Controlling Art Materials
in Schools and Colleges

By Michael McCann, Ph.D., C.I.H.


The traditional "anything goes" experimental attitude on the part of some art students and teachers often creates situations with the potential for serious health and safety problems for the students.  This also carries the possibility of liability on the part of the school. 

This can apply to art programs at both the secondary and college levels.  In order to exert some control over these potentially hazardous situations but not stifle student initiative, standard safety procedures are needed.

Approval Mechanism

One of the most important procedures is an approval mechanism for all proposed changes in art processes and materials to determine if they can be used safely in a particular studio or classroom.  This includes not only regular course materials, but also individual projects being carried out by students.  For example, this evaluation could be carried out by a health and safety committee.  Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) should be obtained for all proposed art materials in order to assist in this evaluation.  When necessary, outside technical assistance should be obtained to evaluate the safety of a material or process.


Ordering of Art Materials

All art materials should be centrally ordered and Material Safety Data Sheets obtained from suppliers as a condition of purchase.  Students should not be allowed to bring in their own chemicals without special documented permission, and only after MSDSs have been obtained.

Legally, manufacturers and distributors must send MSDSs to schools when a product is first ordered and whenever the MSDS changes.  MSDSs should be stored centrally, and relevant MSDSs should be kept in the studio(s) where they will be used.  This availability of MSDSs is required as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Hazards Communication Standard.


Supervision of Students

For both safety and liability reasons, there should be adequate supervision of students in studios.  This is usually not a problem in schools, but often is at the college level.  In many colleges, students cannot use power tools without supervision, but otherwise can work without supervision.  Written procedures are needed for evaluating when students are allowed to work in studios on their own after classroom hours or in individual studio spaces.  These procedures should include experience of the students, the amount of training in safety and emergency procedures necessary for students to work unsupervised, signed check-in and check-out, and regular checks by security guards or supervising personnel.

It is preferable that students not work alone in studios because of the lack of assistance in case of accidents.  All students working unsupervised should be aware of emergency procedures in case of accidents.


Written Safety Procedures

Written safety procedures, including penalties for noncompliance, should be developed for individual or group studios.  Students should have to sign a contract agreeing to these rules in order to be assigned a studio.  Similar procedures should be developed for students working in regular classrooms. Of course, studio safety procedures, including work habits (e.g. no smoking or eating in the studio must also be observed by staff.

Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No.7 , 1989

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1989. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.