Injury Prevention for Sculptors Working With Hot and Heavy Materials

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As artists, we sacrifice aspects of our lives for our creative work. While those sacrifices can be professional and personal, your well-being and health should never be at stake.

Sculptors must take extra precautions to prevent injury or worse during their artistic processes. The type and weight of sculpting materials make this creation hazardous if not done with extreme caution and care. Let’s look at the ways you can create your sculptures safely so you can focus on expressing your art.

Understanding the Risks

Sculptors must know the risks and dangers associated with the materials they use. These hazards are typically associated with materials and tools such as:

  • Plaster and plaster molds;
  • Wax;
  • Arc welding and cutting;
  • Woodworking;
  • Power tools;
  • Brazing;
  • Soldering;
  • Stones and lapidary;
  • Grinding;
  • Drilling;
  • Sanding;
  • Toxic chemicals and dust.

Working with a large sculpture also requires knowing about heat-related injuries and their consequences. Hot work is any artistic process that is a fire hazard or ignition source around flammable materials. It can involve open flames or materials that produce sparks or heat, such as welding, brazing, and cutting. Always read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for products you will use and identify any hazards the materials and your tools may pose.

For metalwork, sculptors should be aware of potential health hazards from gases, fumes, radiant energy, and hot metal. Hot work equipment can utilize compressed gases or produce high voltages.

Risks are also associated with lifting heavy sculptures and lithography stones, which can cause severe back injuries. Practicing proper lifting techniques helps prevent back problems. Remember to flex from the knees, keep your back straight, hold the weight close to you, and lift with your legs. Never lift and twist at the same time.

Large metal pieces pose potential flammable dangers and risk falling if not securely stable or mounted onto walls or pillars. Being aware of your surroundings and the security of your artwork is necessary to stay healthy for your future art exhibition.

Sculptors who engage in hot work experience physical exposure to the materials and tools used in the creation process. Some of these materials include:

  • Chemicals, such as solvents, dust, gases, vapors, resins, and sprayed materials, which enter the body via the skin, lungs, or digestive tract;
  • Hearing loss from exposure to loud machines and tools over time;
  • Low-level dust exposure over the years may lead to chronic headaches, organ dysfunction, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, or skin irritation.

Many of these substances never truly leave the body and may result in lifelong, chronic illnesses.

Safety Protocols and Gear

Basic safety protocols go a long way toward protecting you and your work. While some safety standards are common sense, reviewing them before you set foot in your workshop is always smart.

  1. Avoid working alone in your studio.
  2. Only work when you are fully rested, focused, and alert.
  3. Always wear appropriate PPE.
  4. Secure clothing, remove dangling jewelry and tie back hair before using machinery.
  5. Read the MSDS safety sheet for any machine or chemical you use.
  6. Turn on ventilation systems while you are working.
  7. Follow all safety protocols for machinery, and never remove machine guards.
  8. Wear closed-toe shoes in the studio.
  9. Stop using any defective equipment immediately.
  10. Know the evacuation procedure for your studio.

Safety gear varies based on the type of sculpting you are doing, but investing in quality protective clothing and gear is highly recommended regardless. At the least, a sculptor should have sturdy jeans and snug-fitting closed-toe safety shoes or boots to protect against potentially dangerous substances. Short-sleeved shirts are typically preferable; however, if you wear long sleeves, they should be rolled down and buttoned.

In addition, check to make sure you have the following safety gear in your studio:

  • Heat-resistant safety goggles with side shields, aprons, and leather gloves, especially when using machinery, chipping plaster or stone, mixing or pouring chemicals or acids, or handling wood.
  • Gas welder helmet, gas welder goggles, and welding cap for welding work.
  • PPE (face masks), a full face shield for heavy grinding, and a hard hat.
  • A National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) approved steel cabinet for flammables secured to a wall.
  • Fire-resistant clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Double-insulated power tools.
  • Ear protection with safety ear muffs.
  • A working ventilation system.
  • A respirator if you cannot adequately ventilate the work area.
  • Eyewashes and drench showers for corrosive materials (i.e., burnt lime, acetic acid).
  • Fire detection and suppression equipment and fire extinguishers.
  • Portable or permanent screens for radiation exposure.
  • Flame-resistant tarps approximately 25 ft. from the hot work area.

Maintenance of this equipment is vital to your health and well-being. Check the equipment before and after its use and replace any damaged gear that shows excessive wear and tear. Also, consider using environmentally friendly, natural art materials that are less likely to expose you to toxins and dust particles, such as sustainable clays.

Safety for Sculptors Working With Hot and Heavy Materials
Safety for Sculptors Working With Hot and Heavy Materials

Ergonomic Practices

Sculptors can benefit from employing ergonomic practices in their daily work. Ergonomics involves designing a workspace or studio to promote the artist’s health and eliminate unnecessary pains, aches, and chronic conditions.

Lighting

Artists need appropriate ambient lighting in their spaces. Harsh or weak lighting leads to fatigue, headaches, and eye strain. Use natural light combined with supplemental, adjustable, task-specific lighting to avoid casting shadows on your art.

Work Surface Height

Whether you use a table, desk, or easel, your work surface should be comfortable. Let your elbows rest at a 90-degree angle when your arms relax at your sides. Use risers or adjustable furniture to achieve the right height for you. If you find yourself slouching, readjust the height of the surface to cause less strain on your head, neck, spine, and back.

Seating

Many artists spend significant time sitting while drafting, planning, or creating their work. They also spend time bending back, leaning forward, or straining to see the screen or drafting board before them. Forward head posture is related to chronic health conditions like decreased respiratory muscle strength, neck pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ergonomic chairs not only provide lower spinal support but also promote good posture. Find an ergonomic chair with adjustable armrests, seat height, headrest, neck rest, and lumbar support. Remember to take frequent breaks, stand and stretch, and move around to avoid stiffness and muscle injury.

Hand, Wrist, and Finger Exercises

Use conditioned hand movements to ward off wrist overuse. Take frequent breaks and exercise your arms and wrists to keep those joints loose and pain-free. Handling a sculpting tool, carving tool, paintbrush, mouse, or stylus leads to reduced blood flow in the fingers when holding these items for long durations. Flex your hand muscles and roll your fingers when you take breaks between tasks to keep them comfortable.

Handling Techniques for Welding and Moving Heavy Materials

Safely handling hot materials is a must to avoid injuries while creating sculptures. For welding and cutting, safe handling and knowledge of tools and assists can prevent injury and damage to your work.

Successful thermal heat management involves knowledge of the thermal cycle in welding. Rapid cooling causes hydrogen cracking, decreased flexibility, and increased hardness. Control the cooling process through preheating, multipass welding applications, and allowing the arc to penetrate the weld joint readily.

For managing and moving heavy materials, there are two ways to transfer your large sculpture to its awaiting exhibit space safely. For medium-sized pieces, team up with some other people. Coordinate the lift and appoint one person to give instructions. Have everyone lift, move, stop, and place pieces down simultaneously.


If your sculpture is large, use mechanical aids to move and lift it. Cranes, forklifts, conveyors, wheeled transfer carts (WTCs), hand trucks, and furniture dollies are standard machines for moving massive, heavy art projects. More significant art pieces can be bubble-wrapped and packed in a custom wooden crate for shipping to galleries.

Workspace Organization

All sculptors should have a workspace organizational layout that emphasizes efficiency and safety. That begins with clear walkways and work areas in your studio. Keep paths clean and clear so no one trips and falls around hot work equipment. Cleaning up the immediate area, such as wiping down surfaces, removes dust, clay, and chemical particles before they go airborne.

Make secure storage solutions for tools and materials. Keep toxic liquids contained when not in use to prevent exposure and spills. Powders must be in airtight containers for the longevity of the powders and your health. Unused solvents, oxidizing chemicals, and welding gases should be sealed and placed in a locked cabinet.

Emergency Preparedness for Sculptors Working With Hot and Heavy Materials
Emergency Preparedness for Sculptors Working With Hot and Heavy Materials

Emergency Preparedness

Burns are serious injuries that sculptors using hot work experience. Welding can lead to burns, as can using corrosive materials like acids. UV and IR radiation from hot objects, such as arc welding, glass and fired ceramics, and molten metals, can also result in skin burns.

Have a first-aid kit in your studio or mounted on the wall to access fast in case of injury. Identify and treat burns or wounds immediately to prevent infection and longer recovery. If your burn or cut is severe, stay out of the studio until it heals.

Always have emergency protocols in place in your studio. Create and practice an exit plan and establish clear fire safety policies for the space. Many art materials involved with sculpture are flammable and pose significant fire hazards. Have at least one fire extinguisher on hand.

Most art-related fires happen because of the improper use of solvents. Remove ignition sources like electrical equipment or open flames and store and secure all gases, solvents, and chemical oxidizers separately and upright. Proper emergency preparedness techniques can lower the odds of fire and injury in your studio.

Stay Safe and Create Art

Safety should constantly be a focus in your studio when you engage in hot work. By creating a safe and healthy creative environment, you can spend more time creating and less time putting out (literal) fires. Develop good safety habits for your art with hot and heavy metals to carry forward in all your future artistic creations.


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