More Than a Cut Above

Safety knives and strict safe cutting policies have made a huge difference at some plants, safety directors say.

LIKE a lot of us, the people who routinely cut open boxes in stores, restaurants, warehouses, and health care facilities are creatures of habit. Many of them don't welcome a new cutting tool.

"Resistance to change is probably the biggest thing you have to overcome when you first change over from a flat box knife or a cutting knife to a safety box cutter," said Dale Jennings, corporate vice president of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Pacific Handy Cutter's Store Supply & Safety Division.

There are compelling reasons for making the transition, however. Retailers don't readily divulge their injury data, although they do track cut injuries and damaged merchandise, he said. For example, the Food Marketing Institute, whose members operate 26,000 retail food stores nationwide, about 10 years ago concluded the industry was sustaining approximately $20 billion per year in damaged merchandise, 30 percent of which was caused by box cutters, Jennings said.

Being self-insured, retailers use a chargeback system in which they set aside $10,000 to $30,000 for each lost time injury, and this cost comes directly out of a store manager's bottom line. "It makes them very, very motivated to find solutions to cutting their employees," Jennings noted.

This practice also makes some safety cutter manufacturers wonder whether many injuries go unreported. "The managers' compensation is based on minimizing injuries," agreed Ray Davis, president of ADCO Industries of Dallas, a safety cutter manufacturer. "And so what happens is they do have accidents, but it's paid for out of petty cash unless it's severe, like a $100,000 accident where they cut a nerve or something. A lot of these stores, I won't say they hide the accidents, but it's to the managers' benefit for there not to be this kind of accident."

Industry has made improvements, such as marking boxes so the safest places to cut are shown. Davis said other packaging changes have helped, as have shipping some products in trays and forbidding the use of cutters in certain store areas such as frozen food sections. But lots of damage still occurs.

"What it all boils down to, the box cutter is not a computer. The CEOs of these companies really don't pay a lot of attention to the box knives. They hire people and the turnover rate of people in the stores is over 100 percent. So it's always the new guy that cuts himself," said Davis. "It's not on the front burner of the CEO, but the box cutter probably costs him half of the profit that company could make. If he's making 2 percent, 50 percent of that could be the increase if he eliminated accidents and damaged product. You think about the stocker in that store that's probably not going to be there six months from now: He probably has as big an impact as the CEO does on his bottom line.

"If you go and ask the normal stocker, Do you damage product? 'Never,' they say. Do you cut yourself? 'Well, when I first started out, I did.' They could have a scar 6 inches long on their arm and they'll sit there and tell you, 'I never cut myself,' " Davis said. "But there's a lot of accidents that happen out there."

Davis estimated about 30 million box cutters are sold domestically each year for use in retail stores. The latest figures available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate stockers and baggers reported 21,468 lost-time injuries in 2002 with a median of five days away from work--and nearly all of these, 18,472, occurred in the retail trade industry. Those injuries included 2,030 cuts, lacerations, and punctures, making this the fourth-highest category. (Sprains and strains ranked first at 10,618.) A total of 4,326 injuries in this stock handlers and baggers category involved workers' upper extremities, according to BLS.

"I guarantee you, check into the accidents happening and you'll find an unauthorized cutter," Davis said. "The worker will either take something off the shelf--a big jumbo utility knife, and consequently it's not designed specifically to cut boxes--or he will bring one of those little flat, jiffy-type cutters in and he'll be using that. The policy is if you cut yourself and you're not using the company cutter, you could get fired. So you'll never find out, but my gut tells me that most of the accidents occur because they're using an unauthorized cutter."

New Features Added Regularly
Safety knives are getting safer and more user-friendly all the time, and their use prevents numerous injuries, Jennings said. "In many cases, we're seeing a 70 to 90 percent reduction in accidents. It's mind-numbing the amounts of money they can save," he added. In the retail sector, a 300-store chain that adopts a safety cutter program will achieve savings that usually range from $5 million to $10 million in accidents avoided and damage prevented per year, said Jennings.

Safety cutter manufacturers have added many features over the years, from in-handle blade storage and easy blade changeout to cutting guides, ergonomically curved and bulbous handles, variable blade positions, blunt-tipped blades, and blades that retract automatically after a cut.

"We have seen an accelerating trend to specialized safety knives to minimize accidental injury in the past few years in the United States. In Europe there has been an even more pronounced emphasis on safety, with greater regulatory oversight driving exclusive use in many instances," said Gary Wade, president of the Verona, Va.-based Industrial/Medical Division of American Safety Razor Company, the world's leading producer of industrial and specialty blades including various types of single-edge razor blades, breakaway, and utility blades, many of which are used in knives and cutters for opening cartons. As early as 30 years ago, the company developed the first rounded-point utility blade to reduce cuts. Rounded corners also are available on single-edge blades, the most popular product for box cutting. Wade said a number of packaging innovations have occurred to add safety to blade handling, from individual wrapping to resealable storage boxes to safety dispensers.

"Safety knives are a positive step, and their innovation will continue. However, blades have to be sharp in order to perform. Regardless of the knife or cutter being used, the first rule of safety is caution in loading, using, and disposing of them," said Wade.

"What people are mostly looking for in a safety knife is something that the user cannot override the safety features on the knife," said Tommy Landwehr, vice president of sales and marketing for cutter manufacturer Martor USA of Green Bay, Wis. He said Martor comes out with new products every year and succeeds by emphasizing user training. "We have made a full program for knife safety to increase the awareness of how to cut properly, because it has not been addressed," Landwehr explained. "Safety training is the most important part of keeping your employee safe."

A new generation of safety cutters is developed every three to five years. Different cutters are made for specific industries (e.g., grocery/department stores, hardware and warehouses, restaurants and fast food) because their requirements are based on the packaging they use. Foodservice, for example, uses disposable knives that cannot lose blades because blades would contaminate the product. Proper blade disposal and holsters are important now to workers, Jennings said.

Outstanding Safety Gains
The safety managers who buy safety/utility knives from Hyde Tools of Southbridge, Mass., typically already have safety programs in place, said Rick Farland, Hyde's director of new product development. Farland said these are working knives not sold in the consumer market. "These are used every day, all day by the people who use the products," he said.

Joe Murphy, safety coordinator at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Pliant Corp., said switching to a comprehensive safe cutting program about five years ago made a big difference at a 140-employee plant he oversees. Pliant produces films and flexible packaging products for personal care, medical, food, industrial, and agricultural markets at about 20 manufacturing plants worldwide, all of which now have similar programs in place, Murphy said.

Before the program began, five to 12 workers in the plant per year were experiencing cut injuries to their hands, arms, or legs. The program includes use of safety knives, mandatory wearing of cut-resistant gloves, policies requiring workers to cut away from their bodies and not to cut moving product, and a guillotine that must be used to cut any item larger than 8 inches in diameter, Murphy said. During the five years since the program took effect--initially resisted but ultimately embraced by the plant's Employee Safety Committee--just four knife cuts have occurred. Two were recordable cases requiring stitches, and all four were policy violations that resulted in disciplinary action, he said. "It was just like turning a light switch on. We don't even have first aid cases now," he said.

Robert George, safety director for the packaging services division of Hartsville, S.C.-based Sonoco, said he experienced "culture shock" four years ago when he arrived at the packaging manufacturer's Chester, Va., plant to find nearly every worker carried a utility knife on his belt and no one wore protective gloves. The plant was logging three or four cutting injuries every month, he said.

It wasn't easy getting the workers to switch to a safety cutter, but he proved they could do every kind of cut necessary with the safer alternative. George said employees at the Chester plant worked 1.5 million hours last year--with temporary workers accounting for 60 percent of those hours--and experienced zero cut injuries. "We went from being the worst performer in safety company-wide to the best," said George. Company-wide, Sonoco achieved just eight OSHA recordable injuries for 3.5 million hours in 2004. "We have the best [cut prevention] program," he said. "I'd stack it up against anybody's."

He said he is installing the same safe cutting program at 11 CorrFlex plants that Sonoco acquired in 2004.

Success stories such as these at major retailers and industrial companies indicate the situation has improved, safety cutter manufacturers agree. "We've come a long way," Davis said. "I mean, 10 to 12 years ago, there's probably 5 percent of the market that had some type of safety device on the cutter. A number of the cutters that are on the market have actually been outlawed in some states.

"Nobody should be selling a naked razor blade today," he added. "It just doesn't make sense. And nobody should be opening boxes with their hands."

This article appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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