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Health & Safety

Material Safety Data Sheets

Anyone who works with clay should be aware of the potential hazards associated with ingredients of not only clay in general, but also the individual components of each specific clay or glaze used.

For example, harmless as clay ingredients may seem, some clays contain manganese to achieve a speckled, reduction look in an oxidation firing. But chronic inhalation of manganese has been linked with a degenerative nervous system disease and adverse reproductive effects.

In addition to clay ingredients, one should be aware of the potential side effects of using individual glaze chemicals and various other ingredients and compounds present in the potter's studio. By law, all suppliers of the raw materials used in the clay artist's studio are required to make available Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to anyone who requests them. Each MSDS for a clay or glaze lists all ingredients used, along with potential side effects associated with these materials.

It's especially important for pregnant women to research the materials they use in their studios. Lead, which is extremely toxic, should not be used by a pregnant woman for any reason, as even minute amounts can cause serious birth defects in the developing fetus.

Potting While You're Pregnant

If you or a loved one is pregnant or contemplating pregnancy, there are some important precautions which you/she should take when working with clay.

First, do not work with lead under any circumstances. This substance is a known cause of birth defects, even when ingested in trace amounts. If you have worked with lead in the past, consider having a lead test done before you become pregnant, as this substance accumulates in your system and can affect the unborn baby even if you stop using it before pregnancy.

Arrange for someone else to mix all of your glaze materials and clean your studio during the term of your pregnancy. This is because, as most of us know, the inhalation of glaze chemicals­especially the heavy metals such as copper and cobalt­can have various adverse effects on your health. Manganese has been proven harmful to the developing fetus. Inhalation of free silica (clay dust) can adversely affect the mother's lungs. Normally, potters wear respirators to prevent inhalation of these toxic substances, but this practice is questionable for pregnant women. A respirator efficient enough to filter out these minute toxic particles greatly restricts the intake of air. Because a pregnant woman's need for oxygen increases due to the fetus's additional needs for oxygen, she needs to inhale more air, so reducing the air intake could be harmful. Inhalation of kiln emissions­even during bisque firings­should be completely avoided.

It's important to note that a pregnant woman's blood circulation increases by 30-40 percent. This results in an anemic condition which makes her more sensitive to toxins which can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Yet not only is the pregnant woman herself more sensitive, the fetus is at greatest risk of harm.

Just as with most other types of exercise performed regularly before becoming pregnant, OB-Gyns generally agree that wheel-throwing all the way up to childbirth is fine, as long as it's comfortable. The pregnant woman should take breaks more frequently and perform stretching exercises such as "the pelvic tilt" (taught at prepared childbirth classes) to alleviate lower back discomfort. She should ask for assistance when lifting heavy clay boxes, etc., and should refrain from centering huge amounts of clay.

As with any pregnant woman, the expectant potter should consult with with her physician early on, to ensure delivery of a healthy, happy baby.

Preventing Physical Strain

The term "back-breaking work" could be applied to pottery with little objection, for nearly all of us have suffered some form of discomfort after extended sessions throwing at the wheel, loading and unloading heavy boxes of clay, standing at the slab roller, bending at the wedging table, or shuffling heavy boxes of pots around at trade shows and craft fairs. Complaints of neck and back problems, wrist problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome are common topics discussed among potters...but how do we go about preventing these ailments?

  • First, pay attention to your posture while throwing. Be sure your stool is level with the wheelhead, and keep a brick placed under your left foot while you operate the wheel pedal with your right foot to keep your body positioned evenly.
  • Instead of constantly bending over and tilting your head to the side to check the profile of your pot while throwing, keep a mirror positioned in front of the wheel at an angle which will reveal the pot's profile as you view it straight on. Also position the bucket of throwing water so that you needn't reach far or bend over to use it. If necessary, obtain an extra-large (kitchen trash can size) bucket, and keep it on the floor next to your wheel, siphoning off water when changing is necessary.
  • Don't sit at the wheel or worktable or stand in one spot for more than 45 minutes at a time. Take breaks of at least 5 minutes, stretching your legs and arms and walking around to restore circulation.
  • When glazing, position your 5-gallon buckets up on a table or stacked on top of other 5-gallon buckets so that you needn't bend over to dip your pots.
  • When lifting clay, as with any other heavy object, be sure to keep your back straight and bend your legs to move yourself up and down.
  • If you operate an extruder, use an extra-long handle attachment to offer greater leverage and ease. The softer the clay, the less you'll have to work at pushing it through the dies.
  • Keep a step stool by the kiln for easy loading which requires less bending over.
  • Try to alternate days of wheel work with days of kiln loading, bookkeeping, etc. to give your body a rest from those repetitive actions which can lead to prolonged discomfort.

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