Tag Archives: protection

Know What Chemicals You Are Working With

This past week, we learned that Gordon Billings, a UK props master, died from exposure to asbestos. Billings had suffered from shortness of breath and coughing for awhile, and passed away from lung cancer this past August. It was not until last week that the coroner issued his ruling that Billings’ death was due to asbestos exposure.

As a props master, Billings worked on films such as Empire of the Sun and TV series like The Sweeney. Part of his job was sweeping dust and debris from derelict buildings used as sets. Before his death, he had made a witness statement that he was not aware he was being exposed to asbestos.

As props people, we may be exposed to toxins, poisons and harmful chemicals on a daily basis. We may not even be aware of what we are exposing ourselves to. The harm from some of these chemicals may not manifest themselves for years, or even decades, after being exposed.

We may be smart about the particularly nasty chemicals; the ones that smell really bad and that have warnings all over their labels. But those chemicals that we only use once or twice a year may not cause as much harm as those which we subject ourselves to every day. Many harmful chemicals do not even have an odor, or give an indication that we are being exposed. As with Billings, you cannot tell whether you are breathing asbestos or whether you are just inhaling dust. The two-part polyurethanes we use in molding and casting have little to no odor, yet can be some of the more toxic chemicals you come into contact with in a props shop. Cleaners such as Simple Green or any of the “natural” cleaners which have “Orange” in the name can actually contain chemicals which cause reproductive problems, organ damage and even cancer, if you use them without gloves or adequate ventilation. The list goes on.

Protecting yourself from harmful exposure to chemicals is one area of safety where you cannot rely on assumptions or so-called “common sense”. Adequate protection can only come from gathering as much information about the products you use, and building the correct safety infrastructure to deal with them.

For every product in your props shop, you should have an MSDS which lists all hazardous ingredients and what safeguards should be taken. You can also find MSDS for the individual ingredients if you wanted more information. Websites such as the Chemical Abstracts Service and Toxipedia can guide you to more information about various chemicals. And, of course, Monona Rossol’s book, The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater is a must-read for anyone working in our industry.

It is one of the great downfalls of our industry that this kind of information is not taught as consistently or in-depth as it needs to be. Even when the desire to have a safe workplace is there, the knowledge of what that means, or the funds to make that happen are often lacking. A visit from OSHA can certainly point out all the dangers in a shop space, but the fear is that the company will be hit with steep fines or even shut down. One of my dreams is to have some kind of funded organization that could audit shop spaces for their safety infrastructure without fear of being reported, and train employees in proper safety procedures. The larger companies can already do this, as can areas with strong union presences, but there still exists so many smaller theatres and ad hoc film production companies with practically no knowledge of safety. Colleges and universities also suffer greatly from a lack of proper precautions, and these are training the next generation of technicians and managers.

Until that happens, it is up to each of us to protect ourselves. Know what chemicals and hazards you are dealing with. You do not want to devote your entire life working like Gordon Billings, only to spend your last years on Earth suffering from health problems.

TGI Links

This is from a few years ago, but it should provide a lengthy diversion: The New York Stagehand Glossary. It has a lot of terms which should be familiar to many of us, along with many I have heard for the first time (which is understandable, because I only did a bit of work as a stagehand while living in New York City).

Back in the old days, inventors who applied for a patent also had to submit a model of their invention. These models ranged from simple craft attempts to miniature marvels of engineering. The Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum houses one of the largest collections of these models, most dating from the 18th and 19th century. You can also view this set of photographs showing more of the models and exhibits.

Prosthesis by bjepson, on Flickr

Most props people are familiar with Mortite and floral putty for temporarily securing props to shelves, trays and tables. Sometimes, though, you want something a little stronger; you may even need something clear, such as when you need to secure crystal to a glass surface. Quakehold! has a whole bunch of products intended for securing your collectibles and valuables to shelves at home in case of earthquakes. Materials such as Museum Wax, Museum Putty and Museum Gel should keep your props from tipping or falling, and can be cleanly removed when the show is finished.

I like this tutorial for repairing broken plastic items with solvent welding with one caveat: you need to wear the proper gloves and skin protection as well as provide adequate ventilation and respiratory protection.

At the Props Summit a few weeks ago, they mentioned InFlow, an inventory management software program which can be used to catalog and track inventory. It was suggested that it might be useful for maintaining a photographic database of your stock. I haven’t used it, but the website offers a free download (you are limited to 100 items in your database) in case anyone was interested in trying it out.

A visual comparison of healthy and harmful gases.

Breathe Nothing But Air

A visual comparison of healthy versus harmful gases.
A visual comparison of healthy versus harmful gases.

My father is a potter, and his job includes all sorts of dangers to the lungs, such as dust from dry clay, mist from spraying glazes, and fumes from firing pots. His words of wisdom for dealing with all this safely are “breathe nothing but air.” Putting these simple words into practice can be a bit more complicated, however.

Proper ventilation is a must when working in almost every aspect of prop-making: wood-working, welding, molding and casting, painting, etc. You can (and should) supplement it with more specific safety measures, such as respirators and dust collection systems, when necessary, but overall ventilation is still the backbone of any healthy prop shop. Without ventilation, you will be putting other workers and visitors to your shop at risk. Also, many harmful particles remain in the air for a long period of time, well after you’ve completed your task and removed your respirator.

It’s helpful to know the different kinds of harmful substances that may enter your lungs, as this will determine what kind of protection you need. I learned about the various physical forms a chemical can take while working at the Santa Fe Opera, which has a great safety training program:

Solid, liquid, fume, dust, mist, gas, vapor.

I would hope you know what a solid and a liquid are; the other forms may require some explanation. It is important to know the difference between them because they determine what kind of protection you need to keep them out of your lungs. Wearing a dust mask to protect against vapors, such as those found in spray paint, is not only useless, but can even be more harmful than wearing nothing. Why? When wearing any kind of mask or respirator, your lungs need to work harder to pull in enough air to breathe, so wearing the wrong kind of mask will make your lungs suck in more spray paint than when your breathing rate is lower.

When a solid is heated to its melting point, it may release a fume, which is a solid particle suspended in the air. Welding and soldering are common practices which create fumes.

Sanding, grinding and even just handling powders can create dust. Like fumes, these are solid particles floating in the air. Though most dust is trapped by your nose hairs, some dust is so fine it can make it all the way to your lungs; these are known as “respirable” dusts, and are the most harmful. Some are so fine they are invisible.

Tiny liquid droplets in the air are known as a mist. You can create mists from spraying liquid, or from boiling it. Some mists may even carry solid particles inside.

A gas is the third phase of matter, after solid and liquid. Normally, when we talk about what form a certain material comes in, we talk about what phase it is at room temperature. Common gases used in the props shop can include argon and carbon dioxide for welding, and acetylene and propane for torches.

When a liquid evaporates, it becomes a vapor (notice how “vapor” appears in the word “evaporate”). Evaporation can be sped up by heat. Vapors are molecules just like gases, and the only real difference between the two are that vapors can re-condense to a liquid or solid in a high enough concentration.

You’ll notice the first three forms–fume, dust and mist–are all particles of some sort. You can filter particles with a physical barrier, such as those found in NIOSH-approved disposable respirators (sometimes referred to as “dust masks”).

Gases and vapors are molecules and cannot be physically filtered. A barrier which keeps molecules of harmful gas from passing through will also keep molecules of oxygen from passing through, and you kind of need oxygen to live. In these cases, you need a respirator with a chemical cartridge. A chemical cartridge will either capture and hold the harmful molecules or chemically react to transform them into something less harmful. One of the earliest substances to be used in this manner is activated charcoal, which is still relied upon for filtering many kinds of chemicals. Your Brita filter uses activated charcoal to filter your tap water.

There is no single type of chemical respirator cartridge which will filter out every kind of gas or vapor found in prop making. It is absolutely vital that you know and understand what kinds of chemicals you are working with and what physical forms they are in so you can choose the correct type of respirator and cartridge to wear. As with particles, wearing a respirator makes your lungs take bigger and deeper breaths to compensate for the reduced flow of oxygen; wearing the wrong kind of respirator means you are taking bigger and deeper breaths of a toxic substance than you would wearing nothing. Some chemicals cannot be filtered by any type of cartridge and require either a supplied-air or self-contained breathing apparatus.

In any case, proper ventilation in your shop is still your best defense against airborne chemicals.

Safety Goggles

Props people are often said to “have a good eye” when it comes to building furniture or dressing a set. Well, if you don’t wear safety goggles when working in the props shop, you may end up with NO EYES AT ALL.

Safety goggles are often thought of in two different ways; there are impact resistant goggles and chemical splash goggles.

When you are woodworking, grinding metal, even hammering, you are creating the risk that a piece of material will fly into your eyes. Impact resistant goggles will protect your eyes from all but the most severe projectiles; if you are working on something that can break through a pair of impact resistant goggles, it can probably also break through your skin and or bones, in which case, you need more than just eye protection. Specifically, OSHA sets the minimum standard which impact resistant goggles must meet to ANSI Z87.1. You can read a summary of ANSI Z87.1 to see what kind of tests they perform on goggles.

For chemical splash goggles, most labs also recommend goggles which conform to ANSI Z87.1 as a minimum. Additional recommendations include goggles which wrap around the sides to fit snugly against the face. Elastic bands keep the goggles tight against the face and resist being knocked off from side impacts. Vents on the side help the eyes breathe and keep the goggles from fogging, but they should be designed in a way so that chemicals splashing from the front can’t get inside.

You can, of course, find goggles which claim to be chemical splash goggles but offer no impact resistance whatsoever. These will keep your eyes dry but little other protection. Since you should have ANSI-rated goggles for both impact and chemical protection, these kinds of goggles are completely worthless and should be avoided at all costs.

Working in props can demand both types of goggles. Carpentry, metal-working and other “hard materials” projects require impact resistant goggles. Working with epoxies, resins, powders, paints and other chemicals, as well as with heat and glassware, require chemical splash goggles. You can, of course, find a single pair of goggles which fills both needs, or you can have two pairs of goggles. Either way, you do not want to use goggles which fit neither needs. Often, you can find yourself working in a prop shop where a couple pairs of goggles are found thrown in a bin, with no indication of whether they conform to safety standards, not to mention how unhygienic this is. If you can’t identify the brand and model of a pair of goggles, then you can’t know whether it conforms to safe standards, and you have to assume it does not.

I recommend having your own personal set of goggles. Besides working in shops with a poor selection of safety equipment, you may also find yourself working in places which aren’t actually shops. Technically, your employer is supposed to provide you with the safety equipment you need, but like most props artisans, you may do a fair amount of work on your own, either as a hobby or to make extra cash. A personal pair of goggles also means you can find a pair that fits well and that feels well; you should not forgo eye protection just because most goggles feel uncomfortable on your face. You have a multitude of choices in eyewear out there, most under $20. Even the most expensive pairs are only $80-90, which is still far less than the cost of a visit to the eye doctor, not to mention the lifetime cost of losing an eye. Mind you, the price of goggles is not necessarily an indication of their quality or effectiveness.