Health and Safety in the Studio


An Introduction to Health & Safety Issues 

Most artists are aware that some of the materials that they use and processes that they undertake can carry health and safety risks. What many artists may not be aware of is that they, as self-employed individuals, have a duty under health and safety law to ensure that their working environment complies with health and safety legislation.

For most artists their workplace is the studio; be it a purpose built facility, rented space or an extension to their home. The nature of artistic practice is such that artists use a very eclectic mix of materials in their day-to day work. They also undertake a wide range of physical activities and processes in producing work. Both materials used and production activities can be detrimental to an artist’s health and safety, quality of life and career.

Apart from it being the law, it is in the interest of artists to protect their own health and safety as well as ensuring that studios and work environments are safe for visitors, family or clients. This text aims to provide a brief introduction to the law and requirements to have a safe and healthy workplace. It will cover the importance of the ‘Safety Statement’ and in particular ‘Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment’.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has a large number of publications and guides, which provide information and advice on the various hazards associated with different occupations. However, there are no guidelines which cover artists studio-work specifically, so it is up to you to assess your studio, work methods and materials; identify the risks associated in each case and implement measures to reduce or eliminate them.

The Legislation 
If you are self-employed – as most artists are – you are legally bound to provide a safe working environment as set out in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. You will find this as well as other health and safety legislative documents on the HSA website. Failure to provide a safe working environment can result in civil cases taken by visitors or employees (if you employ others to work with you in your studio) or criminal cases taken by the HSA.

The Act is the primary piece of health and safety legislation. This sets out your basic health and safety responsibilities. There are a number of secondary pieces of legislation which essentially expand on these basic responsibilities. For instance, The Act (Primary) requires you to provide a safe place of work while the General Applications (Secondary) expands on what a safe place of work is.

The Safety Statement
The legislation demands that you as a self-employed individual manage health and safety in your work place. A ‘Safety Statement’ outlines how you will do this. The Statement should include a commitment to comply with all relevant Health and Safety Legislation and should identify the hazards and assess the risks of all activities undertaken in your workplace. It should also detail the protective and preventive measures taken to secure the safety, health and welfare of the people who work at or visit your workplace. The safety statement should be clearly displayed in your studio and brought to the attention of staff (if any) at least once a year, and whenever it is revised.

Risk Assessment
A risk assessment identifies the hazards in your workplace and evaluates the risks posed by these hazards. In order to fully comprehend the language of the legislation and to be able to draw up a risk assessment, it is helpful to understand the common terms used throughout – hazard, harm and risk.

  • A Hazard can be defined as anything that has the potential to cause physical injury or damage to health, the environment or to property.
  • Harm is the adverse effect on an individual that may result from exposure to a hazard
  • A Risk is a measure of the probability of harm being caused and the severity of that harm.

Carrying Out a Risk Assessment
The Health and Safety Authority provides a systematic guide to carrying out a risk assessment.

* Analyse your studio or workplace. This may involve listing all the activities carried out in your studio, drawing up a diagram of your space and mapping the location of equipment such as computers, sinks, radiators, shelving, kilns etc

* Identify the hazards associated with your work activities. For example, electrical hazards associated with untrunked cables which may cause tripping or falling, chemical hazards associated with toxic materials, hazards that are associated with stone work – dust inhalation for example. Textile dyes are particularly hazardous to skin and photochemicals used by photographers are associated with skin and respiratory diseases. Some hazards may not seem so obvious such as unsecured shelving, the glare from PC monitors, for example, but even the chair that you sit on, if incorrectly adjusted, can cause back injury.

* Rate the risk level associated with each hazard. To do this you need to evaluate the likelihood that injury might occur and the extent or severity of the injury. This assessment of risk is a question of judgement – you yourself must form an opinion. If you are unsure of the risk associated with a particular piece of equipment or chemical; it is up to you to find out by contacting the manufacturer or reading the label or safety manual.

* Evaluate the ‘controls’ that you may already have in place to make hazards less hazardous. Controls are essentially precautions that you put in place to eliminate or reduce the risks. A control may take the form of signage near a leaking sink that warns of a slippery surface, warning labels on chemicals, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as goggles and dust masks for working with stone or when printmaking for example.

Hierarchy of Controls
Once you have carried out a Risk Assessment of your studio or workplace you must then decide what efforts you will take to ensure that the risks you have identified are reduced or eliminated. The Health and Safety Legislation sets out a five-step hierarchy of controls on how to deal with or control risks. It is called a hierarchy because the most effective control is placed at the top. You should implement these controls in priority order starting at the top and working down the list.

1. Eliminate: If you can eliminate the hazard altogether you should do so. So for example, avoid using a particular type of toxic chemical altogether or avoid carrying heavy loads yourself.

2. Substitute: Can you substitute the materials or equipment for ones that are less hazardous? For example, can you use an alternative brand of paint  – one that is less toxic or can you substitute that faulty heater for one that works a bit better.

3. Engineering: Can you install Fire Extinguishers in your workplace? Ensure that the electrical installation in your studio is certified and maintained by a competent person.

4. Administrative: Clearly display signage warning of hazards associated with materials such as chemicals and toxic paints or signage warning visitors of poor floor conditions or obstructions.

5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE is any safety clothing or equipment worn to protect against hazards. You should use goggles to protect against dust or debris for example.

Summary of Responsibilities 
To summarise, you must display a Safety Statement in your workplace or studio. The Safety Statement must be accompanied by a Risk Assessment. This must include risks for all people including visitors. For every hazard identified, controls or preventions must be put in place to ensure the risk of harm is eliminated or reduced. Finally, your Statement and Risk Assessment must be revised annually to ensure any new hazards are identified and controls implemented.

Chemical Hazards
Now we will look at some of the most common workplace hazards. The main categories of hazards to be mindful of are: biological, chemical, physical, human behaviour, and fire and explosion.

Chemical agents are considered hazardous not only because of what they contain but also because of the way in which they are used in the studio. Some hazardous chemical agents include:

* Substances brought into the workplace and handled, stored and used in your work processes. These may include solvents, cleaning agents, paints, glues, and resin.

* Substances generated by your work activity – fumes from welding, soldering, dust, solvent vapours from painting etc

* Substances or mixtures produced by your work process – residues and waste for example.

The effects of exposure to chemical hazards can range from eye irritation to poisoning to chronic lung disease. Information on chemical agents can usually be found on packaging labels, information provided by the supplier and of course the Internet. The HSA data sheets will advise on how to prevent or eliminate risks associated with chemicals.

Biological Hazards
Biological hazards are usually invisible so the risks they pose are not always appreciated. They include bacteria, viruses, fungi (yeasts and moulds) and parasites. The essential difference between biological agents and other hazardous substances is their ability to reproduce. Exposure to biological agents can occur whenever people are in contact with the materials such as natural or organic materials like soil, clay, and plant materials (hay, straw, cotton etc); substances of animal origin (wool, hair, etc); food; organic dust (eg. flour, paper, dust) and waste or wastewater. 

Some of the occupations at risk from biological hazards that artists may cross over into include working in areas with air conditioning systems and high humidity (eg. textile industry, print industry and paper production). This can cause allergies and respiratory disorders due to moulds and yeasts. Also, working in archives, museums and libraries can cause allergies and respiratory disorders.

Physical Hazards
Activities involving manual handling and trips and falls are probably the most common cause of workplace accidents. The common risks are associated with manual handling involve the load being too heavy, bad posture when lifting and environment factors such as uneven floors.

Visual Display Units
Though working at a computer may not seem particularly hazardous to your health there are health and safely issues associated with the use of computers and the workstation (desk, chair, lighting,) at which a person works. Anyone that works at a computer workstation for one continuous hour or more, as part of their everyday work should be aware of the hazards associated – eye strain, back injury, repetitive strain.

Fire
Probably the hazard that most people are aware of and that which is a hazard in every workplace. Common causes of fire include electrical faults, cooking, smoking and flammable liquids. Obviously, the best control to prevent fire is to isolate the three factors that cause fire – heat, fuel and oxygen. Thus, your studio should be kept neat and tidy to limit potential fuel sources. Ensure sockets are not overloaded and that electrical equipment is in good condition. A smoke detector and fire extinguisher should be installed in your studio.


By Niamh Looney 

Niamh Looney is Information and Research Officer with Visual Artists Ireland. In 2006, she successfully completed Managing Safely, a course validated by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health