After writing my recent safety book something unexpected happened. I had a number of calls from lawyers about safety issues. These guys were suing jewelry store owners in different places in the US. The litigation was on behalf of the store’s goldsmiths, when working conditions, storage of chemicals and so on had injured them (some permanently). Owners and store managers are held responsible to make sure the goldsmith, and other employees, are safe.

One of the calls I got concerned a jewelry store saleswoman whose child’s birth defects were being linked to cleaning chemicals used by the goldsmith in the workshop at the back of the shop. Her insurance company was suing the jewelry store.

So, even if you are not personally scared of being injured or blinded or ending up breathing oxygen through a tube from something you did in the jewelry workshop – you might just want to stay clear of the lawyers. Especially when it comes to having an employee in the shop or an apprentice.

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Besides eye and breathing protection, adequate ventilation, gas handling issues, asbestos and silica exposure (some Tripoli compounds, casting investment) the main problem in the shop tends to be chemical use, storage and exposure.

There are some basic principles:

  1. Do some research, get information on shop safety. Have a ‘Right to Know’ book in the shop. Discuss safety and chemical use with your employees and staff. Staff can easily injure themselves if they attempt to perform a chemical procedure that they’ve ‘seen the goldsmith do’.
  2. List the procedures you use and what hazards you encounter with them. Analyze them for dangers, physical, ergonomic and chemical.
  3. List the chemicals you use in the shop, those identifiable as chemicals (i.e. sulfuric acid, plating solutions) and the chemicals in products (bleach in certain cleansers for instance that when mixed with ammonia forms chlorine gas-this kills a number of people annually in the US).
  4. Get rid of any chemicals you do not use or need.
  5. Identify substitutions for chemicals and procedures that reduce the need to have chemicals in the workplace. Make sure the substitutions do not bring new hazards into your life. Implement them.

Jewelers have a problem with tradition that is that they often do not question how things are done, and just continue doing them the way they were taught. Using chemicals falls into this trap. I remember in Germany as a student dipping our fingers into this really effective solvent for removing pitch from metal. The stuff was called ‘Sirius’ and I recognized the odor but could not place it until one day I realized we were working with trichloroethylene – full skin contact, no ventilation and none of the legally required safeguards that factories have to use. Wow.

Check your own shop for old habits that you continue without thinking. Some jewelers have even used gasoline as a degreaser – full of incredibly toxic benzene (not even allowed in University labs any more) not to mention a certain degree of fire hazard! A friend of mine told me of a shop where when they were bombing (mixing hydrogen peroxide with sodium cyanide to surface enrich gold) everyone would have blinding headaches for a day or so. Jewelers, if you ask them, will be able to come up with a number of similar chemical horror stories. In old shops, and old procedures lie many dangers that are no longer acceptable.

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If you know what the chemicals are that you use and what their dangers are you will be less likely to hurt yourself with them. In your shop’s “Right to Know” binder you should have a list of the chemicals in your workshop (a chemical inventory), MSDS sheets and chemical profile sheets which tell you important information about the chemical. A chemical profile sheet can be easier to read than a standard MSDS sheet. There are several places on the internet where chemical profiles are available.

Mishandling of chemicals is the main cause of accidents with them: spills, accidental reactions, contamination, breathing, bad storage etc (one of those cases involved a jeweler whose store’s overly large acid storage container burst, showering him with concentrated acid). Because so many ordinary products contain chemicals you should have information for every product in your workshop that contains chemicals. Note that large companies have “hazardous chemical substance profiles” for every product that contains more than 1% of a chemical or 0.1% of a known carcinogen. Many traditional jewelers cleaning solvents are proven carcinogens and mutagens (causes birth defects – hence the salesperson’s lawsuit).

You can talk to your insurance company, fire department and OSHA office about regulations and guidelines for chemical use in the jewelry workshop. Safety is a growing concern in the industry (boosted by litigation), and it is time that our industry associations and bodies paid attention to this issue, and developed guidelines and assistance programs for jewelers and manufacturers who want to lessen their exposure, to safety hazards as well as to lawsuits.

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Here is a check list to consider in putting your ‘Right to Know’ binder for employees or an apprenctice. Or yourself.

“Right to Know” Book Check List

These are examples of sections to include in the binder.
Emergency contact information
Emergency plans (step-by-step): fire, medical emergency, chemical spill, amputation, etc.
Accident log
WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) or OSHA regulations for your type of workshop
Chemical inventory
MSDS sheets for the chemicals you use
Machine tool inventory
Maintenance log for tools, shop inspections and clean-ups
Procedure inventory
Procedure analysis sheets
Notes section