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There probably aren't many documented cases of people dying from working with warm glass, but there are plenty of cuts and burns and opportunities for even more serious health and safety problems.

It seems obvious that glass can cut and hot glass can burn, but many people don't realize that working with glass can be dangerous in other ways. If you're not careful, you can ruin your lungs, damage your eyes, and even burn your house to the ground.

The purpose of this discussion isn't to scare you away; rather, it's to make you aware of the potential warm glass health and safety pitfalls and to offer some suggestions to keep you on the right track.  Many of these suggestions will seem like common sense. Unfortunately, they aren't always "commonly" used.

  • Don't go barefoot. Wear shoes with closed-in toes. If your hair is long, tie it back. Don't wear loose fitting clothes. Cotton or other natural fiber is best. Long sleeves help if you're reaching in the kiln. Wear gloves and respirators when needed.
  • Use your head. Most injuries can be prevented if you just think about what you're doing.
  • The occasional cuts are fairly easy to deal with — just wash your hands well and wrap on an adhesive bandage until the bleeding stops. A "triple ointment" (Neosporin is one brand — it contains three different antibiotics.) can help the cuts heal faster.

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Glass dust — or silica dust, to be more specific — can be a far greater problem than cutting yourself. Scoring glass with a glasscutter releases small particles, but these aren't generally worrisome. A greater potential problem lies with the use of grinder.

In addition to the ground glass that gets slung around, using a grinder can whirl a fine mist of dust into the air. The major way to keep this under control is to make sure you keep the grinder head and glass edges wet.

If you inhale too much glass dust (and the particles can be too fine to tell), you might get silicosis, a lung disorder that more frequently associated with coal miners than with glass cutting. Never grind glass without plenty of water to keep it moist and well lubricated. Not only will this keep the glass dust from becoming airborne, your grinder do a better job.

Also, always wear safety glasses when grinding or working with a glass saw. The risk of getting a small particle in your eye more than offsets any possible discomfort. Basic eyewear is inexpensive, is available to easily fit people (and faces) of all sizes, and shouldn't hinder your ability to see the work you're grinding.

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Kiln safety starts with where you place the kiln. It should be obvious that a kiln belongs on cement or other nonflammable surface, but more than one unthinking person has placed them on a wooden floor. Keep kilns at least three feet from anything that can catch fire, and make sure flammable liquids and loose papers are secured even further away.

It's also best to place your kiln on a stand that keeps it directly off the floor and allows for air circulation underneath. Keep an ABC fire extinguisher nearby (that's good for all kinds of fires) and learn how to use it should the need arise.

Also, if you have a kiln that requires a special electrical connection, spend the extra money and have a qualified electrician set it up. Make sure you have a separate circuit for the kiln and know the location of the switch or breaker that cuts off the power to the kiln.

It's obvious that the kiln will be hot on the inside when it's operating, but be aware that most kilns get hot on the outside as well. Even the handle, which you'd think would be insulated, can get too hot to touch. So make sure you wear gloves if you need to open the kiln while it's hot.

Many kiln manuals will tell you to never open the kiln when it's hot, but that's not very practical advice. Many standard warm glass operations, such as combing and topping off glass molds, require access to the kiln while it the glass is hot. If you do this, do it safely by wearing protective equipment (gloves, goggles, etc.) and by — this is critical — cutting off power to the kiln before you open it. By cutting off the power you minimize the risk of electrical burns and you make certain that touching "hot" elements won't deliver a potentially painful shock.

In addition to dealing with the heat and electrical components of the kiln, it's also essential to protect your eyes is equally important when you're working around the kiln. If you open the kiln watch out for gusts of hot air or bubbles in the glass that could pop and harm your eyes.

Another situation where eye protection is necessary is when you look into the kiln when the glass is heating. When the temperature climbs above around 1100 degrees F (600 C), the glass will start to glow red. The intensity of this glow increases as the glass gets hotter. If you look into the kiln while the glass is glowing, you should take care to protect your eyes.

The main reason for this is that hot glass emits infrared rays. Prolonged exposure to infrared wavelengths can result in cataracts, a blurring of the vision that often occurs many years after repeated unprotected exposure. You can block infrared rays by using the right kind of eyeglasses.

The least expensive kind of glasses to use are welder's glasses, which are generally available in hardware and similar stores. These glasses, which block infrared light, are rated with a number that corresponds to how efficiency they block the rays. Number 3 welder's glasses (sometimes called Colobar) are sufficient for warm glass purposes. Glasses up to a darkness of 5 can also be successfully used in the workshop. Lamp-working glasses (which have didymium lenses) don't block infrared rays and shouldn't be used for kiln work.

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If you're lucky, you'll never burn yourself. If you're human, you probably will. Since kilns operate at much higher temperatures than a household oven, the potential for severe burns is always there. Most burns occur because you aren't using the right safety equipment or because your attention momentarily strays and you get careless. Proper treatment depends on the severity of the burn, but treating as soon as possible is essential for all burns.

For first degree burns, where the skin is red and painful, you should immediately cool the burn by placing it under cold running water. Then an ointment or protective dry bandage can be used. Aloe vera plants (see below) can be especially helpful in treating the burn and helping it heal more quickly.

Second degree burns, where the burned area blisters or swells, are more serious. In addition to immersing them in cold water, it may help to cover them with a sterile bandage and treat with aloe vera or a similar preparation. Never pop the blisters or peel back the damaged skin. These burns take longer to heal than first degree burns, but it's not usually necessary to see a doctor.

Third degree burns are the most serious of all. The skin may be charred and the damage extends deep beneath the surface. Medical attention should always be sought for burns of this severity. Don't try to clean the burned area; instead, just cover the area, keep calm, and get medical help immediately.

There are many commercially available ointments for treating minor burns, but one that works very well is to use the juice of the aloe vera plant. There are over 240 varieties of aloe, but the one that works best is the aloe barbadensis miller variety. To use it to treat burns, you just break off a leaf and apply some of the liquid on the burned area.

Sometimes more than one leaf may be necessary. You'll be surprised how quickly it can relieve the pain and get you back to working with glass. Live plants work best, so many glassworkers keep one in a pot near the work area.

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Most people don't think about ventilation when they think about their work areas, but good air movement is a must. Many tasks in glassworking, from grinding to drying kiln wash to working with enamels and silica, give off fumes or particles that could be harmful. Your work area may have enough "natural" ventilation to take care of these contaminants with no further assistance, or you may need to install a fan in a window.

If you do a lot of glass painting using enamels or frequently use molds with contaminants that need to be burned away, then you should consider investing in a system that will vent air from your studio.

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It's nearly impossible to do warm glass work without exposing yourself to ceramic fiber products. Fiber paper is perhaps the most commonly used item in this category, but ceramic fiber products also include fiber blanket and fiber board. All of these should be treated with respect, as should silica dust. These items are potential dangerous and can be carcinogenic, especially at high temperatures.

If you have decided to use ceramic fiber products in your work area, consider taking the following precautions to help minimize the dangers inherent in these materials.

  • Wear a respirator in any situation where you are dealing with loose fibers or silica dust. Make sure you have the proper respirator for filtering out these particles -- it should have a purple/pink cartridge.
  • If you work with plaster/silica molds, consider obtaining a vacuum cleaner that's rated for removal of asbestos or other potential carcinogens.
  • Even if you only use fiber paper occasionally, it's a good idea to use sweeping compound to help clean your work area. This substance is sprinkled around an area with loose fibers, then just swept and discarded.
  • Wear latex or similar gloves when cutting or molding ceramic fiber products.

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In addition to ceramic fiber products, many substances which are commonly used in glassworking can be hazardous. Glass itself can contain hazardous ingredients, but these are generally not a problem at warm glass temperatures. Some commonly used substances, such as silica or muriatic acid, require the use of protective gloves or a respirator.

If in doubt about the safety of a particular material, ask the manufacturer for a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which will contain important information about the substance and how it should be handled and used.

The key thing to remember is to be always on the lookout for hazardous chemicals and protect yourself accordingly.

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It is highly recommended that you invest in the following equipment to help keep your studio safe and make warm glass more enjoyable.

-- A fire extinguisher. Pick one that's rated "ABC" for fires of any type, from electrical to paper. Keep it near the kiln, inspect it regularly, and know how to use it. You'll probably never need it, but you'll be eternally grateful if you do.

-- Simple first aid items. Start with common items such as adhesive bandages, burn ointments, and aspirin or a similar painkiller.

-- Two kinds of safety glasses. You'll need one pair of clear safety glasses for grinding and cold working glass and a second pair of shaded glasses for looking into the kiln.

-- Two kinds of gloves. The first pair of gloves should be made for withstanding heat. The second should be made of latex or rubber and should be used for dealing with chemicals.

-- A respirator or mask. Get the kind of mask or respirator that's rated for the kinds of work you do.

These items should either be kept in a centrally located kit or be available next to the places where they are used.

Safety is something that most people don't think about, but it takes only a few extra moments to work safely. Not only is it time well spent, it will go a long way toward making sure your warm glass experiences are enjoyable, productive, and safe.

Click here for more about gloves, respirators, and glasses.