Art Programs Stress Studio Safety

By Daniel Grant

How does one judge a collegiate art program? It might be on the basis of average class size, or if students get their own studios, or whether the equipment is state of the art, or the prestige of the faculty, or how successful the alumni are. All quite valid. But what about whether it will threaten your life?

A growing number of art programs are making studio safety an integral part of both the curriculum and facilities. They are improving the air quality, reducing exposure to potentially hazardous materials, and increasing the safety training that students and faculty receive.

“We’ve increased the number of technicians to help in safety training,” said Carl Powell, director of environmental health and safety at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. These technicians monitor how students use art supplies and equipment. Additionally, “at the beginning of the school year, I give students a safety orientation that covers proper ventilation, safe use, storage and disposal of chemicals, and the kinds of safety equipment students need for their own personal protection, such as goggles, dust masks, and gloves.” Students are required to sign an agreement stating that they will abide by safety guidelines.

Faculty members are also required to complete a safety-training seminar. “If they don’t complete the training, they don’t get a contract,” Powell said. “I got administration support on that.”

Since the fall of 2008, art students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have signed a safety contract after attending a one-hour training session from the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at the beginning of each semester. That was instituted when a new $28-million studio-art building was opened, bringing together disciplines that had been scattered around the campus. The former sculpture facility had been a wood-frame building that burned to the ground after an accident with the forge furnace, while the ceramics program had been housed in a 19th-century structure whose only source of ventilation was open windows and doors (weather permitting).

In contrast, the new facility has a separate spray room for spray paints and fixatives, portable sinks in which wastewater is collected and disposed of rather than emptied into the water supply, numerous showers and eye-wash areas for students in contact with dust, and locked storage cabinets for flammable materials in each undergraduate and graduate studio. There are various ventilation systems: dust collection in the wood shop, vapor extraction in the print-making and photography studios, and fume extraction in rooms where kilns and welding are found.

William Oedel, an art historian and chairman of the art department, noted that environmental health and safety staff make weekly inspections of the studio-art building and dispose of all wastes according to state environmental guidelines. “They’re pretty strict about that,” he said.

Other programs have become stricter, too, sometimes prodded by government. In 2001, Boston University was fined $253,000 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and required to spend $518,000 in cleanup and other environmental projects after the EPA discovered a slow, chronic leak into the Charles River of various oils from an underground storage tank. At about the same time, the University of Rhode Island was forced to spend approximately $800,000 in fines and cleanup for environmental contamination caused by the art and other departments.

Learning from this, art programs have become vigilant about waste disposal. “We’re always telling students, ‘Don’t wash your brushes in the sink, only in the brush-washing area,’” Oedel said. They require close monitoring in that, he said, because they “always want to get done quickly.” At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students are required to label everything in their studios—even their mineral spirits or bottled water—“for their own safety and so that the wrong things don’t get poured down the sink,” said Pat Wasserboehr, an associate professor in the art department.

Programs are also substituting less-toxic supplies for those that are more expensive to store, ventilate, and dispose of. “We’ve banned turpentine here,” said Mark Knierim, facilities and technical coordinator in the art department of the University of Minnesota, because the concentration of harmful vapors in the air is three times higher than for mineral spirits, requiring more expensive ventilation.

Similarly, the Rhode Island School of Design works with the two on-campus stores and academic departments to encourage the use of less-toxic materials, such as “replacing acetic acid with citrus acid, turpentine with Gamsol”—odorless mineral spirits—“and resins with mercury with resins that don’t contain mercury,” said Alan Cantara, RISD’s environmental health and safety manager. He noted that the department of environmental health and safety, which was formed in 2000, assumed responsibilities that had been handled by three different campus offices (fire safety, public safety, and physical plant). His department takes on the responsibility of reviewing new products and equipment before they are introduced into studio classes.

RISD still permits potentially harmful materials in studio classrooms, such as cadmium and cobalt paints, which are associated with certain cancers, but their use is restricted, in large measure because of the cost of disposal and the worry that some may find their way into the Narragansett Bay. More and more, programs are switching from nitric acid to ferric chloride for etching, cleaning printmaking presses with vegetable oils rather than with solvents, replacing lead solders with lead-free solders in sculpture, and solvent-based marking pens with water-based ones in drawing classes.

“There are a lot of new products coming out that don’t require solvents in cleanup,” said Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist who was a consultant in the design of the studio-art building at the University of Massachusetts. “Like water-washable oil paints, in which the ventilation rate is practically nothing. Pregnant women can take the course.”

Even with the new, less-toxic materials, creating art is by no means a risk-free endeavor, and many programs tack up copies of Material Safety Data Sheets. Some programs also require students and faculty to undergo training in the steps that should be taken in the event of an emergency. At Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, casting and welding classes are kept relatively small—10 students, compared with the more customary 16 to 20—to limit the number of people who might be hurt in an accident or even back into something because the room is crowded.

The visual-arts department at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., does not allow the use of certain metal- and woodworking equipment unless a supervisor is present. Chemicals and acids are stored in locked rooms, only available to students when an instructor (with a key) is available and can control what is used and how.

But large institutions are able to afford vent hoods and dust collectors, while artists elsewhere may only be able to crack open a window in the part of the house or apartment that has been designated as a studio. Properly disposing of wastewater, solvents, dusts, clays, and even the scrapings off a painter’s palette is time consuming and expensive. So the question remains whether artists will carry crucial lessons on safety and the environment with them after graduation and into their professional practice.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006) and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (second edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Mark Knierim, facilities and technical coordinator in the art department of the University of Minnesota
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