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Artists Learn about Chemicals Hazards

Colleges adapt chemical safety programs to accommodate unique needs of budding artists

April 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 15

Credit: Courtesy of St. Olaf College
St. Olaf College’s art department tracks chemicals using bar codes and scanners.
Credit: Courtesy of St. Olaf College
St. Olaf College’s art department tracks chemicals using bar codes and scanners.

The world of art may be sublime, but it also can be dangerous. Artists work in an environment filled with potential hazards, including toxic solvents, corrosive liquids, and suffocating gases. Not so long ago, they might not have taken these dangers seriously. But these days, colleges that train artists are including coursework in health and safety instruction. And increasingly, the colleges are designing that instruction so it’s palatable to art students.

“The way you work with an artist community may have similar regulatory themes with the chemistry department, but what they’re engaged in is very different,” and as individuals, they’re different, according to Michael B. Blayney, environmental health and safety director at Dartmouth College.

His colleague John K. Lee, an assistant professor of studio art, noted that artists “are, by nature, sometimes impetuous and impatient” and have a tendency to believe they are immortal. Additionally, “artists are resistant to authority and chafe at the idea of compliance.”

These traits have to be embraced in developing a health and safety program. “You have to respect the culture of the organization,” Blayney said. He and Lee spoke during a symposium on hidden hazards in the arts and entertainment industries sponsored by the Division of Chemical Health & Safety at last month’s ACS national meeting in Anaheim.

Artists, Blayney explained, “use products that they may not be intimately familiar with in the same way that a chemist would be.” For artists, it’s necessary to develop a basic understanding of the physical and health effects of a particular product they work with, such as a solvent; why it’s important to employ personal protective equipment; what the routes of entry are into the body and appropriate control strategies; and how to properly label those materials and prepare them for disposal.

“We’re trying to develop an understanding and a body of knowledge in the artists that will allow them to say, ‘I understand that solvents can have adverse effects,’ ” Blayney added. “And so it becomes something more than just paint thinner or a solvent. It becomes something that they know more about and can make informed decisions in terms of how they’re going to protect themselves and how they’re going to dispose of it.”

Benefits of such safety training programs extend even after graduation. Patrick A. Ceas, chemical hygiene officer at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., said his institution’s program “helps to prepare students for wherever they’re going to go next, whether that’s someone’s private studio, a graduate program, or working for a company somewhere.”

The programs also offer protection for the institutions. “We’re able to look at some liability avoidance because we have a very consistent, standardized, documented curriculum,” Blayney explained.

But Dartmouth hasn’t always been that well covered. When Blayney arrived at the college in 1995, Dartmouth “really didn’t have a health and safety program.” He set out to remedy that lapse. Blayney collaborated with faculty and students in the studio art department, including Lee, who is a sculptor, and Risa Borwick, a painter who graduated from Dartmouth last year.

Borwick asked faculty what was important to know about their studios and what the hazards were. She also investigated what other institutions had done. And she worked with Blayney to weave the necessary regulatory messages into the program’s Web-based training module. In a manner that is “invisible to the person taking the module, they’re receiving information that’s related to hazardous waste management, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s hazard communication standard, the personal protective equipment standards, and so forth,” Blayney said. “But rather than doing what a lot of health and safety people do—just recite the regulations—this is all blended together in a common message that explains why it’s important to protect yourself against exposure to solvents, what constitutes good ventilation, what are respiratory hazards, and why you don’t put things down the drain.”

The training module begins with “the basic premise that there are real hazards, that there are rules and regulations that manage these things, and that there are adverse consequences to improper management,” Blayney said. It then gets into specifics: how solvents are to be managed, the types of personal protective equipment to be worn under given circumstances, and dealing with contaminated rags.

Dartmouth’s program gives students who are taking a studio art class or working in one of the jewelry-making, woodworking, or set design workshops a broad-based foundation in occupational health and safety. Art instructors can supplement the program’s content with details that are germane to their courses and studios.

Many institutions are hampered in their health and safety efforts by having to make the best of old buildings. Faculty and students at St. Olaf, however, have the luxury of occupying a modern building. The college created the new facility for dance and the fine arts a couple of years ago and incorporated several safety features in its design. In fact, Ceas said, “we basically built this building around the ventilation system.” For instance, drying racks in the paint studio are hooked up directly to the ventilation system. For the photo lab, the college designed tables for developing film that have a slot around the inner rim to suck fumes into the ventilation system. “Now this stuff won’t even reach people’s noses,” Ceas said.

As part of St. Olaf’s safety program, art faculty were taught to consider four questions: What are the hazards? What are the worst things that could happen? What do I need to do to be prepared? And what are the prudent practices, protective equipment, clothing, and procedures needed to minimize or eliminate the risk? They also received training from Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, a nonprofit corporation based in New York City that provides health and safety services to the art world.

The college has formalized its safety program, posting written instructions rather than merely relying on faculty to tell or show students how things should be done. In the acid-etching room in the print studio, for instance, “instead of just saying, ‘This is what you do to clean off your plates,’ we have the instructions written out and taped to the wall,” Ceas said.

Other features of St. Olaf’s program include placing material safety data sheets in every studio, posting signs prohibiting food and drink or requiring goggles where appropriate, posting warnings about specific hazards such as carbon monoxide in the ceramics furnace room, and marking safety aids such as fire extinguishers and eyewash sinks. The art department maintains a chemical inventory by tracking all new containers via bar code and handheld scanners. Containers are labeled with date received, date opened, expiration or decision date, the name of the chemical, hazards, and safe handling instructions.

The college now buys smaller containers to minimize the size of potential spills and has switched to “greener” products such as lead-free and nontoxic underglazes.

In all, these measures have been received with good grace. “I think that health and safety messages are best conveyed from a creative perspective with a positive spin,” Blayney said. “So much of what goes on in occupational health and safety is finger-wagging—‘do this, don’t do that’—or telling people what they’ve done wrong rather than saying, ‘What can I do to help you?’ or ‘We need to look at this.’ When people have a better understanding that what they’re receiving is help and not criticism, it can take on a life of its own.” 


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