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Sculpture Safety

Sculpture hazards are generally those presented by welding, power machinery, and toxic dusts from sculpture materials.

Welding Safety



  • Remove all fire hazards from the area of welding.
  • Electric welding must be done in designated area free of flammable materials or water to prevent electric shock.
  • Always wear fire resistant clothing, gloves, and proper eye protection.
  • When arc welding is suspended and unattended, remove all electrodes and disconnect the machine.  Shut off fuel gas cylinders.
  • The exhaust ventilation system must be used to remove fumes.
  • The welding screen must be in place.
  • Gas cylinders must be stored in the up-right position and secured in place.

Power Tools

  • Never remove guards and shields that are provided with the equipment.
  • Follow the procedures for safe operation of tools and machinery.  If unsure, ask for assistance.
  • Always wear eye protection for machine and tool operations.
  • Tie long hair back, don’t wear neck ties, jewelry, or any loose clothing that can get caught in the machinery.
  • Do not use damaged tools or electrical cords and report them to the studio supervisor immediately.
  • Keep your attention focused on the work, do not get distracted.

Machine Guarding

All mechanical equipment is to be equipped with guards that prevent access to electrical connections or moving parts, such as belts and pulleys of a vacuum pump.  Each worker should inspect equipment before using it to ensure that the guards are in place and functioning.  Careful design of guards is vital.  An ineffective guard can be worse than none at all, because it may give a false sense of security.  Emergency shutoff devices may be needed in addition to electrical and mechanical guarding.  Please reference the Machine Guarding Program for more information.

Plaster and Plaster Molds

Plaster can be carved, modeled, and casted.  Varieties of plaster include: Plaster of Paris, casting plaster, white art plaster, molding plaster, and Hydrocal.  These are all varieties of calcined gypsum, composed of calcium sulfate.  Mold releases used with plaster include vaseline, tincture of green soap, auto paste wax-benzene, silicone-grease-benzine, and mineral oil-petroleum jelly.  In waste molding, the plaster mold is chipped away.

Plaster dust is irritating to the eyes and respiratory system and in some situations, can cause more severe problems.  Some dusts are toxic by ingestion, inhalation, and by absorption. 

Safety guidelines to minimize exposure to harmful plaster dusts and chemicals:

  • Work in a well-ventilated designated area for mixing clay and plaster.
  • Engage the ventilation system.
  • Wear gloves and goggles when handling hazardous chemicals and when chipping plaster.  
  • Always carve or cut in a direction away from you, and keep hands behind the tool.  
  • Do not use benzene, it is a known human carcinogen!  
  • Do not use plaster for body part casts.  Instead, use a plaster-impregnated bandage (such as Pariscraft), along with vaseline or similar mold release as protection.
  • Store clay materials in sealed containers.
  • Avoid dust generation, use wet-mopping method to clean studio areas.

Stones and Lapidary

Stone carving involves chipping, scraping, fracturing, flaking, crushing, and pulverizing with a wide variety of tools.  Soft stones can be worked with manual tools whereas hard stones require crushing and pulverizing with electric and pneumatic tools.  Lapidary involves cutting and carving semiprecious stones and has similar risks as hard stone carving.  Stones can be finished by grinding, sanding, and polishing, by either hand or with machines. 

Various hazards exist when working with this art form, including:

  • Toxic inhalation hazards from inhaling large amounts of free silica in sandstone, soapstone, and granite. Limestone, contains small amounts of free silica and is less hazardous.
  • Serpentine, soapstone, and greenstone may contain asbestos, which can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and stomach and intestinal cancers.
  • During chipping and other carving, flying chips and pieces of rock may cause eye injury.  Grinding and sanding can release small pieces of stone and dust which are hazardous to the eyes.
  • Lifting heavy pieces of stone may cause back injuries.
  • Power tools create larger amounts of fine dust than hand tools.  Pneumatic tools can create large amounts of fine silica dust.
  • Vibration from pneumatic equipment can cause Raynaud's phenomenon, ("white fingers" or "dead fingers") a circulation disease.  The hazard is greater with exposure to cold, (e.g. the air blast from pneumatic tools).  This temporary condition can spread to the whole hand and cause permanent damage.
  • Calcium oxide in Portland cement is highly corrosive to the eyes and respiratory tract, and is moderately corrosive to the skin.  Allergic dermatitis can also occur due to chromium contaminants in the cement.  The silica in the cement is also highly toxic by inhalation.  Lung problems from inhalation of Portland cement include emphysema, bronchitis, and fibrosis. Acrylic resins are skin irritants and sensitizers.
  • The dust from quartz gemstones such as agate, amethyst, onyx, and jasper is highly toxic because they are made of silica.  Other gemstones such as turquoise and garnet may be contaminated with substantial amounts of free silica.  Opal is made of amorphous silica, which is slightly toxic by inhalation.
  • Inhalation hazards from grinding wheel dust (especially sandstone wheels).  Some polishing materials such as tripoli are highly toxic if inhaled in powder form.

    Safety guidelines to minimize exposure to harmful dusts and physical hazards:

  • Do not use stones which may contain asbestos. Alabaster is a substitute.
  • Wear chipping goggles to protect against flying particles; wear protective shoes to protect against falling stones.  Wear approved safety goggles when grinding, sanding, or polishing.  For heavy grinding also wear a face shield.
  • When using carving tools, keep your hands behind the tools, and carve or cut in a direction away from you. Don't try to catch falling tools.
  • Use proper lifting techniques (bent knees) to avoid back injury.
  • Protect against vibration damage from pneumatic tools by measures such as having comfortable hand grips, directing the air blast away from your hands, keeping hands warm, taking frequent work breaks, and using preventive medical measures such as massage and exercises.
  • Tie long hair back, and don't wear ties, jewelry, or loose clothing which can get caught by machinery.


Many different types of wax are used for modeling, carving, and casting.  These include beeswax, ceresin, carnauba, tallow, paraffin, micro-crystalline, and synthetic chlorinated waxes.  Solvents used to dissolve various waxes include alcohol, acetone, benzene, turpentine, ether, and carbon tetrachloride.  Waxes are often softened for carving or modeling by heating in a double boiler or with a light bulb, by sculpting with tools warmed over an alcohol lamp, or by the use of soldering irons, alcohol lamps, and blowpipes.  Additives used with waxes include rosin, dyes, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and many solvents.  These processes and materials pose a multitude of hazards from the release of flammable and toxic vapors and the following guidelines should be followed to minimize exposure:

  • Know the materials you are working with by reading the SDS/MSDS and following the handling and storage guidelines.
  • Do not overheat waxes.  Use a double boiler and a temperature-controlled hot plate, or a crock pot. 
  • Do not use an open flame to melt waxes.
  • Use the least hazardous solvent to dissolve your wax.  Do not use benzene or carbon tetrachloride under any circumstances.  Store solvents safely, do not smoke or have open flames near solvents.  Dispose of solvent-soaked rags in an approved waste disposal container.
  • Do not use chlorinated synthetic waxes.

Wood working

Wood sculpture uses different types of hard and soft woods, including many exotic tropical woods.  Many of these woods are hazardous themselves and may be treated with preservatives or pesticides posing a variety of hazards, including:

  • Saps present in many green woods, and lichens and liverworts present on the surface of freshly cut wood, can cause skin allergies and irritation from direct contact.
  • Many hardwood dusts are common sensitizers and can cause allergic skin reactions.  
  • Contact with the dust of many hardwoods can cause conjunctivitis (eye inflammation), hay fever, asthma, coughing, and other respiratory diseases. 
  • Some hardwoods can cause hypersensitivity pneumonia (alveolitis), and frequent attacks can cause permanent lung scarring (fibrosis).  Examples of these highly toxic woods include giant sequoia, cork oak, some maple woods and redwood.
  • Some hardwoods contain chemicals that are toxic, and can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, salivation, thirst, giddiness, nausea, irregular heartbeat, etc.  A classic example is hemlock.
  • Inhalation of hardwood dust is associated with a particular type of nasal and nasal sinus cancer (adenocarcinoma).  

Plywood and Composition Board
Plywood is made by gluing thin sheets of wood together with either urea-formaldehyde glues (for indoor use) or phenol-formaldehyde glues (for outdoor use).  Composition board, for example particle board, is made by gluing wood dust, chips, etc., together with urea-formaldehyde resins.  The materials can emit unreacted formaldehyde for some years after manufacture.  In addition, heating these materials or machining them can cause decomposition of the glue to release formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is highly toxic by inhalation, highly toxic by eye contact and ingestion, and moderately toxic by skin contact.  It is an irritant and strong sensitizer.  Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.  Even trace amounts of free formaldehyde may cause allergic reactions in people who are already sensitized to it.  Machining, sanding, or excessive heating of plywood or composition board can cause decomposition releasing formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide (in the case of amino resins) and phenol (in the case of phenol-formaldehyde resins).

Use low-formaldehyde products whenever possible.  There are particle boards that are made without formaldehyde, but these are very expensive.  Do not store large amounts of plywood or composition board in the shop since it will emit formaldehyde.  Instead store in a ventilated area where people do not work.

Wood Preservation and Other Treatments
Pesticides and preservatives are often applied to wood when it is being timbered, processed or shipped.  Unfortunately, it is hard to find out what chemicals, if any, have been added.  This is especially a problem with imported woods, since pesticides and wood preservatives banned in the United States and Canada are often used in other countries.  Pentachlorophenol and its salts, creosote, and chromated copper arsenate (CCA) have been banned for sale in the United States as wood preservatives because of their extreme hazards.  They can, however, still be found in older woods and chromated copper arsenate is still allowed as a commercial treatment (e.g. "green" lumber, playground equipment, and other outdoor uses). It is supposed to be labeled.  A variety of other chemicals can be used in treating wood including fire retardants, bleaches, etc.

Wood Working Hazards

  • Pentachlorophenol is highly toxic by all routes of entry.  It can be absorbed through the skin, cause chloracne (a severe form of acne) and liver damage, and is a probable human carcinogen and reproductive toxin.
  • Chromated copper arsenate is extremely toxic by inhalation and ingestion, and highly toxic by skin contact.  It is a known human carcinogen and teratogen.  Skin contact can cause skin irritation and allergies, skin thickening and loss of skin pigmentation, ulceration, and skin cancer.  Inhalation can cause respiratory irritation, and skin, lung and liver cancer.  Inhalation or ingestion may cause digestive disturbances, liver damage, peripheral nervous system damage, and kidney and blood damage.  Acute ingestion may be fatal.
  • Creosote has a tarry look, and is also used for outdoor wood.  It is a strong skin and respiratory irritant, and is a probable human carcinogen and teratogen.
  • Zinc and copper naphthenate are slight skin irritants; copper naphthenate is moderately toxic by ingestion.  If suspended in solvents, the solvent would be the main hazard.

Safety guidelines when handling wood working materials to minimize hazardous exposures:

  • Obtain Safety Data Sheets (SDS) on all chemicals being used in wood treatment.  Treated wood itself does not have Safety Data Sheets, so you will have to find out about any treatments from the supplier.  In the United States, CCA-treated wood is required to have a label and information on safe handling.
  • Do not handle woods that have been treated with pentachlorophenol or creosote.  Avoid scrap or old woods of unknown origin.
  • If you add wood preservatives yourself, use zinc or copper naphthenates, if possible.
  • Do not burn wood that has been treated with creosote, pentachlorophenol or chromated copper arsenate.
  • Whenever possible, use common hardwoods rather than rare tropical hardwoods.
  • If you have a history of allergies, you should avoid common sensitizing woods.
  • If you are handling woods that can cause skin irritation or allergies, wear gloves.
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