Dressing for Safety in the Pottery Studio
by Jeff Zamek
While not the first consideration upon entering a pottery studio, the choice of what to wear can add to the safety factor when working with clay.
Learning from one’s personal experience can be a painful and costly endeavor. However, we usually don’t forget such lessons. One day in the ceramics studio, I saw my friend Pat unloading a kiln. One of the glazes had run off her pots, causing a sharp edge. Pat, who had long blond hair, decided to remove part of the glaze by using a grinding wheel. Suddenly, from the other side of the studio I heard her scream. Her hair got caught in the spinning, grinding wheel and was forcibly removed from her head. As the class gathered around her, she was holding an 18-inch length of hair in her hands.
Safety in the ceramics studio hits home hardest when there is a price to pay for inattention. At one time or another, most of us have heard cautionary tales, some of which are similar-namely burns from a hot kiln shelf, hands cut on fired glaze shards, or hard bricks dropped on one’s feet. All these situations could have been prevented by thinking through each process with the goal of self-protection. Once the risks are understood, taking adequate measures to protect yourself will ensure a safe workplace.
While not the first consideration upon entering a pottery studio, the choice of what to wear can add to the safety factor when working with clay. The commonly held belief that anything is good enough to wear is often true, in part because the comfortable clothing approach is based on the low incidence of accidents in the studio caused by a wrong choice of clothing. However, a good safety record can be further improved by considering exactly what activities are involved in the processes of forming, glazing and firing clay, then adjusting the clothing to fit the specific activity. Situation awareness (knowing where your body parts are in relation to moving objects or activities) also plays a large role in maintaining a safe studio. The idea behind the analysis of activity and appropriate clothing is to arrive at a uniform that will allow maximum safety while maintaining comfort for all studio operations.
The choice of correctly fitting clothing for working around clay ,mixing machines or pug mills will help prevent accidents. Loose or untied clothing has the potential for getting caught in the moving parts of equipment. Cotton clothing, while comfortable, can catch clay dust and should be cleaned every day. Long hair should be pulled back or placed under a hat. Long-sleeve shirts can get caught in the moving blades or gears of pug mills or clay mixers. Dungarees, a T-shirt, socks and sneakers for non-slip movement are a good choice for clay-mixing operations. Never wear watches, neckties or jewelry (including rings) around clay-mixing equipment.
Whenever mixing any dry or wet glaze material, always wear the correct type of respirator (see “Respirators for Potters,” PMI, Spring 1999). Also, contact lenses are not recommended, as dry materials can be trapped behind the lens and cause irritation to the eyes. Eyeglasses should be cleaned daily. Clothing should be comfortable and easily cleaned after a day’s use in the studio. Pockets on shirts or decorative elements attract and hold clay and raw material powders. Simple, unencumbered, easy-to-clean clothing is best when mixing any ceramic raw materials.
Before using hand-held power drills and mixing attachments, wear protective glasses to prevent any spraying when mixing glazes, and keep hands away from sharp moving blades during mixing and when cleaning the equipment.
Several pieces of equipment, such as potter’s wheels, extruders, slab rollers, jigger/jolley machines and hydraulic presses, all present the possibility of catching a potter’s clothing, due to their moving parts. Long hair should be under a cap or tied back and any jewelry should be removed to prevent it from getting caught in clay-forming equipment. Open-toe sandals or bare feet are comfortable on a cool studio floor, but can easily cause a safety hazard as the feet are not protected from moving flywheels and heavy equipment. Sneakers or non-skid shoes offer protection and traction in the potentially slippery studio. Some sneakers or boots have cleats or deeply recessed ridges on the soles. Before leaving the studio, inspect the soles of your shoes to make sure that all moist clay is removed. Frequently, potters walk out of their studios with clay stuck to their shoes, and as the clay dries, it shrinks, causing clumps of dry clay to be deposited in their cars and houses, creating a dust hazard.
Kiln Loading & Firing
An important step before loading a kiln is to make sure the kiln shelves are free of fired glaze drips from previous firings. This task can be accomplished in part with safety glasses for eye protection (see “Eye Protection for Potters,” PMI, Summer 1999) and gloves for hand protection. Always wear eye protection or a face shield; a good shield will prevent sharp shards of glaze from hitting the face and neck. It is also a good practice for this particular task to wear a long-sleeve shirt and a hat, as slivers of glaze can fly in any direction.
Another safety factor is the weight of kiln shelves and posts. Feet should be shielded by wearing heavy shoes or boots, since foot protection can prevent injury from dropped shelves or hardbrick posts during the loading and unloading of the kiln.
Clothing should allow for unencumbered access to the interior of the kiln for loading and unloading pots, posts and shelves. When unloading a kiln, the use of heat-resistant gloves should be considered primarily to protect the hands and arms from the possibility of sharp, fired glaze edges on pots and shelves. Potters have noticed their blood on the kiln shelf caused by a fired glaze surface that was so razor sharp, they didn’t realize they had been cut. Unloading the kiln when it has cooled down is always safer for the potter and the pots. If the pots are too hot to touch with the bare hands, wait awhile-a painful burn on the hand or a dropped kiln shelf is not worth the inconvenience of waiting.
Studio Cleaning Procedures
Studio house cleaning is not as exciting as making pots or ceramic sculpture, but it contributes to a healthy and safe work environment. The choice of clothes should be based on shirts, pants, socks, shoes, etc., that can easily be cleaned daily. Shoes can be cleaned with a damp sponge after working in the studio. Avoid synthetic clothing and blends of cotton, nylon or rayon, which can melt when exposed to the high-heat conditions found close to firing kilns.
The process of mixing clay, weighing out dry raw materials and forming pots often results in powdered raw materials and moist clay depositing itself on clothing, hair, shoes and eyeglasses. The idea behind frequent clothing changes is to reduce the possibility of depositing ceramic material outside the studio into eating and living areas. An effective safety plan is to shower and have a change of clothing ready after a day’s work in the studio. Any cleanup should be accompanied by the proper respirator to prevent inhalation of airborne ceramic materials.
Other Studio Equipment
The pottery shop can be equipped with high-speed grinding wheels, drills or heavy objects, such as storage shelves filled with pots, wedging tables, bats and raw material bags. Again, as stated, it’s a good idea to remove any loose clothing or jewelry that can be caught in a pottery-related activity.
Depending on the operation-mixing, firing, cleaning, forming, etc.-calls for the proper clothes and gear. Hat (protects hair from dust and moving parts), goggles/safety glasses (protect eyes from harmful kiln radiation, sharp particles and dust), gloves (protect hands from heat), short-sleeve shirt (keeps clothing away from moving parts and clay), long pants (protect legs), and non-skid shoes (protect feet from falling objects and slipping).
Thinking through each step in the process of making pots, with the goal of protecting yourself, is a wise safety plan. Each activity-wheel throwing, slab building, clay mixing, kiln stacking and firing-can be broken down into segments and examined for its potential hazard.
Have a Clothing Plan
Just as you would plan for the purchase of a potter’s wheel or kiln, the suitable choices of clothing will be a critical part in any ceramics studio operation. The idea behind making good pots or sculpture is not to have the materials, tools, equipment or clothes get in the way of the creative process. It’s hard enough making clay objects without imposing preventable barriers to the work cycle. We have all wedged a ball of clay or thrown a pot on the wheel while trying to keep a shirt sleeve from falling into the moist clay. It’s a slight annoyance, but the same situation around a clay-mixing machine or a pug mill can turn into an accident resulting in a major injury. Note each time your clothing gets in the way of making pots or when it might create an unsafe situation in the studio. Then take steps to change or adjust the situation when it occurs; do not put this off until the next day. The technique of identifying problems and making corrections will improve the overall quality of life in the studio and make it a safer place to work.
Jeff Goss, a professional potter located in Stowe, Vermont, provided practical advice on clothes for the ceramics studio. Jeff has been making pots for more than 35 years and his information was greatly appreciated.
Chuck Plosky, Professor of Ceramics, Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey, was very helpful in suggesting practical studio cleanup techniques.
Bob Woo, Pelham, Massachusetts, professional potter with more than 30 years experience, gave valuable safety information for this article.
Pat Parsons, Worcester, Massachusetts, potter, contributed the idea for the article.
Jeff Zamek works as a ceramics consultant in Southampton, Massachusetts, and is the author of What Every Potter Should Know (Krause Publications). Contact Jeff by e-mail at FIXPOTS@aol.com