not wearing the correct PPE to find out why. The PPE may be ill-fitting or uncomfortable
  • to find out where and when they’ve experienced cuts or near misses in the past
  • if they’re satisfied with knife-sharpening processes and the access to sharpening equipment.

Also find out if they have any other health and safety concerns. Discuss possible solutions.

You can build these conversations into the meetings and processes you already have in place, for example toolbox talks and team meetings. It’s important to also think about ways to include workers who are less likely to speak up in a group meeting and to ensure you have interpreters available when necessary.

Reviewing available information

Look at information from a range of sources and gather ideas about how other places of work are managing knives and other cutting tools to minimise some of the above risks. You can start by reading through the codes of practice mentioned here and the resources listed under related links below.

Look at workers’ compensation data for your organisation and industry, and information from your own records, including any recorded incidents, sick leave, or worker complaints.

Knives can cause serious injuries and have a high likelihood of causing an injury. A risk assessment can help you determine:

  • your priorities
  • whether existing control measures are effective
  • what action you should take to control the risk
  • how urgently the action needs to be taken.

The How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks Code of Practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB) provides risk-assessment advice.

To control the risks associated with knives, it’s important to address the:

  • physical work environment
  • equipment and maintenance
  • work tasks and how they are performed
  • work design.

The most effective way to control risk is to eliminate it. While removing the use of knives might not be possible in some workplaces, it may be possible to reduce risks in other ways. For example, think about if it’s possible to:

  • replace manual knife work by re-designing work processes
  • introduce automated equipment to isolate workers from cutting devices and reduce the need for repetitive forceful movements.

Make sure the knives and cutting tools you’re using are as safe as possible by considering the following.

The physical work environment
  • Provide adjustable workbenches.
  • Space workbenches to suit the worker and the cutting movement the task requires.
  • Design workstations to include space to store knives and sharpening equipment.
  • Maintain clean and clear walkways.
  • Manage floor contamination to reduce risk of slips, trips and falls while using a knife.
  • Ensure adequate lighting and visibility for the cutting activity.

The equipment

  • Provide suitable and safe knife designs, for example:
    • use safety knife cutters (PDF, 0.25 MB) (parrot beak, fish style or box cutters) to open plastic bags and boxes and cut strapping and other packing wrap rather than open-blade knives that require PPE for safe use
    • ensure the handles on tools are designed to prevent hand slipping—for example, slip guards (hilts) and non-slip gripping material
    • use retractable blades where possible
    • use cutting tools designed for right-hand or left-hand use
  • Use the correct knife/blade size for the task.
  • Store knives in a scabbard, pouch or on a magnetic strip when they are not in use.
  • Have a maintenance and replacement policy to ensure knives are in good working order.
  • Outsource sharpening of knives or have a knife-sharpening program in place.

Develop safe work systems that include a plan to keep knives sharp and in good condition and to ensure they’re replaced when needed.

Work tasks and how they are performed

  • Avoid using knives where possible, for example, buy food that’s already chopped or sliced.
  • Ensure workers are trained in the safe use and sharpening of their knives, including being able to identify what knife is correct for the task.
  • Provide appropriate PPE for workers relevant to the type of task and supervise them to ensure they are wearing it.
  • Provide accessible first-aid equipment and trained first-aid officers.

Worker training

Workers should only use knives or cutting devices after they’ve been trained and can demonstrate competency. It’s helpful to keep records of worker training.

Training should cover:

  • how to select and use the most suitable knife or cutting tool for the job
  • how to keep knives in good condition, for example, how to sharpen knives and keep a good edge on the blade
  • how to store knives safely, including when you’re transporting knives
  • where, when and how to report when blades are dull, damaged or broken
  • correct cutting methods that aim to cut away from the body as much as possible
  • other risks associated with working with knives, such as working near other people, and how to manage sprains and strains
  • what PPE is needed before starting the cutting task, for example, cut resistant gloves, mesh gloves, sleeves or mesh aprons, and ensuring this doesn’t introduce another risk.

Job design

  • Ensure the pace of work is reasonable, and that workers take regular breaks.
  • When rotating workers, make sure they can work in different postures and with varying levels of effort.
  • Schedule a suitable number of workers to manage the production requirements, including ‘tag in’ members.
  • Examine the impact of incentive programs and how it might affect safety.

Risk management is an ongoing process. Circumstances can change and you need to regularly review the work environment to identify any new risks. According to work health and safety laws, you’re required to review your control measures in the following situations:

  • when you become aware a control measure isn’t working
  • when there’s been a change that might give rise to a new risk
  • when you identify a new hazard or risk
  • when workers indicate a review is needed
  • when a supervisor or health and safety representative requests a review
  • when the dynamic and complexity of your business changes.

Standards and compliance

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the WHS Act) provides a framework to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers at your place of work. It also protects the health and safety of all other people who might be affected by the work.

Codes of practice

Related links