A Safety Knife for Every Worker

Why do I recommend universal access? If employees have access to a good, useable tool, they'll use it, thus preventing potential injury and product damage.

WE see emergency rescue personnel use a seat belt cutter to remove an injured child hanging from his infant car seat in an upside down, wrecked vehicle in flames. Museum staffers easily remove hundreds of layers of plastic wrapping from historic antiques arriving for an exhibit with a hook knife, or bakers open bags of powdered chocolate effortlessly with food-safe bag cutters, creating little dust while the mixers churn. Disaster animal rescue teams cut string, debris, and plastic cording strangling exhausted wildlife after a flood.

Safety knives take many shapes and forms, but they touch almost every workplace with daily use. We know them by many names: safety knives, safety cutters, utility knives, box cutters, hook knives, rotary cutters, and more. Chances are, we have at least one close at hand.

Especially well known hand tool leaders in the retail and restaurant industries, these knives and specialty cutters have been around for generations. Not just for boxes and cartons, they are versatile workhorses of almost any industry, from retail to deburring and scalpels to extreme hazmat operations, functioning in each with ease. These are tools every employee should know about and have instant access to; employers should provide them in an ever widening range. My reasoning is simple: If employees have access to a good useable tool, they will use it, thus preventing potential injury and product damage.

Quickly scanning my personal work area, I count six different variations of safety or utility knives within easy reach that range in cost and features from basic to extraordinary. Someone is always borrowing a safety knife, especially for unique tasks such as tape breaking on artwork cartons. Or they need heavy-duty cutting ability to cope with thick plastic banding. I have these items hanging within plain sight on brightly colored lanyards and am always amazed how employees choose the item they want to work with until I walk them through a selection process including activity, utility knife material, blade type, sizing for the employee's hand, and special needs. By asking the right questions, choosing the right tool for the work being done is quick and easy. I reorder those safety knives that do not return to me--employees keep tools they use and like.

Features? You May Lose Count
We work with our hands in endless operations. Gloved or not, most employees do some type of work that could be enhanced by using a better cutting tool made for the job. Employees who travel benefit greatly from having a light-duty, retractable-blade cutter in vehicles--or, in some cases, first aid kits--for removal of boots, etc.

Most employees know little about specialty features and must rely on those selecting and purchasing workplace tools for sage guidance. The features available are too numerous for listing: blade and handle material; ergonomic features; shape, size, and strength of blades; blade replacement or snap-off ability and quick change; blade dispensers; and blade disposable bins to maintain shop floor safety are only a few of the options available. If you do not find the perfect safety knife for your workers, ask. It is a constantly changing field, and new items are on the way to employers regularly.

Many rescue personnel after Hurricane Katrina carried safety knives for quick-access cutting ability without having an exposed blade at all times. Contamination was lessened, too, by a cost-effective item that could be replaced cheaply. Some forward-thinking companies are planning ahead for disaster operations and ordering supplies of utility knives to issue on demand along with flashlights and other PPE items, such as gloves and protective clothing or sanitation gear.

Other hurricane and earthquake preparation sites recommend safety knives as part of self-rescue kits because of their small size, long shelf life, and multiuse capabilities. Many hazmat teams carry utility knives taped inside and outside their suits for emergency use. When you combine versatility, safety, and cost effectiveness, utility and safety knives become a prominent hand tool of choice.

Selection Factors
Consider what your employee will be doing and ask the following questions before purchasing your safety knife:

  • Talk to seasoned employees about what they need. Ask for samples of various safety knives, utility knives, or specialty cutters and let these employees use for a few days to see what works well. Develop a rating sheet for each item and score likes, dislikes, and problems encountered. Listen to those frontline users!
  • What weight of item is to be cut? String? Box material? Plastic sheeting or stiff banding? Drywall or insulation material? Carpet? Vinyl? Fabric? Is it a multi-material situation, or are they cutting one material all day?
  • What position will the employee be in when using the knife? Will he/she be cutting vertically or horizontally? (Will they be able to easily maneuver the knife without it catching? If not, choose another knife style.)
  • Is moisture an issue? Corrosion? Electric hazards?
  • How often does this employee use a knife? Is this a one-time use, such as an office move? Employees who only do occasional cutting, such as of packages that arrive in the mail, may not need heavy-duty knives like the ones used daily for full shifts by employees such as retail stock crews.
  • What special features does the employee need? Textured handles? Right- or left-handed knives? Self-retracting blades? Cutting ability in any position? An assortment of sizes?
  • Are high visibility and color important? Stainless steel? Non-conductive materials?
  • Is there an accident history with workers in this position using safety knives? How can a better selection of utility knives help reduce lacerations?

Employee Awareness and Education
Long gone are the days of handing any employee a new tool and letting him go forth and figure out on his own how to use it. A little training goes a long way toward reducing injuries. In order to continue reducing your workplace incidents, take full advantage of awareness and education items provided by utility and safety knife manufacturers and distributors.

Training can include custom presentations, video, live training sessions, DVD, posters, and leaflets, often in many languages. Make sure employees understand blade replacement, the value of keeping a sharp blade at all times, and disposing of used blades correctly.

After your selection and training, when you place chosen safety knives and cutters with employees, follow up. Document what is working and what needs attention and additional consideration. Ask for employees' feedback. Watch replacements, too--although, typically, the safety knife (except the blade) will outlast the employee unless it is lost or taken.

Selecting Other Ergonomic Tools
Ergonomic tools are well thought out and designed with specific tasks in mind. A huge selection is available for almost any task, but these marvelous creations of shape and function only work correctly and well when employees have been educated on use, limitations, and design considerations (such as sizing, texture, etc.).

Too often, well-meaning employers hand out expensive ergonomic tool packs with good intentions but inadequate training; they later abandon the initiative because the tools do not seem to help enough to justify the costs involved. At other times, employees simply will not use the ergonomic tools because they do not have the familiarity of tools they have always used. The failure lies not in the tool, but rather in the lack of information!

Plan ahead to provide education and awareness, and allow questions on ergonomic tool usage to be asked of someone who can provide meaningful answers. Also, stage in the tools' use where possible so employees are not threatened by change. Update and educate your employees--give them a say in what is needed and where they need the most help. Comb your injury history for specific tasks that contribute to ergonomic injuries, and let that be your starting point.

Provide a selection of tools for employees to test, and they will, by proper use, help to get the job done in a safer manner. Don't forget to show your employees care and replacement procedures, too.

Safety Knife and Utility Cutter Audit Checklist

Yes

No

Has your facility been evaluated by a competent person as to activities that can be enhanced by correct use of safety knives or cutters by employees?

Yes

No

Is there a designated place for employees to view training materials on using safety knives or cutters correctly? Is it available at all times to employees who need access?

Yes

No

Is the need for specialty knives or cutters evaluated on a regular basis by safety personnel as operations change or grow?

Yes

No

Is there a designated person responsible for the safety program dealing with hand safety, including cutting tools? Has the history of injuries been documented?

Yes

No

Is this person knowledgeable about laceration hazards and potential situations at your facility? If this person is a consultant, is he/she at the facility as operations that require cutting by hand tools are being done? (This allows better understanding of your operations but is not a requirement.)

Yes

No

Has adequate time been allotted for the development of this program and the selection of tools to be used? Is it a custom application for unique situations?

Yes

No

Is the equipment chosen by the workers and supervisors who use cutting tools such as utility or safety knives, rotary cutters, etc., rather than chosen by cost alone by an accounting department without a full knowledge of the needs?

Yes

No

Is the equipment evaluated and tested prior to purchase and compared with other like items for employee acceptance and usefulness for your need?

Yes

No

Do your first aid supplies include adequate supplies for treatment of hand injuries and laceration?

Yes

No

Are appropriate sizes and types of utility knives and cutters available to employees for use?

Yes

No

Are communication hazards, such as loud machinery, cutting torches, etc. present that could contribute to hand injuries? (Being startled, for example, or vibration can be a factor.)

Yes

No

Are special hazards present that would require unique cutting tool materials or uses? Is this verified by supervision? (Non-conductive, food-safe, or other type may be needed.)

Yes

No

Is adequate illumination provided for the work to be performed utilizing safety knives?

Yes

No

Are employees advised to maintain a sharp blade through replacement as needed?

Yes

No

Are work spaces kept clear of scrap, debris, and waste from previous work?

Yes

No

Are the language and content of training appropriate to the employees' education level, literacy, and language? Are they allowed the opportunity to ask questions?

Yes

No

Do employees understand how and to whom to report problems or ask questions concerning use, limitation, or replacement of safety knives or cutters?

Ergonomic Tool Checklist

Yes

No

Has a task analysis been completed for jobs requiring use of hand tools on a regular basis? Are suitable ergonomically designed tools selected where possible?

Yes

No

Did employees have input into tool use options and selection?

Yes

No

Have employees been educated on proper ergonomic tool use?

Yes

No

Does your ergonomic tool selection take into account various hand sizes and grips of employees? Are various sizes made available to the employees?

Yes

No

Do employees understand that ergonomic tools are to be used within design limitations and only for intended tasks/purposes?

Yes

No

Are tasks designed where possible to reduce force and strain on the employees? Do you ensure tools do not require excessive force or grip to use?

Yes

No

Are hand tools selected with soft grips, non-slip surfaces, comfortably curved shapes, and appropriate lengths for employee use during shifts?

Yes

No

Is overtime reduction considered as a method to reduce excess strain?

Yes

No

Are ergonomic tools inspected before use and as needed to keep them in good repair? By policy, do dullness, damage, bending, stress-related cracking, or other wear require that items be removed from service or replaced?

Yes

No

Are awkward task positions reduced/avoided where possible? Is power tool assistance utilized where possible to reduce hand/arm strain?

Yes

No

Are employees aware of potential injury associated with "non" neutral positions, excessive grip, or excessive force with various tasks and that they can ask for assistance to correct without fear of reprisal?

Yes

No

For those tasks requiring additional PPE (such as gloves), are additional selection criteria such as fit, decreased grip ability, and size taken into consideration?

Yes

No

Are work positions adjusted where possible to avoid excessive reaching, bending, or hyperextensions?

Yes

No

Is excessive vibration controlled/reduced where possible?

Yes

No

Do employees understand that using hand tools should not cause pain, stiffness, or swelling to hands, wrists, or arms/shoulders? And do they know to report these problems for assistance before injury occurs?

Note: A checklist is not a substitute for a comprehensive safety program. It should be used only as a reminder of potential areas on which to concentrate.

This article appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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