UW News

August 16, 2007

Research group helps protect artistic vision

Artists have vision, creativity, often a unique world view, and the courage to pursue their work in a society that isn’t always supportive.

But they don’t necessarily have much background in safety or knowledge about the dangers of the materials they work with.

At the UW, some members of the Field Research and Consultation Group, a state-funded service unit based in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, have been working with artists and craftsmen to understand and reduce health and safety dangers.

The Seattle area has been a center for artistic glassblowing since at least the early 1970s. While some dangers, such as roaring hot furnaces and broken glass, might be obvious, others are not. One of those is the infrared radiation from the furnaces, which in time causes “glassblower’s cataract,” a common occupational hazard for those who were working in glass in the early years of art-glass development here.

Today, most glass studios use safeguards such as glare shields, ventilation systems and wet-process grinders, which cut down on glass dust in the air. They usually buy glass already colored so that artists don’t need to mix in the pigments, which may contain heavy metals.

When glassblowers and other artists need advice on how to make their work safer, they can ask for a consultation from the Field Group.

“We were first asked to consult and make presentations for the Seattle Metals Guild because some of the jewelry makers — especially those working with enamels — were concerned about exposure to toxic substances,” said Gerry Croteau, one of the certified research industrial hygienists who works with the Field Group.

He and Janice Camp, another industrial hygienist in the group, pulled together information for a workshop on health, safety and environmental issues.

“We quickly learned that there was very limited information on exposure levels for metal artists,” Croteau said. Most available information was geared to industrial processes, with workers who do the same tasks day to day and on a larger scale than artists.

In some ways, artists are protected by the nature of their work, he said. For example, if they are sanding or grinding a surface that will put particles in the air, they usually don’t keep on doing that task all day. Their exposure is intermittent, not constant, in contrast to the industrial setting.

In fact, one of the controls Croteau often recommends for work tasks where exposure might be a concern is to spread out the exposure by doing, for example, an hour of sanding work each day rather that doing it all at once. Our bodies can often handle low levels of exposure to materials without being overwhelmed, in much the same way that it’s better to have one alcoholic drink a day for five days than to have five drinks all at once.

Other basic protections recommended for artists and artisans are dust masks to filter out particles in the air, eyewear that will protect from flying bits, and an adequate ventilation system. Even a home studio system that uses a standard bathroom fan vented to the outside can be enough to reduce exposures, he said, if it’s set up properly.

But Croteau said that it isn’t necessarily easy to answer the simple question the artists ask: “Am I safe?”

“We have measuring and monitoring tools at our disposal,” he said. “But it isn’t quite as simple as just going into a studio and ‘checking the air.’ With airborne hazards, you have to know what you are trying to measure and how much of that substance is going to be a hazard — in other words, what the safe exposure level is.”

Croteau has been developing a database of specific jewelry-making activities, using different sampling devices to determine what the artists are breathing and then deciding what should be studied further. He has done some of the work to expand the database while consulting and has also worked with the UW Art School metals program.

Croteau also has written two articles for the Enamelist Society Newsletter, a publication for artists, craftspersons and hobbyists working with enamels. In the articles, he answers various questions and proposes several simple controls, including the low-tech idea of using small covers over the sieves that strain powdered pigments. According to his measurements, the covers can significantly reduce particles in the air.

The Field Research and Consultation Group was established more than 25 years ago to work with businesses and worker groups in Washington state, especially those too small to have their own occupational or industrial health programs. It is supported by Washington state workers compensation funds. The Field Group is based at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine. For more on the group and its projects, see the Web site at http://depts.washington.edu/frcg/.