Sawdust happens. If you are a prop carpenter, or you do any sort of carpentry in your shop, you will produce sawdust. There’s been plenty written about maintaining the dust in your shop; that is, providing adequate ventilation in your shop, hooking your tools up to dust collectors, hanging dust filters above larger power tools, and wearing dust masks when necessary. That’s all important, but this post is about dealing with the dust that is left. Sawdust creates four hazards:
When you have a fine layer of sawdust on the ground, it reduces your traction. It is challenging enough to run a full sheet of plywood through a table saw. Don’t compound the struggle with slipping and sliding around on the floor. On lighter-colored floors, a thin layer of sawdust can be almost invisible and still cause slips and falls.
When you allow dust to hang around, everytime you drop a piece of wood or a prop, you will raise a cloud of dust. A lot of tools, especially routers and sanders, kick out a stream of air which will also blow sawdust into the air, and ultimately, into your lungs.
Ideally, your shop will be set up for seperate metal and wood areas. In reality, this is not always possible, especially with larger props which cannot be moved to the metal area, or props constructed with both wood and metal. Grinding throws out hot sparks which disappear quickly, but if they find a pile of easily-combustible sawdust, they may begin to smolder and even catch fire. More dangerous is welding around sawdust. I’ve seen plenty of small fires begin from the johnny balls that fly out of a welder and roll into a pile of dust.
All wood, even kiln dried, contains a minute percentage of moisture. When you turn the wood into dust, it allows the moisture to be released more easily. If you let even a thin layer of sawdust remain on your tools, the moisture will eventually begin to rust the metal parts. It makes no sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a tool with a precision-machined metal table only to let sawdust rust it away into a rough surface; especially when it takes about two seconds to brush the sawdust off.
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.
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.
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.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies