Without any doubt, blacksmithing falls into the list of the most dangerous crafts for very good reasons. These include various chemical, physical and ergonomic hazards that can occur during work. In this article, the main focus will be on the lungs and the dangers surrounding them.
Some smiths may freak you out by telling you stories about possible lung damage that makes you give up your involvement in blacksmithing. On the other hand, there are people saying you shouldnâ€™t even sweat about it. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
So, is blacksmithing bad for the lungs?
Blacksmithing is only dangerous for the lungs if one doesnâ€™t take necessary safety precautions and does not wear a respirator. If you work with a coal forge, it is recommended to have a chimney. On the other hand, when working with a propane forge, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector.
In the rest of the article, I will discuss hazards that every smith must pay attention to and how to prevent them.
So, without any further ado, letâ€™s dive into it.
During the work in the blacksmithing shop, there is a high chance of producing poisonous smokes like carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Both of them are dangerous to your respiratory system. Since I have been involved in this industry I noticed that many beginners donâ€™t take this danger seriously enough. Letâ€™s start with the SO2.
This one is vital to understand for everyone working with a coal forge. Sulfur oxide is reactive and colorless fume with a very strong odor. It irritates the skin, nose, throat, and lungs. While low concentrations of SO2 may not cause irritation of the respiratory system, high concentrations most certainly will. In regards to forging, it primarily depends on the coal fire and its management.
The main thing you need to understand here is the fact that burning coal produces sulfur oxide, which is also the main source of this fume in the shop. The process goes like this: when sulfur is mixed with water, it produces sulfuric acid, and when heated enough, it releases sulfur dioxide.
The problem arises when you breathe in that stuff. If you ever find yourself coughing while working with a coal forge, it probably means you have sulfur dioxide in your lungs. Other symptoms include pain when taking a deep breath, throat irritation, and general breathing difficulties. Note that SO2 can also react with other chemicals in the air, making it smaller and easier to get into the lungs.
How to prevent it?
Here I would like to propose a couple of ways to deal with sulfur dioxide in the shop. The first and most important thing is having a chimney, especially if your workshop is indoors. The primary purpose here is to remove the coal smoke from your working area in a different direction. Something like a simple window box fan blowing across you will work just fine. If you want to be slightly more creative, you can use a pipe with a hole near the fire.
Basically, anything which will remove these fumes in the air is far better to have than donâ€™t have anything at all. As I have already said, this becomes even more important if you work indoors. So having proper ventilation is vital. I recommend having at least one window in the shop for better airflow, which will also significantly reduce the SO2 level in the shop.
Another thing you can do is to work with the anthracite instead of bituminous coal since it burns much cleaner and doesnâ€™t produce as much smoke. However, anthracite requires a stronger airblast and deeper firepot, so have that in mind. If you are a beginner or someone who simply doesnâ€™t have the luxury of choosing different kinds of coal, use whatever you can.
Just make sure you have good ventilation. At the end of the day, we are not coal miners, so we are not exposed to SO2 as they are, however safety precautions are always recommended.
Of course, wearing a dust mask or respirator is the obvious one. However, I left this one for the end since it is relative to both SO2 and carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide is the major concern for all smiths working with a gas forge. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, produced mainly by propane in this case. Therefore, it is often called a â€œsilent killer.â€ When there is a high concentration of this fume in the air, it replaces the oxygen in your red cells. Its poisoning occurs when enough carbon monoxide occurs in your bloodstream, leading to severe tissue damage. Sometimes it can also be fatal.
High levels of carbon monoxide often accumulate in poorly ventilated areas, such as indoor workshops. So, if you do your forging work indoors with a gas forge, pay very close attention. Some of the poisoning symptoms include a dull headache, dizziness, weakness, blurred vision, loss of consciousness. If you think you may have carbon monoxide poisoning get into the fresh air and seek medical care immediately.
How to avoid it?
As you can see, carbon monoxide is not to take lightly; therefore, it is crucial to take safety precautions that can literally save your life. Okay, so first and foremost, you have to have an adequately ventilated workshop. Yeah, you guessed it. Since I have discussed it already, I will move onto the next one.
When it comes to carbon monoxide, I strongly recommend having a carbon monoxide detector in your shop. I simply cannot express the importance of this enough. When you are deeply focused on your work in the shop, it is very easy to forget what is happening around you. Sometimes, I donâ€™t notice when somebody enters the shop, let alone pay attention to something I donâ€™t see or feel.
This is where the detector comes in. It will immediately detect the concentration of carbon monoxide in space. Since it is slightly lighter than air, a detector should be placed on a wall at least 5 feet above the floor. You can also put it on the ceiling. However, make sure you do not place it right next to the forge.
I strongly recommend this well-tested and tried carbon monoxide detector (affiliate link). The price is surprisingly low compared to its quality. Avoid buying cheap and not well-known detectors at all costs!
Dust Masks or Respirators for Blacksmithing?
I bet many of you referred to respirator as a dust mask. Donâ€™t worry, you are not the only one. I was one of the people who often used the word dust mask interchangeably with a respirator. However, they have significant differences.
Although they may look familiar, they have far different protection levels and purposes. Usually, a dust mask has a single strap, although it can come in the form of a loose-fitting material. Also, dust masks usually donâ€™t have any information printed on them.
Note that the biggest difference between dust masks and respirators is that respirators are NIOSH- approved while dust masks are not. One of the biggest misconceptions is that dust masks protect the wearer from hazardous exposures in the air. The reality and research show the complete opposite.
They are designed to capture large particles or droplets from the wearer from spreading to the environment, not the other way around, as many people think. As you can see, dust musk is not very useful for blacksmithing purposes.
On the other side, a good respirator (affiliate link) will protect you at least 95% from hazardous exposures in the air like dust, mists, and fumes. Among all types, reusable respirators are the most common among blacksmiths and other metal workers who want a comfortable and durable way of protecting their respiratory system.
As you can see, you should not be afraid for your lungs if you respect the safety precautions and wear necessary equipment when working indoors. For those who do their metalwork indoors, pay very close attention to the possible carbon monoxide. Buy a carbon monoxide detector so you can work freely without worrying constantly. Besides that, make sure your working space is well ventilated and cleaned. After every working session, your workshop should be cleaned from all dust, coal, and metal particles. The bottom line is that if you can smell it, taste it, see it or have to chew it before swallowing, it is not air.