Metalsmithing Health Hazards

In every aspect of my daily life I am, and have been for quite some time, concerned with promoting and maintaining my health. This concern naturally carries over into my working environment. It is my intent, here, to cover the topic of health hazards only as it pertains to the field of metalsmithing, and to suggest safer working alternatives.

Recently, at metalsmithing workshops and conventions, I have heard various presentations about health hazards. The speakers are usually doctors or health science engineers, and I have not found their information adequate, understandable or applicable to the way a metalsmith works. The information usually covers too broad a range, the whole-field of the arts”, and is too technical medically and chemically to put to use. Through my research, I have found that the solutions to the health hazards that the metalsmith encounters are not that complex. What is required is that the metalsmith recognize potential hazards and undertake reasonable hygiene and protective measures.

I do not presume to be a doctor or a health science engineer. All of the information presented here has been weeded out of various manuals and texts concerning health hazards in the arts and in industry- This information has been gathered from the sources listed in the bibliography. For a more thorough, authoritative understanding of body functions, systems and occupational disease, I recommend that the metalsmith seek out these resources. I will try to cover most of the potentially hazardous situations and materials that the metalsmith, or jeweler, would encounter in

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  1. private studio practice,
  2. classroom studio situation, and
  3. limited production studio.

Very little research has been done on the medical problems of artists as a direct result of occupational health hazards. Most research has been done for industrial-type situations. In many cases, industrial workers have greater volume of exposure but, in industry, there are better facilities to deal with these problems. Thus, most metalsmiths are frequently working under much more hazardous conditions than commonly found in industry. Their lack of concern is frequently due to lack of knowledge about health hazards and Safety precautions.

This points to one of the major dilemmas of the independent working metalsmith: locating pertinent, concise information about what materials are hazardous and alternatives for working with them safely. As part of their effort at Solving this problem, in all art media, the New York Chapter of the National Art Workers Community made the following five resolutions:

  1. Art schools have a responsibility to set an example of how to work Safely with art materials. Art schools should provide safe working conditions and should include, as an integral pan of their curriculum, information on the health hazards of art materials and how to work with them Safely.
  2. Artists and craftspeople have a right to know the hazards of the materials with which they are working. Therefore, art suppliers should fully label their art materials both as to composition and hazards. In addition art suppliers should undertake research to develop the safest art materials possible.
  3. Art supply stores should support full-disclosure labeling of art materials and should pressure art suppliers to conform to this standard (Talk to your suppliers they buy in bulk and when they repack they should also re-label stating precautions.)
  4. Municipal, state and federal governments should pass adequate legislation for full disclosure labeling of art materials and any other legislation needed to protect the right to work in a safe environment.
  5. Government agencies should sponsor research to investigate the occupational health problems of artists and craftspeople and should provide free medical treatment where necessary

I feel that dissemination of information about health hazards throughout the art education system is very important. In this my, health and safety can become a work habit considered from the start, rather than added as an after-the-hazard afterthought.

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The question of labeling is very important because if you don’t know what’s in a particular material, there’s no way to know the potential hazards of working with it.

The main hazards most metalsmiths will encounter exist under the following circumstances:

  1. inhalation
  2. ingestion
  3. skin contact

Many metalsmiths compound their personal hazards (as well as those who sham their studio) by smoking cigarettes. Smoking makes ingestion of toxic sub stances easier, presents the danger of fire, and contributes to the total body burden of cumulative poisons. There has aim been increasing widows that inhalation of vapors from solvents may increase the risk of cancer much greater for cigarette smokers. Some other individuals who will probably be more susceptible to environmental and occupational contaminants am children, people with allergies, older people, and people with previously damaged organs (especially liver, heart and lungs).

Most of the substances that a metal smith will encounter do not pose immediate major danger. However, most of these substances are cumulative toxins and have a long-term effect. Doctors refer to this as chronic effect. The problem with this is that the symptoms do not occur at the time of exposure. They build up gradually until the body’s tolerance of toxin is reached. This tolerance level will vary from person to person depending on

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  1. overall health
  2. age
  3. environment

Most cumulative damage climaxes in around 20 years – that, for someone in their early twenties, could mean cancer at the age of forty.

Actually, I really don’t intend this article to cause anxiety so much as caution. I hope this information will same other metalsmiths who are concerned about health and maintaining a safe working environment. The solutions that I offer for minimizing health hazards should be understood to be general guidelines and, of course, will probably have to be modified to fit wary individual’s personal workshop conditions and working habits.

How Harmful Substances Enter and Affect the Body

Most substances that are potentially harmful to the metalsmith must get on, or in, the body to do any damage. A toxic material is harmless when it sits in the appropriate container. Toxicity is the potential of a material to affect living cells adversely. Conditions that will influence the toxicity of a given substance are

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  1. quantity of close
  2. rate of absorption and
  3. route of entry

The degree of toxicity is greatest by the route that the harmful substance takes to reach the bloodstream most rapidly. For metalsmiths, inhalation is the primary avenue for most toxins reaching the bloodstream. Skin contact is the next most important means, followed by ingestion. Almost all materials the metalsmith encounters have the potential to cause bodily harm. However, a toxic substance is not a health hazard until it is misused. The key is to know about these substances and to maintain a safe studio and healthy work habits.

The body is capable of coping with small doses of toxic materials. Almost every activity in daily life, and in the environment, brings us in contact with toxic substances. It is my opinion, from the research I have done, that the level of toxins in a private studio, academic studio and commercial studio are of high enough concentration to be given special consideration.

Lungs

The lungs, under normal circumstances, can clear themselves. However, one can gain a deceptive sense of self confidence by thinking in terms of only a single pollutant.

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Such thoughts as “I’m only exposed to soldering fumes for twenty or thirty minutes each day” tells very little about the total assault on the lungs. We must also contend with solvent vapors, acid mists, kiln burnout, enamel fumes and abrasive particulates. If one recognizes the concept of multiple insults of different materials on the same organs, this false level of confidence is not justified. (Especially since so many of the toxins we come in contact with are cumulative.)

When irritants injure the lungs, it is usually something equivalent to a burn. As in response to any burn, the injured tissue will pour out fluid from the bloodstream. Fluid accumulation in the lungs interferes with oxygen exchange- This can lead to a type of suffocation called pulmonary edema. (Edema means swelling caused by fluid). If this is not fatal, there is usually permanent lung damage called pulmonary fibrosis (scarring).

Whether or not a substance gets beyond the lungs to affect the rest of the body depends on whether it is soluble in the blood.

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Blood

Substances that affect the blood can have very serious effects on the brain, kidneys and heart. Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen, in the hemoglobin, to all body tissues. White blood cells make antibodies to maintain the body’s immunity system and help fight infections. Some harmful fumes attack the bone marrow – this affects its ability to produce new blood cells.

Liver

The liver functions to detoxify substances that are produced by body processes as well as harmful substances that enter the body from the environment. When the burden of toxins is too great, the liver will be damaged and will not be able to detoxify any poisons, the body’s or otherwise. Hepatitis, commonly known as a viral disease, can also be caused by chemical substances. In severe cases, this can lead to warring of the liver (cirrhosis). Symptoms of liver disease are often vague. A yellow tint to the skin will indicate liver damage (jaundice).

Kidney

The kidneys function as filters which help to maintain balance or a constancy of the internal environment. They individually monitor and regulate most of the major constituents (proteins, sugars, salts, water and waste products) of the blood, as wall as several minor constituents. Since approximately 2000 liters of blood flow through the kidneys each day, a nephrotoxin in the blood which reaches the kidneys may cause severe damage. The kidney function may be impaired or the damage may result in complete failure.

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Coke-oven workers have a high incidence of kidney cancer. So it is advised that blacksmiths who use coke for fuel have good exhause ventilation if their forge is maintained indoors.

The Nervous System

When the central nervous system is damaged, the damage is permanent. The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. Some toxins in metals can cause CNS damage, others can damage the peripheral nerves, which are considered to be a separate system. The brain cannot survive very long without oxygen, and many of the substances that the metalsmith encounters have the potential to interfere with the body’s oxygen supply. Some warning symptoms are dizziness, drowsiness, and feeling intoxicated.

Ears

Excessive noise can have both temporary and permanent effects on the ears. Many metalsmithing processes produce high levels of noise. This ranges from hammering to machines, grinders, power mills, lathes, etc. Almost all occupational ear damage could be prevented by wearing ear plugs and/or ear muffs. People who wear eye glasses should be aware that the temple part of the glass frame can reduce the effectiveness of ear muffs by 30% because they prevent proper sealing around the ear. Such people are advised ear muffs with ear plugs.

Skin

Skin ailments are one of the most frequent occupational hazards caused by chemical substances. There is no mystery about a skin ailment it’s always visible. It has been estimated that more than’ 90% of occupational dermatitis is preventable by simple principles of industrial hygiene. Proper gloves and protective clothing should be worn. Even if a substance is not causing a skin reaction, these precautions should be used because many harmful substances are absorbed through the skin without necessarily irritating it.

Substances that damage the skin directly are called primary irritants. These substances penetrate the outer layers of the skin and injure the underlying layers. In the case of primary irritants, all people exposed to the same concentrations of these substances will have identical skin irritation.

The skin irritation caused by direct contact with chemicals can look like any other form of dermatitis: pimples, sores, flakes, etc. But it always appears where direct contact with the substance occurs, and usually goes away when contact with the irritant has ended. Such dermatitis does not usually spread to other parts of the body.

Substances that aren’t normally irritating may cause dermatitis if the skin develops an allergy to them. Once the body’s immune system has “learned” to react against a substance this way, it will “remember” the reaction for years, even with infrequent contact with the irritating substance. In some cases, the reaction is no longer present. In other cases, the reaction will only re-occur when the body comes in contact with the original irritating substance, or a similar one at a later time.

Contact dermatitis or sensitization takes time to develop. It never occurs on the initial exposure to a new substance. Cases have been known where people would suddenly develop an allergic reaction to a substance they had been using for many years. However, when the skin develops a sensitivity to one substance, that does not necessarily increase the changes of becoming sensitive to another unrelated substance.

The following section has a list and a dictionary of harmful substances. In cases where alternatives are not offered, the reader may find safety measures covered in another section of this paper. If there is no safer alternative found elsewhere, it is because, in my research, there was none suggested. The reader may interpret this as he/she likes.

Preface and Acknowledgements

As part of the requirements for my M.F.A. Degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art I had to prepare a thesis. Although my primary investigation and thesis were concerned with metal forming techniques, I became so involved with my investigation of health hazards that I subsequently decided to prepare an additional section to my thesis. Some portions of that thesis appear here, with additions and modifications that have come as a result of working with two industrial hygienists from Chrysler Corporation in Detroit . Both Bill Watt and Kent Foster have generously donated their time and expertise. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them on behalf of all the metalsmiths (goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, enamellists, blacksmiths, etc.) who are concerned with a healthy working environment.

A special note to those business minded craftspeople attending the conference: Perhaps, right now, your major concern is the cost/benefit ratio. Of course many preventative measures cost money. But how do you figure the cost of losing your normal breathing capacity, or kidney function? In my opinion, most artists/craftspeople will find that careful management of the workspace and use of preventative measures will result in increased efficiency as well as better overall health.

 –  Linda Weiss 1978

By Linda Weiss
This article was originally published by SNAG as series of research presentations, which was given at a SNAG Conference, during 1977-1980. Aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, they were published in 1981 as a single volume called, "The Metalsmith Papers". "Metalsmith Magazine" was being published concurrently.
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