Dental technicians fix up some nifty things that fit inside your mouth, from porcelain teeth to dentures. Step into the shoes of a technician and you'll quickly realize the job is full of health risks, from minor scrapes to lifelong infections. In most cases, common safety precautions, largely centering around proper attire, prevent most injuries and illnesses.
Physical Injuries and Thermal Burns
In many cases, your day as a dental technician will see you working with several small hand tools, such as scalpels, grinders, polishers and spatulas. These little things usually won't inflict devastating wounds if they smack against your skin, but they could leave you with an unsightly mark or nick. Larger power machines, such as lathes and drills, can result in some rather nasty injuries that could send you to the hospital. Along with the risk of a sliced finger, or worse, technicians are also at risk of burns, thanks to their work with Bunsen burners, ovens, boiling water and other toasty items. Knowledge of how to operate all machines in the laboratory, being aware of your surroundings, and wearing gloves when necessary are the best safeguards. When you're operating anything that cuts or grinds against a material, such as when polishing a porcelain tooth, there's a good chance for debris to launch into your eyes, which means eye protection -- in the form of goggles or shields -- is paramount.
Dentures, crowns, bridges and braces aren't made from things in your grandma's basement. They require chemicals and metals, the likes of which can cause serious chemical burns and respiratory irritation. Examples of harmful substances that you'll be exposed to include methyl methacrylate, butylene glycol, ethyl acetate and benzoid peroxide. A special mention goes out to crystalline silica, which gets thrown into the air during many routine tasks, such as creating castings, sandblasting castings and grinding porcelain. Breathing in the foul dust can cause silicosis, a lung disease for which no cure exists. Lots of ventilation, working with materials that don't contain harmful dusts and, when necessary, wearing protective gloves and masks cuts down on the chemical risks dental technicians face.
It's not unusual for molds to contain blood, bacteria and even viruses from the patient whose mouth they came from. Messing around with another person's blood can cause incurable illnesses, such as hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus, and if the blood doesn't get you, a viral or bacterial infection possibly could. The solution to this risk is very simple: wear gloves when handling molds and follow the disinfection guidelines set forth by your laboratory.
While dental technicians might not be chained to their workstations as much as, say, a computer programmer, they still spend much of their day in a sedentary position. The lack of physical activity can cause musculoskeletal pain, ranging from a dull neck cramp to a harrowing ache in your lower back. The University of California Los Angeles recommends standing and stretching your muscles every 20 to 30 minutes, sitting upright with your back resting against the back of the chair and positioning your equipment in front of you to cut down on twisting and turning.
Constant use of vibrating hand tools, such as polishers and grinders, can result in an annoying, painful and unsightly condition known as vibration syndrome. Vibration syndrome causes a tingling numbness, pain and paling of one or more fingers. Sometimes the paling is so intense that the fingers actually turn white. The National Institute for the Occupational Safety and Health suggests that power tools should be redesigned to limit the vibration intensity, and for employers to tap into engineering controls, administrative controls and work practices to reduce exposure to vibrations. This isn't a problem that's easily preventable, given the need for technicians to work so often with powered hand tools.
- Occupational and Environmental Medicine: World at Work: Dental Laboratory Technicians
- State of New Jersey Department of Health: What Dental Technicians Need to Know About Silicosis
- State of Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs: Dental Laboratory Technician
- University of California, Los Angeles: Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorder
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vibration Syndrome
- Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images