I consider a good knife to be one of the most important pieces of kitchen equipment. Although any sharp tool can be dangerous, if you make sure to use it properly you needn’t worry too much.
Aside from the obvious (don’t run with, throw knives or wave them around), here are my top 5 rules for knife safety:
1. Use a sharp knife
It’s a little counterintuitive, but a sharp knife is safer than a blunt knife. This is because when you use a blunt knife, you have to put a lot more force behind the blade. This makes you more likely to lose control of it.
2. Always cut away from yourself
Not putting any part of your body in the path of the knife is the best way to avoid cutting yourself. There are some advanced techniques which break this rule, but you need to be comfortable handling a knife before you try these.
3. Cut downwards
Don’t try and fight gravity – it makes it harder to keep control of your knife. Some more advanced techniques do involve cutting sideways, but you should never cut upwards.
4. Use a flat surface
It’s important when you’re chopping ingredients to have a stable, flat chopping surface. A chopping board or plate can help with this, but also make sure that your table or worktop is steady, and your ingredients aren’t going to go rolling off by themselves while you’ve got a knife in your hand.
(This flat surface is also the best place to put down your knife when you aren’t using it.)
5. Stand up if you can
For most people it’s safest to cook standing up. This is because if you drop anything it’s much easier and quicker to just step back than to push a chair backwards.
If you find standing difficult, I would recommend using a chair with wheels. If your kitchen is adapted for it a wheelchair is great, but if not I can recommend a wheeled office chair. If you are cooking sitting down, you might want to consider putting something solid like a tray over your lap.
These five tips should help keep you safe in the kitchen, but even following best practices accidents can happen. You can find great first aid advice from organisations like the Red Cross (link) and the NHS (link), or you can read on for basic first aid for the kinds of cuts and scrapes you might get from kitchen knives.
Most cuts and scrapes are only minor, and you can treat them at home with a basic first aid kit.
If it’s just a small, clean cut, all you need to do is put a plaster (band-aid) over the wound. This is important while you’re cooking as it helps keep both your cut and your food from being contaminated. It’s best to wear a waterproof plaster which is a contrasting colour to the food you’re preparing. This is why you might see cooks wearing blue plasters, although if you like plasters with fun patterns they’re great too.
If you’re not sure the wound is totally clean, wait for it to stop bleeding before rinsing it with clean running water. Again, you should make sure to keep it covered with a plaster until it heals.
If you were preparing meat or seafood, you may want to consider using a gentle antiseptic on your cut as well as a plaster. Antiseptics can help prevent infection but they can also slow down wound healing, so you’ll need to decide for yourself whether or not to use one. Make sure you don’t get any of the antiseptic in the food – they’re fine for putting on your skin but not for eating.
Most of the time a cut will start to get better in a couple of days – make sure to keep it clean and dry while it heals.
If you’re worried your injury might be more serious, here are 5 questions to ask yourself:
1. Is it bleeding very quickly?
The faster blood is coming out, the more serious the cut is. If the blood is pulsing or spurting, you need to call an ambulance because you’ve hit an artery and you could lose a lot of blood very quickly. (If you’re following proper knife safety this is very unlikely to happen, but I believe in being prepared.)
To help stop the bleeding, you can apply pressure with a clean cloth or bandage and try to raise the wound above your heart (you may need to lie down to do this safely).
2. How long has it been bleeding?
Even a little cut can be serious if it keeps bleeding for a long time. If the bleeding isn’t stopping after 10 minutes (especially if you’ve been applying pressure), it’s best to go to A&E as you might need stitches.
3. How big is the cut?
Bigger cuts can bleed more and take longer to stop than small cuts, and it can be much harder to make sure they’re clean. Medically speaking, a cut is big if it it longer than 5cm (2 inches), or deeper than 0.5cm (¼ of an inch). Deep cuts can be serious even if they don’t hurt very much. This is because your skin contains a lot of nerve endings (which tell you it hurts), but the really important stuff is in the layers below.
If you’re worried about the size of your cut, think there could be anything in the wound, or if you don’t have a big enough plaster to cover it, it’s best to ask for medical help.
4. Do you feel unwell?
We all react differently to getting hurt, so it’s important to know what your normal reaction is. If you feel sick, dizzy, numb or faint, you might be hurt more badly than you thought or your wound could be infected. It’s important to seek medical help in both these cases.
5. Is it likely to be infected?
If your cut wasn’t clean, is deep, long, or on the palm of your hand, you should keep an eye out for signs of infection. If your cut is yellow, the skin around it is red, or if it starts to hurt more rather than getting better, it could be infected. Infections usually take a few days to show up, and your body can fight off most of them on its own.
If the infection has got inside your body, you might start to feel unwell or have a temperature. In this case, you might need to see a doctor for treatment.
Everyone, please take care in the kitchen and look after yourselves!
This post draws on my own lab safety training and first aid experience, as well as the references below. While I make every effort to provide accurate information, I am not a medical professional. If you’re worried about your health, please consult with a licensed medical professional. :