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A Lampworker’s Introduction to Safety in the Glass Studio

This is not an official guide, and the following is offered as a free online article for entertainment purposes only. I accept no responsibility or liability for your actions after reading this text.

You can be seriously injured in almost any workshop

The glass studio can be a very dangerous place, but it doesn’t have to be. With proper respect and care, a lampworker can spend hundreds of hours behind their torch without incident or injury. To ensure such a positive track record, a few rules and guidelines must be adhered to at all times.

The most obvious risk to a lampworker is a burn. I am often asked, “isn’t it hot?” And the short answer is, “yes – very!” Our torches burn a flame many thousands of degrees (1980*c, 3590*f) in temperature. Incidentally, our workspaces, tools, and work can be very hot indeed. Some torches produce so much heat, that they require assistive cooling devices to prevent from overheating and melting themselves.

With all of the hot, dangerous things in our shop – it’s a miracle we aren’t burning ourselves at every turn. There are a few simple techniques to reduce the chances of being injured in the studio.

20 Helpful Safety Tips:

  1. Assume it’s hot! First and foremost, always assume that anything in the studio that could be hot to the touch; is. Most items on your bench, and near to your workspace will absorb radiant heat as you work. This radiant heat can make your bench, tools, materials, and anything else within line-of-sight of your torch flame hot to the touch.

    If you are unsure of whether or not something is hot, use the back of your hand to sense the radiant heat by placing it close but not touching the suspect item. A burn on the back of the hand will restrict work less than one to a fingertip or palm.
  2. Never accept a piece of passed glass overhand! What this means is when someone passes you a piece of glass, always grab below their hand on the handle away from the perceived hot end.
  3. Never catch falling glass! Let the piece fall to the floor or bench, and then pause. It may be necessary to stand back as to prevent the glass falling onto your foot. Grab your nearest pinching tool (tweezers) and use those to pick up the item. Do not panic, do not rush, and do not reflexively dive for the falling work piece.

    A broken piece is better than a burned palm or sliced digit. There are lampworkers who can no longer practice due to injuries sustained from catching falling glass. This is a very serious risk!
  4. Dress appropriately! Your clothing is your second layer of defense, should an accident happen. Your first line of defence is this safety training, use it well and you will not need your clothing to protect you from a burn. Do not dress as if planning on burning yourself.

    Foremost, dress for comfort. Heat stroke and dehydration are very real risks while working behind a torch. Dress for the weather and the workload you will be undertaking. Working in 40* heat while wearing a full mylar suit is a surefire way to black out.

    Proper attire can include:
    1. Approved Safety Glasses 
    2. Close toed shoes
    3. Loose fitting pants that fit over the cuff of your footwear
    4. Short sleeves, or a long sleeved shirt with tight fitting cuffs
    5. Hair ties for long hair
    6. Additional safety equipment like insulating gloves, vambraces, or hoods are worn in specific situations – though not required for most flame work.
  5. Grab tools by their handle! Graphite, and brass tools can absorb a lot of radiant heat as well as hold onto heat absorbed through contact for a long time. Accidentally grabbing a tool by the working end is a fast way to a burn.
  6. Do not force the glass! Glass if fragile, and using too much force can and will break glass in your hand. Be patient and allow for the heat base to soak into the glass before trying to make it move.
  7. Melt stringers and spikes back into balls! If you pull a thin thread of glass, or create a spike – take another second to melt the string back down into a ball. Thin threads and spikes create a puncture hazard, and can even break further when inside the body.
  8. Bubbles should melt – not pop! If you are blowing a bubble, stop before it becomes paper thin. When thin, the glass is weak and can pop under the pressure of your lungs. This wafer thin glass is light, and floats on the air. It’s colloquially known as bubble trash, and is an unnecessary respiratory hazard. If you blow your glass too thin, put it back into the flame to gather before popping the bubble within the flame.
  9. P before O or up you go! When lighting your torch, begin by opening your gas valve slightly and igniting a pilot flame. Only when this pilot flame is burning, should you introduce oxygen. Doing so in the opposite order can create explosive conditions and is very dangerous. The obverse is true as well: when shutting off your torch, shut off your oxygen before your gas.

    A handy acronym for remembering the on/off order is P.O.O.P. – Propane, Oxygen, Oxygen, Propane
  10. Install Flashback Arrestors! Flashback arrestors prevent a dangerous situation wherein the flame moves backwards into the torch and through the gas lines creating an explosion within the lines. 
  11. Ventilate your workspace! Our flames and the fumes from melting glass can be harmful in both the long and short term. Ensure adequate air exchange to prevent exposure to these harmful gasses.
  12. Keep tanks outside! Unused tanks of compressed gas should be stored away from open flame, and out of doors in an easily accessed area. In the event of fire, it poses a great risk to firefighters and anyone within the building to have compressed explosive gas cylinders inside.
  13. Keep your workspace clear of flammable or combustible materials! Lighters, aerosol cans, wood, and other flammable materials should be kept well away from your torch and work to avoid the risk of an unintended fire.
  14. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby! I hope this needs no further explanation. While glass doesn’t burn, anything flammable it touches while workable can. 
  15. Anneal your work! Leaving stress trapped in glass is a great way to let it break randomly. Annealing releases trapped stress and allows for glass to be used safely.
  16. Do not put glass inside of someone else!* Jewelry, sex toys, and other objects intended for insertion into the human body must be properly annealed and checked with a polariscope! If you do not have access to a kiln, and a polariscope – DO NOT MAKE SEX TOYS OR ANY OBJECT FOR INSERTION INTO A HUMAN!
  17. Stretch! Take it easy! This is exercise and involves many repetitive motions. Warm up before you begin, and take many breaks along the way. It’s easy to injure yourself, or spur along a stain related injury by lampworking. Listen to your body, and take care of yourself. 
  18. On inhaling: glass blowers often puff air into a hollow vessel to expand its walls. It’s also possible to contract the walls of the vessel in much the same way. Suction should only be applied in situations where the risk of pulling hot vapor or fumes into your mouth is negligible. 
  19. On treating a burn: Stop lampworking immediately. Glass burns can be terrible, but are often less severe than a similar sized burn from metal or another material. Glass being a poor insulator can save you from a more serious burn if quick action is taken.

    Treat burn wounds quickly as directed by a healthcare professional.
  20. Keep a first aid kit on hand. Cuts, burns, scrapes, and other injuries can almost all be addressed by the contents of a standard first aid kit. Keep one on hand in case of emergency.

There are more rules and guidelines that can help you in the shop, but I’ve just not thought of them yet – if I’ve missed something obvious to you, leave a comment and help me improve this article!