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Is Pottery Dangerous?

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Working in clay may be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do, but many people worry that doing pottery is dangerous. Is it dangerous? How dangerous is it? Let us explore the risks involved in pottery.

What Are the Risks?

All human activities involve some level of risk or danger. In that respect, yes, pottery can be dangerous. It carries a certain amount of risk. On the larger scale of things, however, that risk is actually fairly low.

Consider it this way: there is a risk to walking down a street. Your feet may stumble on broken pavement, or your might twist your ankle in a pothole. You may get run over by a car, or you might get bitten by a dog. How do you avoid these dangers?

The same way you avoid the dangers inherent in all other activities (including pottery). You are prepared. You know how to avoid the risks.

There are two main safety areas to be considered: strain and injury to your body, and hazards due to materials.

Risks to Your Muscles and Joints

Because potters do a lot of specific tasks over and over, we are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. Production potters and those who work with large amounts of clay at one time are most likely to have these types of problems, but all of us are susceptible. Problems can include back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, bursitis, and tennis elbow.

Use good body mechanics and ergonomics when working with clay. For example, when picking up weight, use your knees and large thigh muscles rather than your back muscles. This reduces the risk of back injury. Also, follow Ergonomics Guide Chris Adams' Essential 2 Minute Stretch Program to help keep your body working at its best.

Risks From Materials

There are basically three ways ceramic materials can become a problem.
  • ingestion
  • inhalation
  • absorption through the skin - usually through cuts or abrasions
Knowing these three pathways, it becomes easier to plan ahead and reduce your risk. Keep food and drink out of the studio, do not hold tools in your mouth, and do not chew on your fingernails in the studio. When material particles are going to be stirred up, use a respirator or dust mask. When working with glaze materials, use latex or rubber gloves. Also wash your hands thoroughly when you are done.

Keep in mind that nearly all materials-related health hazards take years of exposure to become a serious problem. Take the risks seriously, but recognize they are long-term.

Some Basic Safety Tips

  • Do not smoke, eat or drink when working with ceramic materials.
  • Do not wear contact lenses when working in dusty environments. Dust particles may become trapped between the lens and the surface of the eye.
  • Wear a smock or apron when working with ceramic materials, especially glaze materials, in order to prevent the spread of irritants or toxic materials. The smock or apron should be left in the work area. Wash them regularly and wash separately.

Material Handling Tips

Keep in mind that ceramic materials should not be inhaled or ingested. Even so, ceramic materials can be handled safely with the proper safety equipment and a few precautions.

  • Do not use any utensils that will later be used in the kitchen.
  • Use rubber or latex gloves when working with colorants and glaze materials.
  • Do not handle materials used to produce ceramics when you have open cuts or wounds.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly when you are through working, even if you used gloves.
  • Be sure to put away materials where small children cannot reach them. If there is an accidental ingestion, call a doctor or your local poison control center, listed with emergency numbers in the front of many telephone books.

Proper Use and Storage of Tools

Most tools used in working clay are fairly safe, however sharp tools such as potter’s needles should always be stored with the needle shaft encased in some manner. This may be simply using the small plastic sheath that generally comes with them, or else poking the needle’s point into a cork.

You must also be aware that a cutting wire needs to be treated with respect. Children need to be cautioned that this is a tool, not a toy. A cutting wire should never be looped around a neck or limb. It is best to store cutting wires with the wire wrapped into a coil or a figure eight and then fastened with a twist tie or string.

Keep Dust Under Control

Dust, for potters, can be a very serious problem. Many of the materials we work with can have adverse effects on our health if inhaled long-term. Our respiratory system (including the little hairs in our noses and sinuses) can deal with small, infrequent amounts of dust in the air. But activities such as mixing clay and glazes put more dust into the air than our airways can filter out. Over long periods of exposure, silica and alumina (the most common components in clay dust) can cause serious lung problems and scarring if proper safety equipment is not used during high-dust activities.

Know What Is Toxic

There are some materials that potters use that are poisonous. Nearly all of these, however, are really a concern for those who are mixing their own clays and glazes from raw materials. Commercially produced glazes and clay bodies usually use fritted components, which greatly reduces the hazard.

Even so, it is prudent for you to inform yourself about these substances. Also, remember that no ceramic material should be ingested or inhaled. Make certain that you use proper safety equipment when handling materials and that all your materials are proper labeled and stored.

Other Pottery Materials to Watch Out For

Besides toxic materials, there are other ceramic materials which are irritating to the lungs, nose, throat and eyes. Long-term exposure to pottery dust often has cumulative effects and can result in emphysema.

Materials which are problematic include:

  • Alumina: found in most clays and glazes.
  • Asbestos and refractory fiber blankets: shed invisible filaments and used for insulation and kiln mitts.
  • Gum Arabic: used to make dry glaze coats less fragile on bisqueware before the glaze firing.
  • Silica: always present in ceramic materials and accumulates in the lung tissue.
  • Mica, muscovite, vermiculite, and lipidolite: may carry traces of asbestos and are serious lung irritants.
  • Talc: used to minimize shrinkage, it acts similarly to silica.

Kiln Safety

Kilns are very safe when used in the proper manner. Care must be taken, however, to treat them with respect. Not only do they reach very high temperatures, but they also release gases during the firing process.

The first priority is to ensure that your kiln is properly installed or built. The second is to make certain to maintain it. Elements, burners, and fireboxes need to be inspected regularly to make certain they can function efficiently and safely. Interior walls, exterior walls, bag walls, lids, doors, chimneys and venting systems also need regular inspection. Arches, bag walls, doors and lids are all especially susceptible to damage.

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