health and safety issues for artists

Health & Safety

It is imperative that you know what hazards your art materials can pose to your health and safety. Many artists have fallen permanently ill or worse, died from exposure to hazardous materials.

Read resources about how to avoid hazards and dangerous materials. Remember, you need to be familiar with not only the materials you use but also any materials others use in your presence. If you share a studio with someone or work for another artist, the chemicals they use could pose a risk to you as well. Take precautions before you begin working!


Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

Most industrial and art-making materials are accompanied by a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).  You can usually get this from the supplier of the material, or by calling or writing the company. Keep these sheets in a binder in your studio for quick reference. These informational forms are intended to provide the user with vital specifications of what is actually in the product.  That house paint you just purchased from the big box home improvement store is not just paint.  It is a complicated series of chemical compounds and chemical mixtures. The MSDS will inform you on all of the vital information to properly and safely use the paint you just purchased. 

 Along with the list of ingredients and agents, the MSDS also provides instructional uses, toxicity levels, environmental risks, health risks, first aid safety precautions and procedures, along with storage and disposal requirements regarding the product.  Reactivity information is included on these sheets such as boiling points, melting points, flash points, and any other pertinent data regarding environmental and time-based interventions.  A MSDS can also be called a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) or Product Safety Data Sheet (PSDS).  The sheet format can vary depending on company policy, state, and national requirements. 


 Experimental Materials 

Do not be naive about using unique or experimental materials in your art-making practice, and be aware of their short-term, long-term and permanent effects. Educate yourself by speaking with experts who know the long-term properties of unconventional materials you may be using. These people may be chemists, physicists, doctors, professors, engineers, etc. Explain what you are using and how it is being used, and get their opinion on the best way to deal with the materials. Common problems are longevity, deterioration, chemical changes or color shifts. These changes can be strategically incorporated into the artwork with pleasing results, but you should be aware of the physical properties of any material you work with.

Always consider your choice of materials from the perspective of a buyer or curator, and be aware of the possible ramifications of using experimental materials. Be forthcoming about what you do and don’t know about the chemistry of your materials.


Work-Related Heath Issues

Hazardous conditions and materials found in many industrial workplaces are often present in art workspaces. When hazards are identified in an industrial workplace, safety training and information may be required, but these resources are less often available to artists who work alone or in small groups.  

For workplaces in the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires MSDSs to be readily available to all employees that may be exposed to or expected to handle potentially hazardous materials.  Many countries around the world have similar organizations and requirements. Although some foreign MSDS requirements are more strict than U.S. requirements, other countries where these products are made or imported are far more relaxed about the proper identification and safety protocols.  Do your homework and research the safety regulations provided by your host country.

If others have access to your workspace or you hire assistants, mandate safety instruction. Provide MSDSs on all materials used in your studio, as well as training and protective equipment. This is a serious matter—materials can be extremely dangerous, or even fatal. ALWAYS wear the appropriate safety equipment (eye goggles, face masks, gloves, etc.) when working with hazardous materials and enforce the policy with your assistants and studio mates.

Exhaustion and overwork can also contribute to an unhealthy workplace. Working extended hours trying to complete a project can lead to accidents. Do not disregard symptoms of extreme fatigue, nausea or sickness in order to make a deadline. Seek advice or help immediately.

Many art hazards may not appear dangerous at first but can lead to serious health issues over time. Do not procrastinate seeking help or you could damage your health permanently. Chronic illness resulting from exposure to harmful materials may affect your quality of life, as well as your ability to work. Painters can develop neurological and other disorders from long-term exposure to solvents. Musicians can develop permanent hearing loss from exposure to loud music, even in specifically designed acoustic settings. Pottery artists may find that they are unable to continue work at the wheel because of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from extended work schedules, or poisoning from glaze chemicals. Many sculptors and photographers suffer from long-term exposure to hazardous vapors, resins, and dusts. If you want to be able to continue to work long into the future, take these warnings seriously. Many chemicals never leave the body and accumulate over time to create irreversible symptoms.


Other Health and Safety Considerations

Disasters like earthquakes, floods and fires pose their own set of risks, and preparation for all these events is important. (See Insurance section for more information on floods and fires in your studio.)


Earthquake Preparedness for Studio

Take stock of your studio and consider making a few common-sense adjustments as needed. The primary concern should be the protection of life and limb. No matter how valuable objects may be, hazards to human safety must be addressed first:

If materials are toxic or flammable, consider storing them in an appropriate storage area. You can get flammable storage containers from a number of sources. Be sure to have all hazardous materials properly labeled and stored according to manufacturer and government specifications.

Check for items that may fall and break, or hurt someone. Large objects on upper shelves and stacks of unsecured lumber or shelving are very dangerous. If such storage is unavoidable, be sure to properly secure and fasten all shelves and cabinets to the structure of the building.  Always tie down any objects that are stored above your head with bungee cords or rope.  

Make sure large objects cannot fall or tip over and block the exit or prevent people from getting out of the studio. Exit pathways must be clear and open.

Store valuable artwork and equipment so that it cannot be damaged or cause additional destruction. Properly packing your work from the beginning will ensure it’s safety not only in shipment and storage, but also in disasters such as earthquakes. Appropriately packed artwork can be time-consuming and costly however, replacements and repairs can be far worse.

Most earthquake damage can be attributed to one of these basic causes:

Objects tipping over

Objects colliding into other objects or surfaces

Objects falling off shelves, tables, pedestals, etc.   

Do NOT Procrastinate!  Procrastination hinders prevention. Take the time to reduce the risk of damage or bodily harm. Small measures can make a big difference, and do not have to be costly.  For example, securing shelving to the wall so that it does not tip over or go flying across the room is a cheap solution to a big problem. 

Put away tools in cabinets or storage areas, put caps on paint thinner etc., and keep your studio uncluttered. It may save your life.

Be Practical

Take the necessary steps to solve a problem. If putting something away is inconvenient, consider what needs to be stored for long or short periods of time.

Many artists have areas of their studio that are meant for long-term storage or items rarely used. These artist also have a designated work area that is equipped with the necessary tools for that particular project.  Separating complete work, materials, and tools from in-process ones will not only be efficient for your art practice but safe.  When one project is complete, remove the finished work, materials, and tools used in order to make room for your next project and the essentials required.


Risk Reduction for the Studio

Tipping Hazards

Tipping occurs when an object slides across a surface until it encounters a point of resistance and then trips over that obstruction. Tipping can also occur when an object has a high friction bottom that will not slide and a high center of gravity. To prevent objects from tipping over, follow the same steps for securing them or lowering their center of gravity.

Secure unstable items to more stable ones such as walls, pillars or mounts to limit motion.

Lower the center of gravity for objects stored in your studio.

Place heavier items on lower shelves.

Lay tall things on their sides or secured to a wall with a brace or cords.

Fasten items to a base with a larger footprint and is thus harder to tip.

Place weights inside vessels to lower the center of gravity and keep from tipping over.

Enclose items in a box or other structure with a wider footprint and a lower center of gravity.

Allow items to slide on the surface where they are sitting as long as they are not able to slide and fall off.

Anchor small objects such as glass and glazed ceramics with dental wax, “quake” putty or silicone. (These items can be purchased at most art supply or home improvement stores.) This is a very effective technique, especially when coupled with the addition of weight to lower the center of gravity. Use three to four small balls of wax on the bottom of an object. Place the object on a substrate (shelf or pedestal) with a slight twist. Remove in same fashion to shear wax layer. Waxes and putties can damage certain finishes and penetrate into unfinished surfaces. Be sure to test the material on a hidden portion of your objects first before using it.

Collision Hazards

Collision damage occurs when an object slides and strikes another object or surface without tipping over. 

Prevention tips:

Increase bottom friction and lower the center of gravity.

Place padding or separators between objects. A grouping of objects (such as ceramics or glass) are best placed close together and separated with foam, cardboard or folded newspaper, and stored on a set of shelving that has been secured against tipping.

Falling Hazards 

Objects may be damaged by falling from a shelf, workbench or display stand. 2D work may be damaged by falling off a wall. To reduce falling objects:

Apply a lip to the edge of a surface by stretching a light rope or bungee across the opening of a set of shelves to limit the ability of objects to fall off the shelves.

2D Work Hung on the Walls 

Secure the lower edge so that the panel cannot flap and stress the hanging attachments. “Secure-T” security fasteners will retain lower edge best, but rubberized poster adhesive putty will secure bottoms fairly well. (This is not an archival product so keep off actual art surfaces.)

Upper hanging hardware must be well-secured.

Pedestals

Anchor objects with wax/putty or on a mount.

Check all corners of a plinth or pedestal to ensure that they rest securely on the floor.  Uneven flooring or pedestal construction can lead to an unstable object.  Small adjustments can be made with a shim or other small wedging device to stabilize the pedestal.  


Other Hazards in the Studio

Flammables

Ideally all flammables should be in a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-approved steel flammables cabinet that is secured to a wall. That said, the greatest concern is with breakage and spillage, especially if those materials are in use at any given time.

Equip all storage cabinets with doors that latch.  If children or unexperienced guests are present  in your studio, consider getting a lock for these hazardous materials.

Use boxes or plastic tubs or containers to sequester and contain spillable contents.

Use a wheeled cart with tray-type shelves to help contain any spillage as well as allow limited dislocation.

Buy materials in plastic containers whenever possible.

If you have transferred hazardous materials from their original package, make sure that the new package is clearly labeled with its hazardous contents.

If you have transferred hazardous materials to another container, be sure to know if the material will not melt, absorb, burn, discolor, or crack the new container.  Some chemicals can violently react to different plastics, metals, etc.  

Gases

Gas cylinders for welding or other purposes must be secured to a wall to keep from tipping over. Even those on two-wheeled welding carts must be secured.

Caution: Gas cylinders are under high-pressure. If damaged, they can explode or become flying projectiles. When purchasing a gas cylinder, please consult with sales staff regarding tank safety precautions.

If you smell gas, turn off all equipment and shut off any gas valves. Ventilate the area by opening windows, doors or vents. Do not, open a door to a hallway or other room until you can be sure you are not poisoning your neighbors.


Equipment and Tools

Large tools

Secure to walls or pillars.

Lower the center of gravity with weight at the bottom.

Fasten base to larger footprint of plywood. Adding a plywood base can keep something from tipping     over.

Fasten base to floor.

Place tool on mobile base to allow limited dislocation.

Small tools 

Store in cabinets with latching doors.

Put neoprene or rubber compounds on underside of toolboxes to increase friction.

Use racking system to organize and secure tools in convenient locations.

Lumber and awkward-sized materials

Secure items with eyebolts into wall studs at strategic intervals and nylon rope to snug up stacks.

Build storage racks to enclose and store materials. These racks must be well built and secured to a wall or pillar.

Paintings and Panels 

Use secure hardware to hang paintings rather than just hanging from the stretcher bars.

Use a French cleat system instead of a wire.

Use toggle bolts for drywall or walls without studs.

Use corner protectors on your paintings.

Glass, Ceramics and Fragile Items 

Place on foam-lined shelves with separators or foam cavities to isolate objects from one another.

Support rounded objects with foam to keep them from rolling.

Fill all empty space in vessels and objects with paper, foam, or bubble wrap.  You should always project the interior as well as the exterior of an object.  

Store objects in boxes with padding and separators.

Health and Safety include mental health as well. The following section includes some things to consider about the mental part of your overall health.


Mental Health

The following will help you to keep a good outlook on your art life:

Get enough sleep. Whether you need the standard 8 hours or can run off 6. Find what works for you to feel well rested and refreshed for each day.

Do not have a poverty mentality.  Being concerned about finances and standards of living are important but spinning yourself into a panic won’t be beneficial to you or your practice.  

Do not try to do it all alone. Find a community or kinship with other local artists to avoid isolation.

Do not stop before you start. Get into the studio regularly.  Make a schedule and stick with it.

Give back and mentor within your community. Helping others will always come back to you. 

Get feedback on your work regularly from your peers, not only your dealer, art consultants or exhibition submissions. Your peers might have a better or insightful opinion about your work than someone who is concerned with selling, for instance.

Challenge yourself by working in collaboration. Working with others will help forge healthy professional relationships in the art world.

Do not think of your work and practice in competition with others.  Facilitate and proliferate a sense of community with fellow artists, not competition.

Have motivation, ambition and productivity about your practice.  The same should go for your social life as well.  A key component to a healthy mental state is balance.  

Keep your work and living space free of clutter.  This is simple to do and yields great results.

Do not disconnect from the needs of your body.  Your work is important to you but your physical and mental health should always come first.


Pointers and Overview 

Take each step as it comes.

If you are already established in another occupation and you are making a change, it is advisable to do so slowly. Think intelligently when making decisions.

As an artist you will have two main roles: creating art and marketing art. Understand where one ends and the other begins.

Challenges come with every endeavor. When you come up against a challenge, tackle it with wisdom. Understand whether the challenge is personal or professional.

Understand when your personal life needs to take priority. You will need energy to make your business thrive. If your personal life is in chaos, it will be hard for your professional life to take a different path.

It is a good idea to understand what kind of investments you can make in your career—such as time, money and labor—in order to reach your goals. 

Get the support of your family and friends. Be sure they understand what it is you need to do and how they continue to fit into your life. Do not neglect those who are important to you.


Post-Exhibition Blues Or The Blues in General

Many artists get depressed after an exhibition or public display of their work. Or because they can’t get a show in the first place. Be aware of depression and take steps to avoid it or alleviate it. Below are common expectations artists have after an exhibition:

Exposure in a public and professional context.

Pride at having friends and relatives acknowledge an important part of who you are.

Hearing strangers talk about your work (for better or for worse).

Getting a review.

Selling your work—selling out an exhibition as an ultimate goal.

Exposure to and recognition from important collectors, critics and curators.

Recognition from another gallery or future opportunity.

Avoiding Post-Exhibition Blues

Take a trip or vacation immediately after the opening.

Write about your work or exhibition.  This will allow you time to reflect on what you have created and prepare you for your next project.

Schedule meeting times at the gallery with friends to allow yourself the opportunity to talk about the work with a receptive listener.

Put out a guest book and encourage comments on your work.

Start a new series of work before the work for the show is removed from your studio, or keep a favorite piece behind in order to inspire you to create a new series.

 

You can also get our popular book for artists which includes all of this information and more here.