Safety Equipment for the Primitive Workshop

by Jamie Hall on May 3, 2010

Health and safety as we know it is a fairly modern concept. In the past, people just had to use common sense, and that remains the most important part of workshop safety – it doesn’t matter how many rules there are, and how many safety features you use in the workplace; if you act like an idiot, you’ll suffer like one.


Many of the modern rules wouldn’t be relevant, of course – respiratory protection should be worn when dealing with fine airborne particles, and ventilation and extraction are as, if not more, important – polishing mops put a lot of crap in the air, and flexible shaft drills can be just as bad, if you are using them for long periods. Neither of these devices were available in the middle ages, and even if eqivalents were used for polishing, like a pole lathe, the speed of the mop would be too slow to cause serious dust. Polishing seems to have generally been done on a flat surface using a powdered abrasive mixed with oil or water, which would minimise the risk of dust.


However, chemicals were just as important then as they are now, and the risk of fumes is a serious one. There is little reference to safety in the medieval and renaissance texts that I have access to; the one quote I can find is from Theophilus:

Be very careful that you do not mill or apply gilding when you are hungry, because the fumes of mercury are very dangerous to an empty stomach and give rise to various sicknesses against which you must use zedoary and bayberry, pepper and garlic and wine.

– John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, Theophilus – On Diverse Arts, Book III, Chapter 37

Ignoring the suggested remedies, it is still clear that the mercury fumes were considered hazardous, and working on a full stomach would at least have avoided the risk of tiredness and lack of nutrition that can only worsen the effects of mercury. There are many old processes in these texts that use mercury, for example fire gilding and almalgamating gold, and I sadly won’t be trying those – even if I can adequately ventilate the workshop, and provide myself with respiratory protection, I don’t dare risk a spillage and the resulting long-term risk of mercury fumes in the workshop.


Even without mercury, there are plenty of other fumes to worry about. Any strong pickles, like sulfuric acid, are a fume risk, and the use of a furnace will give the problems of carbon monoxide, oxygen depletion and fine ash particles. A fume hood and an air extractor will be invaluable. Another substance with some risk is lead – although it is far more dangerous to children than to adults, the health problems associated with it may make it’s use as a chemical (eg. in niello work) off limits to me, which would be a shame. It might still be possible to use it as a material – for example, it’s mentioned by Theophilus as a good surface on which to polish stones, if the right abrasive powders are used – but realistically, there are probably safer modern alternatives with similar properties.


The next thing to consider is the safety of the eyes. Let’s face it – few of us wear goggles all the time, but we should probably wear them more than we do. Going back to my earlier comments, the absence of lathes for polishing and cutting reduces the issue of high-speed particles hitting the eyes, but any use of chemicals needs eye protection, and even forging a block of silver can be dangerous, if the metal is too small to grip properly – I know this first hand, having been cut on the forehead by a flying 3g lump of gold. Any clear plastic goggles will be adequate for this, although I will have to get around to buying a polishing compound that works with plastics – I’ve tried using jeweller’s compounds, like tripoli and rouge, but they just seem to partially melt the plastic (that might mean I need a slower polishing lathe).


Another useful type of goggle that I should consider is for UV protection. I won’t be working with platinum in my workshop, or even with direct heat, so I don’t need anything too strong, but some protection from the glare of the furnace will be important.


One very useful piece of advice I was given early on was to make sure to wear natural fibres and leather boots, with a leather apron and gloves when I’m doing something particularly risky, like pouring molten metal from a crucible into a mould. The apron and gloves are self-explanatory, but the issue of natural fibres is one that many people don’t consider – nylon and other synthetic fibres are basically solidified fuel, and will burn very easily if splashed with, say, a large amount molten silver. Once they start going, they are difficult to stop, and even worse, they have a tendancy to melt onto the body, potentially requiring a hospital visit. As a tangent, the same applies if you go to music festivals or similar crowded events – a tiny canvas army tent is much safer than the nylon equivalent; I’m told that if you are in one that sets on fire, you have 6 seconds to cut your way out before the tent melts onto you.


Finally, I’ll have to consider storage and safety data sheets – I’m not running this as a business, and I certainly won’t be employing anyone, but it makes sense to take the same precautions we do at work. Chemicals will be stored in appropriate glass or plastic containers, in a cool dark place. A folder of safety sheets will be kept, and updated as I aquire new substances. The door to the workshop will be kept locked, and it may be worth keeping the chemicals in a cupboard with it’s own lock. I don’t expect to have large numbers of chemicals, and certainly not large volumes of any of them, but my wife is pregnant, so I do have to look at this from the perspective of child safety – in two or three years, I don’t want to be taking a toddler to A&E. These issues always have to be approached from the worst case scenario.

{ 2 comments }

Suzanne July 6, 2010 at 01:16

I’m thinking of the safety issue for my children too. I’m going to make goggles a rule in The Laundry & they can enter if they use them (unless they are actually doing their laundry!). My biggest concern is the gas though. Accidents with children happen in a flash so you are right to consider all potential threats.

Jamie Hall July 9, 2010 at 20:29

Are you going to be using gas canisters? At work, we have to chain them to the wall, so they can’t fall over. You might be able to do something to cover or lock the valves – there could be a commercially available product to do that, so it would be worth asking your supplier.

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