Knife Skills Training at Silver Fern Farms

June 2015

A Silver Fern Farms processing plant has a programme teaching safe and efficient knife work

Knife sharpening is a key part of the training that new staff get on joining SFF meat plants.  We join knife trainer Errol Hansen as he runs a group of new recruits through their paces.

Health and safety is a key part of most modern meat processors.  The combination of sharp equipment and a large number of staff has meant that knife skills and knife safety has always been an important part of what gets taught to new staff.

In recent years, despite the improvements in safety equipment such as chain guards and Kevlar gloves, the focus been on helping processing staff stay on top of their knife skills to improve efficiency and prevent injury.

Silver Fern Farms operates 21 plants nationwide and employs in the region of 7000 people at the peak of the season.

It’s estimated that a sharp knife requires 30% less force to cut than an average knife.  This enables a task to be performed 30% faster and requires 30% less grip force.  A room with consistently sharp knives produce up to 3 % greater yield than the same room with normal levels of sharpness. 

SFF Regional Plant Manager Shaun O’Neill says training, and in particular knife training, is an important component in the Health and Safety plan for the plant.  He says it forms part of the SFF H & S programme called ORA which aims to drive down the number the injuries at each plant.  In particular it has a focus on individual workers taking care of each other.

Errol Hansen started in the meat industry in 1966 at Borthwicks Feilding, then moved to CWS Longburn and finally to Takapau.  He has had several different roles during this time, from threshing and trimming  beef hides, working on the chain, fellmongery, the boning room and then several years as a meat inspector for MAF where he was also a tutor.

Errol is the trainer/knife sharpening tutor based at the Takapau plant.  He’s responsible for delivering all knife sharpening, handling and knife safety programmes and is also be responsible for assisting with various other training programmes.  Errol took up the present role with Silver Fern Farms nine years ago and says he enjoys the challenge every day.  He says the success he has with teaching a new skill to someone and putting a smile on their face makes it all worthwhile.

Errol has always had a passion for knives and says he’s lucky to be in a role where he has the chance to pass on some of his knowledge and have the satisfaction of someone else experiencing the pleasure of using a very sharp blade that they have sharpened themselves.

Errol starts his sessions with some basics on use of the steel.  He maintains that unless people understand how to use the steel correctly, the rest of the information about sharpening is wasted.  The steel needs to be held a certain way and Errol advocates a certain hand position with the knife that ensures that the correct angle on the blade.

Sharpening in most meat plants is done by staff prior to the start of their shift.  Each worker is charged with keeping their equipment sharp and in good order.  If their knife edge is damaged during the shift, a worker will be able to restore the blade before they go back to work.

Errol says in the early days of his meat processing career, new workers were handed the gear with little training.  It was expected that the older hands would show the new guys what to do.  Nowadays each new staff member gets time with a tutor on the basics of knife sharpening and steeling.

Errol spends 2 to 3 hours on each new employee.  He says he emphasises the importance of bevels on a knife.  A knife bevel is the ground angle and shape of the blade edge – the part that is sharpened.  All knives have a bevel, but some are more pronounced than others.  The bevel gives the blade sharpness and strength.

In meat processing all those using knives have access to a knife setter.  This is the equipment that sets up the bevel on the knife.  Once the blade has been sharpened on the setter, Errol then demonstrates how that knife can be fine-tuned using the steel. He has little time for the domestic bench top sharpeners that can be found in many kitchens, saying they are all right for cutting the tomatoes, but not good enough for the kind of work required in meat processing.

For those without access to knife setters, Errol says he can demonstrate how to use a bench top stone to get a good edge on a knife.  He also has some tricks to help the beginner get the angles right for a good sharp edge.