Kitchen Knife Safety

A good set of kitchen knives can make any food preparation job easier, but personal safety must always be a user's main concern.

There is a mantra in the food industry which says the most dangerous piece of kitchen equipment is a dull knife. Outsiders might consider a large butcher knife honed to a razor-sharp edge to be even more dangerous, but not if held by a professional. Dull knives make dull cuts, if they cut at all. Using excessive force to counteract the effects of a dull blade often cause more accidents in the kitchen than the use of a razor-sharp blade.

Sharpness is just one safety factor to consider when working around professional knives. Storage can also be a consideration, along with proper cleaning and sanitizing. The food industry as a whole has developed many products and procedures designed to make knife handling safer, but the biggest unknown safety factor continues to be the person holding the blade. Here are some safety factors to consider when working around or with knives:

1. Knives should never be allowed to become too dull. Unlike the 'miracle knives' touted on television commercials, most kitchen knives will eventually lose their edge. The very act of cutting into a hard bone or frozen vegetable will cause the blade to fold over slightly. If this folding is allowed to continue unchecked, the knife will become dangerously dull.

To keep a knife in safe working condition, professionals will use a specialty item called a 'steel'. The actual material used in a kitchen steel may be ceramic or metal, but most sharpening steels work on the same principle. Once a knife begins to feel dull, the user should make several long swipes against the hardened surface of the steel. These strokes will cause the knife's edge to unroll from the bend. Equal stroking on both sides of the blade should return the knife to an acceptable sharpness. Periodically, knives should also be passed through commercial knife sharpeners or carefully rubbed against a sharpening stone.

2. If a knife falls from the work surface, let it fall. Occasionally a knife will get knocked off the cutting board or tabletop by mistake. Human instinct may cause the user to reach out in an effort to save the knife from hitting the floor. In this case, it pays to resist this instinct. A knife falling to the ground will most likely fall blade first. Reaching for it in mid-flight may result in a very bad laceration. The more important concern is for anything in the path of the falling knife, including shoes and feet. It is far safer to move completely out of the way of a falling knife and allow it to hit the ground. A good instinct to develop is a quick shuffle to the right once a knife begins to fall.

3. Knives should either be in use or in storage. Many kitchen accidents with knives happen because a knife was left unattended. Had the user taken the time to clean and store the knife, the accident could have been avoided. If a food preparation job must be abandoned before completion, it is the responsibility of the knife user to properly store the knife. This could mean sandwiching the knife between the back of the cutting board and the table, or placing the knife back into a butcher's block. The worst place to leave a knife is close to the edge of a table or cutting board. If another person discovers an unguarded knife, he or she should take steps to secure it.

4. Cutting gloves can reduce the danger of a knife considerably. A knife's blade cannot be made 100% safe, but the user can use protection to prevent cuts. Kitchen supply stores often sell 'cutting gloves'- protective gloves made from

steel chainmail. These cutting gloves should be worn on the non-cutting hand for protection against slips or slices. The blade cannot penetrate the mesh of the glove, so the user does not have to adjust his or her usual cutting stance. Some cutting gloves cover the entire hand, while others cover only the wrist and first three fingers.

5. Knives should always be washed by hand, not by machine. Knives used as everyday cutlery, such as steak or butter knives, can survive the harsh detergents and high temperatures of a commercial dishwasher, but kitchen knives require different treatment. Leaving a sharp kitchen knife in an area designated for regular silverware is always a dangerous practice anyway. Kitchen knives should be handwashed with approved detergents and then held in a sanitizing solution briefly. Knives should be allowed to air dry before storage. Dishwashers with heating elements will quickly cause a kitchen knive to dull and create opportunities for rust to build up. A rusty or unsanitized knife should never come in contact with food served to the public.

6. Never store knives in an unorganized drawer. Many kitchens have storage methods for knives, including magnetic holders, butcher's blocks or designated drawers. Placing a kitchen knife in a drawer with other tools can cause the blade to dull through abrasions or a worker to slice open a hand. Knives should always be stored in a manner which keeps the blades separate from other metals. They should also be kept out of the main traffic areas in a kitchen when not in use. Horseplay involving knives should be promptly discouraged by kitchen managers. If a knife is not being used, it should be out of harm's way.

7. Proper knife training is essential. Very little can be done to make a sharpened piece of metal harmless, but a lot can be done for the person holding it. Restaurant managers or home cooks with teen helpers should demonstrate proper cutting techniques before allowing anyone to use a knife unsupervised. Most commercial kitchens cannot legally allow workers under a certain age to even hold a kitchen knife. It is important to demonstrate how to get the most benefit from a knife without sacrificing safety. Chopping strokes, for example, should only be performed with curved knives. The rocking motion will keep the blade on the table as the food is fed through. Chopping with the wrong knife can lead to the blade leaving the table and possibly coming down on a misplaced thumb or forefinger. These are the pieces of advice novice food workers should hear from their supervisors.

© High Speed Ventures 2011