Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Few Notes on Health and Safety

Teacup and Saucer, Arabesque Collection

After my last post, I was asked to comment on health and safety in the studio.

Let me start this discussion by stating outright that I am not a safety expert. Nor do I wish to portray myself as such. I'm just a girl who went to art school, and who makes her living making pots.

So, with the disclaimer out of the way, here's some general thoughts on health and safety in the studio when it comes to testing glazes:

There are ALWAYS risks associated with ceramic materials.  Some materials and their associated risks are well known in the ceramic world: silica dust for example, a basic ingredient in clays and glazes, is well know for its affect on your respiratory system over time. Other ingredients may pose risks that many people may be completely unaware of (cobalt, anyone?) and yet these ingredients are used all the time.

Ultimately, it is up to you to learn about the materials you are working with. What are the hazards associated with them? What level of risk do they pose? Are you equipped to deal with this material in your studio? Whenever you pick up a new material to work with in your glazes, ask for the MSDS sheets. These are available at any place where the ingredients are sold. They are also all over the internet. Do your homework. Any number of ceramic websites also have all kinds of information on the health and safety of ceramic materials.

That being said, some basics for studio safety include things like:
  • Wear an appropriate respirator when mixing glazes. Yes, yes, I know. They are uncomfortable. It's hard to breathe in them. If you wear glasses, they can be especially cumbersome. But suck it up. Breathing is kinda important so don't mess with your lungs. 
  • Keep your studio well ventilated - turn on an exhaust fan, open a window, get the air moving through and out of your studio. Not just when you are mixing glazes, or cleaning up after mixing glazes, but also while you are firing your kiln. 
  • Use a kiln vent. Keep your kiln in a well ventilated room. Don't go in there during the firing, and wait until the air has cleared after the firing. If you can smell fumes while your kiln is firing, you shouldn't be in your studio. 
  • Wear gloves when mixing glazes. Many ingredients cause contact dermatitis. Other ingredients can be absorbed into the skin, most of which you probably don't want in your body.
  • Wear eye protection. Some materials can be absorbed through mucous membranes, which include your eyes.
  • Use a wet sponge to wipe down tables and work surfaces, and mop your floors. It's important to keep dust levels down.
I have been providing information on the glazes that I am currently testing in my own studio. And these include ingredients that you may or may not want to bring into yours. It is up to you to decide if you want to work with these ingredients or not. And as for the glazes themselves, be aware of whether or not they are food safe. The tests I am currently doing are for decorative glazes that will not come in contact with food surfaces. If you want to use these glazes on food surfaces, you need to figure out if they are food safe or not, and even have them tested. If you have questions about specific recipes, ASK. If I can't provide answers, pose your question to any number of online ceramic forums.

Basically it all boils down to you. Take responsibility for your actions. Take responsibility for your work. Understand what you are working with. Take the appropriate safety measures. Educate yourself.

Here are some links to great articles regarding health and safety in the ceramic studio:

So. After having said all of that, please note the following:
  • If you injure or poison yourself testing glazes in your own studio, it's not my fault.
  • If you develop an allergic reaction or choke on dust or fumes, it's not my fault.
  • if you break the space/time continuum and open up a portal to another dimension, IT'S NOT MY FAULT.


  1. Hey Melissa, I'm wondering what your take on clay bodies that have manganese in it (like standard 266)?

  2. Hi Monica;

    here's a link to an article about manganese in clay bodies.

    Manganese enters the body by breathing in the dust or the fumes. The manganese in speckled clay bodies is granular, not a dust like what goes into glazes. Personally, I feel it would probably be pretty hard to breathe in the granules - they are much too heavy to float freely in the air. Also, the amount that goes into the clay bodies (for speckled clays at least) is very small. Less that 0.2% (see article).

    As for the darker clay bodies, you should talk directly to the clay supplier for more information. Manganese is not the only oxide that goes into colouring those clays, so you should find out how much, exaclty, is in there. The dust from these types of clays can be harder to control, from trimmings on the floor that get walked on, etc. REALLY good housekeeping would definitely be in order.

    As for the fumes part, kilns should be vented, and located somewhere where they can be fired without you smelling fumes.

    Honestly, my feelings are that there are right ways and wrong ways to handle materials. If you have concerns about the clay bodies with manganese in them, talk to your clay supplier. I feel that they can be used in a manner that doesn't pose any harm, so long as you are aware of how to do that and are comfortable doing so. If you have uneasyness about it, probably best not to use the clays.

    There ARE dark clays out there that don't have manganese in them. Personally, these would be my first choice. PSH's 540i comes to mind...

  3. Thanks so much Melissa. My one big concern is that the area I work is is in my house and connected to the kitchen. I also have a 16 month old and I get anxious even when doing the best cleaning job I can..

    Thanks for your posts and links, they're always an excellent read!