Mold making shop safety

Mold Making Studio Safety


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Solvents are one of the most underrated hazards in art

Nothing bothers me more than someone wagging their finger in my face to give me advice that I have never requested  - even it’s for my own good. But this blog would not be complete if I didn’t point out some of the more obvious and not so obvious safety hazards of mold making and casting. For many, it is hard to believe that their artistic and creative efforts could be hazardous to their health. However, If not properly used, mold making and casting materials, as well as the processes involved, can cause physical injury, illness, or even fires.

Therefore, it is necessary that I do a small bit of finger wagging (if you will excuse my finger for the moment) so you can understand the mold making studio hazards and how to protect yourself, as well as to protect those working around you. This chapter provides an overview of the hazards associated with mold making and casting. Labor and environmental laws extensively regulate many of these areas.

Learn About the Material Hazards in Advance

Make it a point to read both the product labels and the material Safety Data Sheets (SDS) before using a new or unfamiliar product.

Product Labels

Art products have two Federal labeling standards of which you should be aware. The first is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The second is the Communication Standard and Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA).

Hazardous art materials, like other chemical products, under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard, must be labeled with both the common name of the chemical or product, as well as the name, address, and emergency phone number of the company that manufactured the product. In addition, it is required to contain the appropriate hazard warning such as DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION.

  • DANGER – Products with serious health or safety hazards, such as being highly toxic, corrosive, or flammable
  • WARNING and CAUTION are used with lesser hazardous substances

Figure 1.This is an example of the new GHS label. Make certain you read both the product label as well as its accompanying SDS sheet.

In addition to such label warnings, label information must also include the specific potential hazards associated with the product, such as the safety measures to be used when handling the material, personal protective equipment or clothing that should be worn, first aid instructions, storage information, and procedures to follow in the event of a fire, leak, or spill.

Previously, arts and crafts only required labeling for acute hazards. The LHAMA amended the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, now requiring that information about chronic or long-term hazards be present as well. That was because art and craft materials were previously exempt from consumer lead laws. Now producers must evaluate their products’ ability to cause chronic illness and use label information to warn consumers about those hazards.

With the new LHAMA requirements, all art material labels must include the following:

  1. A statement that the product and its labeling conforms to ASTM D-4236. This statement doesn’t mean that the material is safe. It means that following the label’s instructions should enable the user to use the product safely.
  2. The list of all potentially hazardous ingredients and hazard words, such as CAUTION or DANGER (Note: manufacturers may consider some ingredients to be proprietary and therefore are not required to list those specific ingredients even if they are hazardous)
  3. Long term hazard statements, which inform the user of the kind of harm the product might cause, such as “Cancer Agent” or “Exposure may cause allergic reaction”
  4. Statements advising the user how to safely use the material
  5. The producer’s telephone number
  6. If applicable, a statement that the product is not appropriate for use by children

Materials considered to be “non-toxic” by a certifying toxicologist only require the producer’s name and address and an ASTM D4236 conformance statement. But use the information with caution, as materials  labeled “non-toxic” may also contain chemicals for which there is no chronic toxicity data.

Figure 2. In 2012, OSHA revised its Hazard Communication Standard to align with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).The new hazard pictograms are the most notable elements of the GHS labels. The figure below shows the symbol for each pictogram, the name of the pictogram, and the hazards associated with each pictogram. Some of the symbols are the same as those used to convey the hazards in transportation, but these pictograms are for worker safety; they do not replace hazardous materials labels for transportation.

The Safety Data Sheet

In addition to reading product labels, you should always review the product’s Safety Data Sheets (SDS). The Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) (29 CFR 1910.1200(g)), revised in 2012, requires that the chemical manufacturer, distributor, or importer provides SDSs (formerly MSDSs or Material Safety Data Sheets) for each hazardous chemical to downstream users to communicate information on any hazards. It is the chemical or product manufacturer that is required to prepare the SDS, and it is available from the manufacturer, distributor, or importer listed on the product’s label.

The newly formatted SDS provides the following useful information to product users:

  1. The identification of the chemical as the recommended uses
  2. The name, address, and phone number of the manufacturer, importer, or other responsible party, and emergency phone number
  3. The identification of the hazards of the chemical and the appropriate warning information associated with those hazards
  4. The ingredient(s) contained in the product, including impurities and stabilizing additives
  5. The initial care that should be given by untrained responders to an individual who has been exposed to the chemical
  6. The recommendations for fighting a fire caused by the chemical
  7. The recommendations on the appropriate response to spills, leaks, or releases, including containment and cleanup practices to prevent or minimize exposure to people, properties, or the environment
  8. Guidance on the safe handling practices and conditions for safe storage of chemicals
  9. Exposure limits, engineering controls, and personal protective measures that can be used to minimize worker exposure
  10. The physical and chemical properties associated with the substance or mixture
  11. The reactivity hazards of the chemical and the chemical stability information
  12. Identification of toxicological and health effects information or indication that such data is not available
  13. Information to evaluate the environmental impact of the chemical(s) if it were released to the environment
  14. Guidance on proper disposal practices, recycling or reclamation of the chemical(s) or its container, and safe handling practices
  15. Guidance on classification information for shipping and transporting of hazardous chemical(s) by road, air, rail, or sea.
  16. Identification of the safety, health, and environmental regulations specific for the product that is not indicated anywhere else on the SDS

The information quality contained on SDSs varies widely, and many manufacturers use generic statements that are of limited value. In other cases, the health and safety guidelines have been written to address worst-case scenarios that are more typical of industrial settings and would be unusual in an art studio or small mold making shop.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

A volatile organic compound is a broad category of chemical compounds that contain carbon and hydrogen and are characterized by their volatility under normal room temperature and pressure conditions..The EPA describes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, which are emitted by a wide array of products used in the work place and in the home, including solvents such as naphtha, turpentine, xylene, and toluene as examples. VOCs also emanate from paint, lacquer, paint strippers, varnish, cleaning supplies, air fresheners, pesticides, building materials, and even furnishings. 

Figure 3. The EPA describes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, which are emitted by a wide array of products used in the work place and in the home, including solvents such as naphtha, turpentine, xylene, and toluene.

VOCs are released from these products into the work area or at home both during use and even while stored. That is a silent hazard; according to the EPA, VOCs cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, frequent headaches, nausea, and they can also damage the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

Author Michael McFadden, Ph.D., writing  from the University of Illinois, School of Public Health in, states in part:

"In general, solvents are one of the most underrated hazards in art. They are used for a million purposes: to dissolve and mix with oils, resins, varnishes, inks; to remove paint, varnish, lacquers; to clean brushes, tools, silk screens and even hands. As a result, artists are continually being exposed to solvents. Almost all organic solvents are poisonous if swallowed or inhaled in sufficient quantity, and most cause dermatitis after sufficient skin contact.  High concentrations of most solvents can cause narcosis (dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and loss of coordination, coma, and the like).
This can increase the chances for mistakes and accidents. As mentioned earlier, long-term exposure to high concentrations of many solvents can cause brain damage.  In particular, aromatic hydrocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons and chlorinated hydrocarbons appear to be implicated.  Some solvents - for example, benzene (benzoyl) and carbon tetrachloride - are so toxic that they shouldn't be used.  Other solvents - for example, acetone and ethanol (ethyl or grain alcohol) - are reasonably safe." 

Can Be Explosive

If VOCs are found in large enough amounts they can form an explosive mixture in air. The concentrations of when this can become a concern are described in chemical specifications (Safety Data Sheets) as the Lower Explosive Limit and the Upper Explosive Limit. Referring to its safety data sheet,  VOC concentrations that fall  in the Lower Explosive Limit and the Upper Explosive Limit are considered explosive and therefore dangerous.

Used Without Proper Protection

The problem is that in many art, sculpture, and mold making studios, solvents are still used without any form of protection. Some studios have dealt with the issue of solvent exposure through the installation of ventilation systems. However, Stanford scientists found that the impact of solvent vapors on human health is one thousand times greater in an indoor environment, as opposed an outdoor one. This may explain some illnesses due to solvent VOC inhalation, despite the widespread adoption of sophisticated ventilation systems in studios and workshops.

Since the 1960s, there has been increasing medical evidence that most petroleum-derived solvents are toxic. This has been the basis of various lawsuits brought by afflicted workers, for example in the US railway industry. Over the past twenty years - and with little publicity - there have also been various lawsuits regarding sickness or injury resulting from solvent exposure in the field of painting and decorating, in art schools, and in other fields, such as road construction and printing.  

People who were exposed to harsh solvents twelve or more years ago may still face cognitive side effects, like brain damage, according to the findings of new research. 

In a study published in the medical journal, Neurology, researchers found that exposure to solvents had a negative effect on cognitive functions, like memory and thinking. The effects were found much later in the workers' lives, twelve to fifty years after exposure, and did not fade over time.

Numerous solvents that were classed as 'moderately toxic' in older literature on solvent safety are now regarded as 'toxic.' For instance White Spirit / Mineral Spirits or Acetone have been re-evaluated by experts and are now classed as 'toxic' and as potential carcinogens. Glycol ether, often quoted as being a mere irritant and a necessity, is also toxic, not only in concentration but also diluted (e.g. In water-based paints and cleaning products). 

"Although some solvents are less hazardous than others, all solvents can cause toxic effects. There are no safe organic solvents, only more and less toxic ones. All organic solvents can affect the nervous system, respiratory system, skin, eyes, and internal organs to some degree. Solvents are also implicated in damage to both the male and the female reproductive systems." 
Source: UIC Health and Safety in the Arts Library.


As a result of these hazards and the enactment of EPA regulations on the requirement to lower VOCs or to eliminate them altogether, the solvent industry has stepped up to the plate and has now formulated a number of excellent solvent substitutions. These either have no VOCs or are so low in VOCs that the EPA classifies them “VOC Exempt.”  


When using VOC solvents, as well as certain mold making and casting materials (read the label) indoors, you must consider proper ventilation; dilution, local exhaust, and air purifiers are the three basic methods for adding ventilation when such materials are used.

Ventilation Fan

Figure 4. Dilution ventilation using an outside fan introduces clean air into your studio or work area.


Dilution ventilation introduces clean air into your studio or work area, which in turn mixes with and dilutes the contaminated air before being exhausted outside by a fan. This ventilation method reduces VOCs to a safer level. This method requires the introduction of large volumes of air to be effective. The source emanating the VOCs is best located between the fan and the user, with clean air introduced from behind the user. That way all contaminated air is pushed away from the user. Dilution ventilation is best used when only small quantities of toxic VOCs are being produced.

Venitaltion Hood

Figure 5. Local exhaust ventilation uses a hood over the source of the VOCs to capture fumes at their source.

Local Ventilation

Local exhaust ventilation uses a hood over the source of the VOCs to capture fumes at their source. The hood system is attached to a duct, which exhausts contaminants directly to the outside. In some systems, particularly those used to collect dust, a filter cleans the air stream before discharging it to the outdoors. A local exhaust system is the preferred ventilating system for processes that release moderately to highly toxic compounds and dusts.

Air Purifiers

There are a number of companies that make air purifiers to remove VOCs from the air. The Aller Air 4000 DX is one such unit. It is designed to treat very heavy concentrations of chemicals and odors in smaller areas. The "DX" option offers an extra-large 3.5"-deep activated carbon filter for enhanced adsorption of airborne toxins, a micro-HEPA for particles, and an easy-clean pre-filter. This unit (without UV) is ARB certified for sale in California.

Avoiding Burns

Some of the materials that you will handle in your mold making and casting experiences can and will cause painful burns if you are not properly equipped. There are two categories of materials that you must take care in use. The first category, which includes materials that actually use heat in the curing process, include such common items as plaster and resins. As these materials cure they give off a significant amount of heat. So much so that using plaster against the skin in a thick enough layer will burn it. The greater the mass of these materials, the hotter they get. So that casting with resin is often done in several pours rather that all at once, because curing resins can get hot enough to damage its mold if poured all at once into a bigger mold.

Do not use plaster against the skin. However, plaster-impregnated bandages are designed for such use as the plaster contained in the gauze bandages is a minimum amount, though the bandages do warm up during curing. As for your use with resin, remember that in order to cure, these materials use heat, so use care not to touch them until they have had time to cool down after curing.

The second and more dangerous materials are those that you have to heat up to use. Such materials include wax, clay, moulage, and thermoset rubbers (materials that are melted prior to use). If spilled, or splattered, these materials can cause severe burns. Use heat-resistant gloves and goggles when heating these materials and great caution when carrying and pouring the material to prevent splashing.

In addition to hazards that may be caused by accident, any time you heat a material it will give off fumes that you should avoid breathing, and thus you should heat these materials only in a ventilated area.

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective gear are the items of last resort, as your first step should always be the substitution of safer materials, even if they are more expensive – after all, it is your health. The second step should be controlling exposure through ventilation or limiting the length or the amount of exposure. If these first two steps are insufficient then it may be necessary to consider various personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and a face mask at the very least.

Gloves should automatically be worn when mixing and applying mold making and casting materials, not simply because of any caustic materials, but to keep your hands clean. They are also one of the more common types of personal protective equipment and can be worn to protect the hands from a variety of hazards associated with mold making and casting. Always use cut resistant, and heat resistant gloves to protect against solvent exposure, trimming your work, handling hot materials and using acids, and bases when you are conducting patina work on metals.

Eye Protection

Figure 6. To protect against airborne particles, consider wearing safety glasses with side shields or goggles.

It is important to protect the face and eyes from splashes from your mixing, as well as fine powders, such as plasters, cold casting metals, and liquid splashes. To protect against airborne particles, consider wearing safety glasses with side shields or goggles. Add a face shield if the potential exposure is severe. Chemical splash goggles should always be worn to protect the eyes when pouring or mixing solvents and mold making and casting materials, and at all other times when there is a chance of harmful splashes.


Figure 7. The evidence supports that you use a ventilation means or a NIOSH-approved mask when handling any VOC solvent for the health reasons.

A face mask should be worn when mixing or transferring fine powders. Respirators should only be worn when the task or work area cannot be adequately vented to reduce the exposure to a safe level, such as in laying up fiberglass.

Other types of personal protective equipment that can be worn in art studios include: (1) earplugs and earmuffs to protect against high noise sources; (2) safety shoes to protect against sparks, molten metal, heavy objects, electric shock, static electricity buildup, and seal punctures; (3) miscellaneous garments, such as aprons, coveralls, leggings, sleeves, and knee pads to protect the arms, legs, and front of the body from chemicals, flying objects, molten metal, and sparks.

 In conclusion, safety in the mold making and casting studio is often just common sense. If you are aware of the hazard, then you can take adequate safety precautions. Begin by reading product labels and the SDS sheets. Make certain that you have safety equipment handy. At the very least you should have a supply of rubber gloves, heat resistant gloves, gauze masks, face shields, and a NIOSH-approved mask. The evidence supports that you use a ventilation means or a NIOSH-approved mask when handling any VOC solvent for the health reasons we detailed above. As an alternate, search out and use the newly developed VOC-free and VOC-exempt solvents, so that you continue your artistry in the best of health. With all this in mind, there is no reason why you cannot practice safe and accident free mold making and casting.


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