Traditionally, art schools have taken a very laissez-faire attitude towards students working after hours on class assignments, and have even encouraged it. In many schools, students have keys and can get into art buildings at any time of the day or night. Unfortunately, this can have serious consequences.
In 1980, a graduate art student was electrocuted at a midwestern university when his hand became entangled in the coils of a vacuum-forming machine. He was working alone late in the evening, and was dead for possibly an hour before his body was discovered. In another incident at a Texas university, a student was found "asleep" in the screen printing studio by the teacher in the morning. The student was sent home after it took the teacher 15 or 20 minutes to awaken the student. This was a probable example of solvent narcosis. I have received many other reports of after-hours accidents involving unsupervised students in art schools or college art departments. In some of these incidents, quick medical attention could have minimized injury.
In addition to the health risks from the art materials, allowing students unlimited access to studios can create other problems. For example, if security personnel don't know that students are in the building, these students might not be informed of possible emergencies such as a fire. Unrestricted access has also resulted in vandalism and even violent crime.
Besides these direct risks to the students, lack of supervision can also create liability problems for the college. Students, if injured due to the negligence of the school, can sue the school. In general, to recover damages in a lawsuit, an injured student would have to prove negligence, and that the negligence caused the injury or illness. In many states, schools are held in loco parentis to students, which means that the school is acting like a parent and would have to take the same degree of precautions as a parent. Lack of supervision of students is an important factor that could indicate negligence.
Safety Versus "Artistic Freedom"
These incidents, and the growing awareness of the potential hazards of art materials and processes, bring into question this traditional policy of allowing art students to work whenever they want. The problem is to draw the line between protecting the students and university, and restricting the creativity of the students. One of the most important ways to minimize these hazards is for colleges to expand the hours in which studios are supervised. This would be particularly important for studios such as sculpture and woodworking where extensive safety hazards exist. An alternative, which is used by many universities, is to lock all dangerous equipment after hours.
There are two aspects to the problem of students working unsupervised. First, at what stage of his or her education should an art student be allowed to work unsupervised? Second, what restrictions should apply to protect the student and the university?
Written procedures are needed for evaluating when students are allowed to work unsupervised in regular studios or in individual studio spaces. These procedures should include the experience of the students and the amount of training in safety and emergency procedures necessary for students to work unsupervised. In general, I do not think first or second year students have the experience with art processes to work unsupervised. More advanced students should have at least a 3-hour lecture on art hazards and precautions, along with training in the college's emergency procedures, before being allowed to work unsupervised.
There are several restrictions that should apply. First, it should be a rule that no one is allowed to work alone. The student who was electrocuted might still be alive if he was working with someone and emergency help was called immediately. Second, there should be restricted access. Students should not have keys. Instead, there should be a sign-in and sign-out procedure with regular checks by security. Methods of indicating who is approved to work unsupervised could include a pass system or list of approved students available to the guards. Such a check-in system is also important to allow emergency personnel to know who is inside a building in case of emergency.
These guidelines will not provide absolute protection. That is impossible. However, they will minimize the risk to students and show that the university is making a good faith effort to address the problem.