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Cutting it Close

Every workplace involves cutting tasks where utility knives are used. By observing your various cutting operations and the type of utility knives used, you can ensure the proper tool is used for the task.

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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Simple Rules for Using Utility Knives Can Prevent Dangerous Workplace Injuries

Recently the Safety Guys had the unpleasant experience of investigating a gruesome and almost deadly accident. A maintenance worker was removing a cable tie from a package on the loading dock with his pocketknife. When the very sharp knife easily cut the plastic tie, the momentum of his pulling stroke continued and the knife punctured his thigh, slicing his femoral artery. If it wasn’t for his quick-thinking coworkers and the fortunate proximity of the hospital emergency room, the outcome might have been tragic.

Luckily, compression was applied by co-workers well trained in first aid and a very short trip to the emergency room saved his life. The sad story here is that this accident was totally preventable.

The larger story is that every year there are thousands of these types of accidents in every kind of business across the country. In its 2009 annual report, the Consumer Product Safety Commission indicated that nearly 40 percent of all medically treated injuries related to the use of manual tools in the United States involved knives or retractable blades.1 These injuries happen due to broken blades, accidental cuts while changing blades, inappropriate use or mishandling of utility knives and, of course, using the wrong tool for the job.

Research laboratory facilities are no exception when it comes to jobs requiring cutting or the use of sharp blades. I guarantee your facility has a shipping/receiving area and many laboratory tasks where cutting is done without a second thought. Continue reading for the Safety Guys’ basic tips on safe use of cutting instruments and preventing accidents and close calls.

Take a look around

Have you noticed all the different applications around your facility or laboratory that require some type of cutting or use of a utility knife? Almost all workers will have to cut something during the week. In fact, we bet many carry pocketknives or have utility knives in their pockets, on their tool belts or within arm’s reach in a drawer or on the workbench. Some common uses to search for include opening boxes and packages; cutting cartons, string or strapping material; slicing shrink wrap; opening chemical bottles and jars; and general maintenance.

Utility knives are one of the most common tools used in the workplace, yet one of the most dangerous, especially in terms of the number and types of injuries produced. We often take these tools for granted, and the dangers of inappropriate cutting equipment and procedures are too frequently overlooked. Let’s see if we can cut down on these injuries by taking a look at our cutting tools and some of the newer knives available and then evaluating a few tips on proper cutting techniques.

The right tool for the job

Here we want to discuss some of the key features of utility knives and the specialty cutting tools now available. We have all heard the phrase above many times— choose the right tool for the job and the job can be done much quicker and safer. The first rule is to carefully choose the right tool to suit the material you are cutting. There are literally hundreds of knife designs and blade types to choose from, so match the task to the best design and blade. Ask yourself, is a utility knife the most appropriate tool? Would a pair of scissors or snips do the job better or more safely?

According to the CPSC, the most prevalent injury is a cut or laceration during blade changes.2 In order to minimize this risk, look for designs that make changing blades as easy as possible. Use of blunt-tipped blades along with ergonomically designed and ambidextrous handles is also helpful. In-handle blade storage can save time and blade handling, but the key is to make blade changing easy.

Cutters with permanent blade guards can protect employees, as the blade is never exposed. This type of cutter also protects the package contents from damage. In many designs, the protective guard acts as a guide to help position the cutter as well.

Another feature widely available in today’s utility knives is the spring-back blade mechanism, which instantly retracts the blade when it loses contact with the material being cut. The spring-back feature can dramatically reduce puncture injuries.

One of the newer design features for utility knives is the bi-metal blade. With the bi-metal technology process, two different metals are fused together using electron-beam welding. For utility knife blades this is usually a high-carbon steel for sharpness and a flexible spring steel that bends but does not break or shatter. These bi-metal blades can last significantly longer than plain carbon steel blades, with one industry reporting a six-fold increase of time between blade changes.

These blades can help reduce injuries and increase safety in two ways. By staying sharp longer, they reduce a worker’s natural tendency to press harder as a blade dulls, thus decreasing the chance of slips and blade shattering. And, since they last longer, they reduce the need for blade changes, lowering injuries accompanying that task.

Tips for safe cutting

Now that we have chosen the right tool for the task, here are some rules for safe cutting:

  • Always wear safety glasses. You never know when a blade might shatter or a strap snap loose.
  • Wear appropriate protective gloves, especially on the hand that holds the work piece being cut. The right glove not only protects the hand but can improve the grip as well.
  • Always cut with a sharp blade. As we mentioned above, a dull blade requires excessive force, increasing the chance for injury.
  • Do not make blind cuts. This means to clear the entire length of the cut so nothing unexpected is encountered.
  • Make sure you are balanced and your footing is stable and secure. Use a natural cutting movement. This will minimize chances of slips.
  • Keep your noncutting hand away from the line of the cut.
  • Always pull the knife toward you when cutting on a flat surface. This is a safe, natural movement that provides the best control.
  • If using a guide or straight edge, make sure it is securely clamped.
  • If the blade begins to tear the work rather than cutting, change the blade.
  • Do not force a bend or apply side loads to the cutting blade. This is the primary cause of blade breakage.
  • Do not use utility knives for prying or other noncutting tasks.


Every workplace involves cutting tasks where utility knives are used. This most common work tool is too often taken for granted and thus becomes a factor in many unnecessary injuries. By observing your various cutting operations and the type of utility knives used, you can ensure the proper tool is used for the task.

Reviewing a few simple rules with the employees who routinely use utility knives can help prevent some of the most common and potentially dangerous workplace injuries.

Be safe out there.

1. 2009 Annual Report to the President and the Congress, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Bethesda, MD. 2009. pubs/reports/2009rpt.pdf

2. National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, Bethesda, MD. 2009.