[ October 8–11, 2019    McCormick Place    Chicago, IL USA ]

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Meat processing workers cutting meat

Everyone knows that it’s safer to cut with a sharp knife than with a dull one. In the meat processing industry, the benefits of sharp blades go far beyond achieving that perfect radish rose without nicking your finger.

We spoke with Mary Graves, CEO of Razor Edge Systems, to gain some insight into the positive impact of a good industrial knife program.

For more than four decades, Razor Edge has developed technologies and processes that bolster production while safeguarding employees’ health and improve morale and well-being. Today, the company makes and services blade sharpeners for a variety of applications, most notably, meat and poultry. Users run the gamut from hunters and home cooks to some of the biggest processors in the meat industry.

“This is the way we see it: the foundation of profitability, low turnover, and employee health and safety is the knife that’s put in the person’s hand. A knife is only as good as the edge on it. The cutting edge needs to be sharp, and that edge needs to be able to be maintained throughout the shift,” says Graves. “Our sole focus within the meat industry is helping processors reduce expenditures, improve employee safety and morale, and increase yield and production through their knife program.”

In this article we’ll explore how sharp knives help companies improve a company’s bottom line by boosting employee health and safety, increasing yield and production, and lowering costs. We’ll also look at what’s coming down the bend for the meat industry, focusing on automation.

Sharper knives = A better safety record

The meat industry is not for the faint of heart. Processors face tough challenges in employee health and safety, regarding both acute and chronic injury.

In the past, the meatpacking industry was one of the most dangerous in the United States. Graves recalls that back in the early 1970s, the knife edges used in the beef industry were relatively thick. “And the handles were, as my dad would describe it, not much more than a broom handle. Because of that, there was a lot of hand injury and hand strain.”

Fortunately, as meat scientist Keith Belk notes on MeatScience.org, the situation has changed significantly over the past 25 years. For illustration, the table below shows the number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses per 100 workers in the meat and poultry sector for select years.

Year # injuries/illnesses per 100 workers
1993 27.6
1994 22.7
2006 14.7
2012 9.5
2013 6.3
2015 5.4

As you can see, compared to just a few decades ago, the meat and poultry processing industries have made significant strides in worker safety.

But there’s still work to do, particularly outside of poultry processing (which has reduced its injury and illness rate to a commendable 4.3 per 100 workers). OSHA’s list of common workplace injuries in the meatpacking industry is long, and includes everything from knife cuts and fatigue to repetitive trauma injuries such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other musculoskeletal disorders, which can be crippling.

One way meat companies have boosted their worker safety over the past 25-odd years — and can continue to do so in the future — is by providing them with sharper knives.

According to this blade safety sheet from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, sharp blades improve accuracy and performance while also decreasing strain and fatigue. Specifically in the meat-cutting industry, sharp knives help prevent musculoskeletal injuries by reducing grip force and cutting time.

Graves says, “putting a sharp knife in the hand of an employee and keeping that knife sharp, means they’ll have cleaner cuts, they’ll have better production, and at the end of the day, they can go home without unnecessary hand cramping and shoulder issues.”

Fewer injuries also means fewer visits to the nurse’s station.

Graves says that, before adopting Razor Edge’s system, one facility had 100 people going to the nurse’s station on a daily basis. “After we installed our system, that went down to just a handful.” Significantly, the employees who still got injured were those who “chose to use a straight sharpening steel, rather than our Mousetrap steel.”

And the benefits don’t stop with better physical safety. Sharp knives can even affect employee morale.

Graves often visits processing plants to see what’s happening on the line. That mean sharpened knife to an employee and the expression on their face just says ‘Wow!’”

Sharper knives = Higher yields and production, lower expenditures

While employee safety is critical, companies can’t lose sight of profit margins. That means focusing on increasing yield and production and also lowering costs.

Sharper blades generate more accurate cuts. And more accurate cuts boost the percentage of usable product. “Companies tell us that, yes, they have absolutely seen increases in their yield because of the sharper edges they get with our system,” says Graves.

Productivity also sees gains. “If you put a very sharp knife in somebody’s hand — and if they can keep it sharp throughout the day — their production will increase, especially if they’ve gone from using an average to dull knife to something that’s sharp.”

Another bottom-line benefit of knives that stay sharp is that the total cost of ownership is lower. “We often see blades that are discarded prematurely,” says Graves. “This is frequently because the knives have been sharpened improperly, which creates substandard edges and shortens the knife longevity. The consequence is that the knives need to be replaced more often.”

For example, depending on their specifications blades used on automated portioning machines — like circular blades and TVI blades — can be very expensive, on the order of $1,200 each. That’s a lot to spend on a blade that can’t be sharpened or can only be sharpened once. And it’s an area where Razor Edge is actively pursuing solutions. Graves says the company has a sharpener for TVI blades that is currently being used in two large beef processing plants with excellent results. They’re also finalizing a circular blade sharpener as well.

Graves notes that the Razor Edge method can typically increase knife longevity by 1 to 3 weeks. They also offer a Discarded Knife Evaluation service to help processors identify and improve their knife usage and expenditures.

It goes without saying that increased production and lower expenditures are critical in the meat processing industry. In addition to competition among processors, fluctuations in the market can generate uncertainty.

On the one hand, there have been some positive developments. A recent study revealed that Millennials spend nearly 75% more than Baby Boomers on meat (an average of $162 per month vs. $93). In addition, more meat snacks are being made and sold, and we’re seeing signs that the animal protein industry will benefit from the ever-growing e-commerce market.

However, the industry also must deal with environmental factors and international business changes. For example, the news that total red meat supplies hit a record high this September may result in a temporary glut that can affect processors’ margins.

Graves points also to increasing safety regulations. “I think tighter regulations will definitely make it more difficult for meat processors to not only be profitable but to stay in business.”

In the face of all of these challenges, any solution that boosts production while lowering costs is sure to be a welcome one. “The meat industry is very difficult. If we can take some of that pressure off of them, reduce expenditures, that’s what we are about.”

Not just sharp knives: A complete industrial knife program

An idea we’ve heard time and again in these interviews — from both suppliers and processors — is the importance of partnerships. For Razor Edge, that partnership takes the form of a complete industrial knife program, which includes service and training. “We’re not a company that sells equipment and you never hear from us again,” Graves says.

Instead, Razor Edge establishes a relationship from the beginning. “We send in our Edge Consultants to do a Knife Program Evaluation and uncover any challenges regarding edges, whether it’s a knife, a scissor, or any other type of blade they might have. When we install the system, we evaluate the size of the plant and other factors to determine how much time will be required for training to correctly operate and maintain  the equipment and steeling devices. We also provide training for trainers, leads, and supervisors.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Razor Edge’s policy is to return six weeks after installation to make sure everything’s going well. Following that, they visit the facility once a year “just to check and see if they have any issues.”

The issues aren’t always with the equipment.

Tighter OSHA regulations have had an impact throughout the industry. “We’ve had to make some changes to our own equipment to comply,” says Graves. “And if we go into a processing plant and they have a concern with anything regarding our equipment that may come back to them as an issue with OSHA, we will make changes to our equipment for them.”

Preparing for a future in automation

At the beginning of this year, we identified automation as one of the biggest trends to affect the meat processing industry. That trend is continuing to define new innovations and development.

Graves says, “I see things going more automated over the next few years: fewer employees, and more machines doing the jobs.” This is a common opinion, as faster line speeds begin to make it hard for humans to keep up and 3D scanning technologies are beginning to account for variability.

In the meat industry, the automated future may be closer than we think. JBS is already testing robot butchers that can analyze individual carcasses to make precise cuts. They can also learn so that — like the humans they may replace — their performance will improve over time.

Companies that aren’t quite ready to turn their operations complete over to a machine can still benefit from automation, for example, for sharpening your knives. “If you have an automated sharpener, you can predict that the results are going to be the same for each knife,” says Graves.

Razor Edge is currently working on an automated knife-sharpening system. “We hope to have it ready within the next few months. And as time goes on, I think more and more people will get on board with it. They’ll find that’s it’s beneficial to their company because it takes the human factor out and produces repeatable and consistent results. In the long run, this reduces their costs and positively impacts their bottom line. Not all plants will benefit from an automated knife-sharpening system, but for large plants with high-volume knife usage, it will be an excellent way to go.”

Hear, hear!

Would you like to know what other industry experts see as today’s biggest trends and challenges? Explore the other articles in this series.