Is Glass Blowing Dangerous?

Glass being inserted into the glory hole for reheating.

Some hobbies, like stamp collecting, are considered to be perfectly safe, while others, like skateboarding, are known to cause frequent injuries.

So, what about glass blowing? Is it relatively safe, or should you think twice before signing up for classes?  

Is glass blowing dangerous? There are dangers associated with glass blowing, such as burns, cuts, toxic fumes, eye damage, cancer, and chronic pain. However, using appropriate safety gear, like aprons and gloves, and following safety protocols will minimize the risk of injury.

Blowing your own glass is a wonderful experience, and the intricacies of the hobby can take a lifetime to master, but there are certain dangers that you should be aware of in order to protect yourself. 

Dangers Associated With Glass Blowing

Of course, with any activity involving multiple sources of extreme heat, there are certain inherent dangers.

When you factor in not only the molten glass but fragile glass in the cooling stage too, the potential hazards only increase. 

So, is blowing glass worth the risk of being injured? 

Well, only you can decide that for yourself, but know that recognizing the possibility for harm is the first step in keeping yourself safe while enjoying your glass-blowing hobby.

The next steps are to use every available safety measure and follow all safety guidelines as you work. 

Don’t allow fear to stop you from pursuing your dreams.

After all, when you think about it, many of the activities you participate in every day, such as crossing the street or driving your car, carry the potential for harm. 

Just know the risks involved, be aware of your surroundings when working, faithfully use all recommended safety equipment, and use plenty of common sense.

Burns

Just a momentary lapse in attention can result in serious burns when working in close proximity to several furnaces routinely. The furnaces, however, are not the only threat. 

Molten glass is approximately 2,000℉ when it is first gathered on the end of the blowpipe. 

In order for the glass to remain workable, the glass blower must frequently insert it into the glory hole to maintain a temperature of around 1,500℉.

Accidentally coming in contact with a surface temperature that high is going to hurt, there’s no doubt about that. 

Gently placing a just-finished glass item into the annealer exposes your hands to temperatures just under 1,000℉, and every second that your hands linger in the oven adjusting the placement can cause further burning. 

Bumping into or grasping a searing hot tool is another hazard when blowing glass.

Even just sitting down on the workbench or touching the bench’s metal rails can result in minor burns as temperatures in a glass blower’s shop can reach 130℉ if adequate ventilation and cooling systems are not up to standard.

Your respiratory system, including your lungs, can also experience burns due to the extreme heat of the furnaces. 

The furnaces’ high-temperature fires fueled by plenty of oxygen typically don’t produce much smoke, so smoke inhalation is not a common occurrence among glass blowers. 

The searing heat, however, can damage the airways, especially with frequent exposure. 

One last potential cause of serious burns is the water used to cool the metal tools.

Many glass blowers have reached for a tool from the bucket of water only to splash a few drops of that super hot water on themselves inadvertently.

Cuts

Glass breakage is a fairly common occurrence when blowing glass, and thus, cuts of varying degrees are a hazard of the hobby. 

By nature, glass is fragile, but it’s especially prone to shattering during the annealing period, particularly if cooled on an incorrect cycle.

Cleaning up thin slivers of shattered glass, unsurprisingly, often results in nasty cuts, but that’s not the only danger. 

Accidentally dropping a glass item can send shards of glass flying in all directions. Both small and large pieces can easily be driven into flesh as they sail through the air.

Fumes

The fumes released when certain kinds of glass are melted can be highly toxic and may even cause a condition known as metal fume fever if zinc oxide is present. 

Most glass blowing utilizes a soda-lime glass or borosilicate glass, though some more experienced blowers will use lead crystal.

All of these can produce toxic fumes, and the dust particles can be highly irritating when inhaled. 

If a system of ventilation that sucks the harmful fumes out of the studio and provides a constant flow of fresh air is not in place, respiratory damage and other illnesses may occur.

Eye Damage

The intense heat involved in the glass-blowing process can do more than burn your skin and lungs.

Dangerous infrared light, ultraviolet light, yellow sodium flares, and intensely strong light can have negative effects on the human eyes too.

The constant exposure to high heat can cause chronic dry eye to develop. 

Long-term exposure to harmful infrared and ultraviolet light can contribute to radiation injury to the eye and over time, encourage the formation of a specific type of cataract known as a glassblower’s cataract.

Cancer

While more studies need to be performed, evidence to date suggests that glass blowing may lead to an increased risk of certain cancers due to exposure to chemicals used in the manufacture of glass.

According to the American Thoracic Society, 

“An increased risk of lung, stomach, colon, and bladder cancer has been reported in previous studies among glass workers. Metallic compounds and other agents used in the manufacture of glass are likely to be responsible…”

Chronic Pain

Any work that involves repetitive motions or requires holding uncomfortable positions for long periods of time can lead to the development of chronic pain. Glass blowing is no exception.

Keeping the blowpipe rotating steadily to counteract the effects of gravity uses the same hand movements over and over, a recipe for developing carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Also, if the bench is not a comfortable height, muscle strain, back pain, or damage to joints may result.

Glass Blowing Safely

Dress Appropriately

Cotton shirts free of logos are recommended; the reason being is that clothing made of synthetic material may actually melt onto your skin when exposed to extreme temperatures.

Long pants such as blue jeans will help protect your legs should molten glass or hot water splatter at your feet.

Do not wear open-toed shoes or footwear made from thin material. Sturdy work boots will provide much greater protection for your feet.

Safety Gear

Perhaps the last thing you’ll feel like doing in a hot shop is wearing heavy protective gear, but for safety’s sake, it is important.

A long, heavy-duty leather apron, like my personal favorite by Qeelink, is both heat and flame resistant and will protect a large portion of your body. 

Welding gloves are critical too, especially when gathering glass on the blowpipe and placing or removing glass in the annealer.

I’ve found Ozero gloves to be superior in construction, flexible, and durable, and they’re heat resistant up to 932℉.

A respirator, or at least a filtering mask, should be worn to protect the respiratory tract.

A survey by Drs. Oriowo, Chou, and Cullen found that only 66% of glass blowers consistently used eye protection.

Given that long-term exposure to infrared and ultraviolet light and sodium flares can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, that is shocking. 

The type of eye protection is dependent on the type of glass with which you’ll be working.

Glasses that protect against all three dangers are ideal, but they can be expensive. 

Most glass blowers keep several pairs on hand, such as one that protects against infrared and ultraviolet light like this one by Bolle and another pair that shields you from sodium flares and ultraviolet light like this pair by SPF.

Your vision is too precious to be left to chance. Wear eye protection, even if your fellow glass blowers aren’t. 

Take Lessons From a Professional

Glass blowing isn’t a skill you should attempt on your own without formal training first.

Participating in classes will teach you the proper techniques, how to correctly use the various tools, and, most importantly, instruct you in safety guidelines.