I’m in the process of writing some tutorials, and I realized that they all repeat a lot of the same material in one area. It’s an important subject, so I’m writing this post so I can link back to it in the future. I guess it’s a sort of “Don’t try this at home, kids!” disclaimer.
Anyhow, given that the cosplay community relies quite extensively on short and informal tutorials, it’s very easy to skip over learning about personal safety. And given that this is an extremely broad-spanning hobby – we can be sewing one day, sanding armor the next, and using resins and paints the day after – we need a pretty broad-spanning range of protection. So I’ll cover some of the basics below, but I do think that every cosplayer should always research the hazards of any new material before working with it. I know we can very often have some crazy deadlines, and wearing goggles and a respirator take a little extra time and cost and are far from comfortable, but we only get one set of lungs and eyes.
Goggles, face shields and eye protection
Most of us won’t need a full face shield unless we’re working with materials that could cause damage at a high speed (think metals). If you’re doing sanding or other dusty work, make sure you use fully enclosed goggles, since dust can still get in around standard safety glasses. I use fully enclosed goggles (pictured above) for all my work that requires eye protection.
Safety goggles are also necessary when working with a lot of hazardous chemicals, since even if you don’t feel it immediately they can damage eyes. This is an area a lot of textile artists often forget, since they’re frequently working with bleaches and aniline dyes and the soft/textile side of costume making isn’t an area typically regarded as hazardous. If in doubt, just wear your goggles – it’s better to be over cautious than risk an injury.
Another very important note is that, if you wear contact lenses, you should NEVER wear them while working with hazardous chemicals or in dusty conditions, since dust and chemical compounds can be caught between the contact lens and your eye and case some nasty problems. If, like me, you’re short sighted and need to see what you’re working with, wear your regular glasses inside a set of safety goggles like the ones above – that’s what I do.
Respirators, dust masks, and respiratory protection
I am going to put this in bold, because this is important: This is the area that kills props makers.
Not to frighten aspiring cosplayers, but ask any props industry veteran and chances are good they have had colleagues who died of a respiratory illness. The kinds of hazardous materials cosplayers can use – from resins to fiberglass to EVA foam dust to aerosol paints – can be pretty seriously nasty, and can absolutely wreck your respiratory system.
This area is really complex, since you’re often dealing with particles like dust and allergens and also gasses and vapors, and different substances require different methods of protection. This article does a great job of explaining how to choose an ideal respirator for the job you’re doing
Personally, I opt for a dual cartridge half-face respirator. This is a rubber respirator that forms a seal around your mouth and nose, and has replaceable cartridges. I use multipurpose chemical cartridges that come with separate replaceable P100 particulate filters – which means I can replace the outer filters (these filter out dust but not chemicals) frequently and leave the inner filters in longer, which makes for less expense and a wider range of coverage. I also like to make a note in my phone and set a reminder to replace my cartridges when the packaging says they need to be replaced. Dust masks aren’t a good option most of the time, since they don’t provide the seal needed to protect you against many smaller particles (like those from EVA foam sanding).
There’s a separate element to this for those of us who sew, and it involves a really bad habit – keeping pins in your mouth. I used to do this, until I heard a few absolute horror stories like this one about people who had accidentally inhaled pins they keep in their mouths. That was enough to scare me for life – I made a cute elastic pincushion I wear on my wrist now instead.
Often overlooked, but serious issues can occur if you work with loud tools, especially over a sustained period of time.
Personally, I opt for hearing protection when I’m using loud tools like my circular saw and power file. This is generally really simple – either grab a pair of earmuffs or earplugs. Most cosplayers won’t be in an environment where they’re exposed to constant high-volume noise all day for days on end, so whichever one works for you is best, but in workplace conditions properly fitted ear plugs are generally regarded as being better, as they provide more hearing protection. I keep a box of earplugs in my workroom.
Protecting your hands
If you ever meet me at a convention and I’m not wearing gloves, look at my left thumb just below the nail. There is a very noticeable scar there from when I did something particularly stupid during shop class in high school – I was drilling a hole through a small piece of sheet metal, and instead of using vise-grips I held the metal with my hands. Of course, the metal snagged on the drill bit, spun at a very high RPM, and sliced my thumb open down to the bone. It was a very, very stupid rookie mistake to make, but I have absolutely learned from it.
So, when working with smaller pieces of metal, always use vise-grips to hold your work, or better still, mount your work in a good vise.
Gloves are a great form of protection from chemicals, heat and sharp edges, but be cautious – sometimes wearing gloves can contribute to injury, too, especially when working with rotating equipment like lathes and belt sanders. Gloves (especially loose gloves) can easily become snagged in this kind of equipment, so they should be avoided. Additionally, they should be avoided when using a lot of handheld tools that require precise control. Use your best judgement here, and if you need gloves make sure they are snugly fitted. A loose glove is very often much more dangerous than no gloves at all.
When working particularly hazardous adhesives and resins (like a lot of epoxies), always wear disposable gloves. I’m really fond of nitrile gloves – they cost extra but offer more protection; they’re less likely to puncture than latex gloves, they’re non-allergenic, and they’re resistant to a wider range of hazardous chemicals. Plus they’re powder free and have less friction, so they’re easier to put on and take off.
ALWAYS wear gloves when dying fabric. I have a great pair of industrial rubber dying gloves that has done me for years – they’re heat insulated (to a degree) as well as being resistant to hazardous chemicals. I also make sure I have a long pair of tongs (I use big barbecue tongs) on hand for dying fabric – you never know when you need to pull something out or push something around in a dye bath, and you don’t ever want to do that with your hands. This goes for bleaching, too.
And always exercise caution when working with knives. Keep your blade sharp – this may sound counter-intuitive to safety, but a blunt blade is more likely to snag in your work and cause you to exert excess force when cutting (and potentially wreck your work as well as your hands).
Footwear and clothing
Fairly self explanatory – it can be really tempting to work in shorts and a singlet and thongs (or flip-flops for those non-Aussie readers). This isn’t great practice a lot of the time, though. Not only are feet particularly susceptible to injury from dropped heavy items (even rolls of fabric can cause a world of pain) but exposed skin is a bad idea around hazardous chemicals and particulates, particularly things like fiberglass. Make sure if you have long sleeves they’re not loose, too. A tyvek suit (disposable overalls) is a good, cheap investment for working with aerosols and sanding, and if you look after them well they can last for a while.
This one is probably the one I have seen breached the most often. Always have your hair tied back so it won’t interfere with your work. This is especially important around rotating tools – especially tools like dremels, where you’re often doing very close-up work. Snagged hair hurts, and with more powerful tools it can cause serious scalp and face injuries.
Another less serious aspect of hair protection needed is when using aerosol paints and adhesives. I discovered this the first time I used spray plasti-dip – after sealing a suit of armor, I discovered my hair was covered in a fine coating of plasti-dip too, and it felt and looked pretty disgusting for several weeks afterwards until it gradually washed out. These days I wear a shower cap while spray painting. It’s not glamourous, but it stops my hair looking like The Junk Lady’s from Labyrinth.
For cosplayers, this is often a less than ideal situation, especially if you live in an apartment. In an ideal world, everyone would have an industrial extractor booth and dust extractors for all of our tools, but most of the time this isn’t the case. I live in a rural area, so I have a pretty huge backyard to go out and spray things in – I usually hang items from clothes hangers and use twine and pins to hold them in position, then I hang them from my clothesline and spray them there. If it’s wet weather or at night I’ll spray things inside my shed with the door open and a fan on. When I’m working with things like contact adhesive, I usually open a window near my work and keep a fan on, since contact adhesive fumes can make you pretty sick if you’re exposed to them for an extended period of time.
A great option for cosplayers is making their own spray booth – this tutorial shows a great garage solution using drop sheets and PVC pipe, and this one is a good low-cost solution for people who only have a benchtop to work with (though you can’t fit larger armor parts inside the latter one).
If you’re ever unsure of what precautions to use when working with a certain material, make sure you consult the MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) – every potentially hazardous material has one. If your product isn’t shipped with one, just google “Product name + MSDS”, and you’ll be able to find the information you need.
Make sure you familiarize yourself with the appropriate emergency services numbers in your part of the world, too. And most areas have a Poisons Information Centre. In Australia, the phone number is 13 11 26.
Hopefully this gives a good summary and starting point for staying safe when you’re crafting cosplay. I realize that sometimes when the convention is tomorrow and you feel like you have a million tasks to do it’s very easy to cut corners, but do try to keep in mind that all it takes is one slip-up for something really nasty to happen – and looking awesome in cosplay is a brilliant goal to have, but so is retaining all of your fingers.