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Artists in the Public Realm Health and Safety


Our society is an increasingly risk averse one, the consequences of which, at times, seem laughable, from the tales of trees being removed because of the danger posed by sodden leaves to the playground banning of the seemingly innocent game of conkers. These moves may appear a ridiculous response by an overcautious bureaucracy. However, they are, unfortunately, indicative of a risk averse society driven by the notion of blame, where accidents don't just happen, and where there is always someone at fault. On a daily basis this state of affairs has a significant impact on our lives and, in particular, on our experience of public space.

The current agenda for the creation of public space makes huge demands – we want places where people want to spend time, cities with the freedom for pedestrians to move through unhindered and places for people to come together in celebration. Public space (even quasi public space) is a powerful asset to the revitalised cityscape - it becomes a marketing and branding tool, a lucrative income earner (note the proliferation of Christmas Markets and plasma screens) for local authorities and private sector management companies. The value of good design within this agenda is well documented and now promoted nationally and regionally. It is seen as a key characteristic of a thriving and dynamic economy.

In terms of design, spaces have to work incredibly hard. They have to be accessible, welcoming, durable and safe. This all makes perfect sense but designers and providers of public spaces are in danger of having to limit possibilities in order to design out risk, to satisfy an increasingly risk conscious client. In reality this is part of ensuring that the 'blame', should anything go wrong, can be clearly apportioned. What this means for designers and others working in the public realm is that there are often already limiting factors to truly innovative and creative responses. The ability to try new materials and methodologies are often curtailed with the prevailing context of risk aversion. This is one of the paradoxes of the current design agenda – more demands in terms of expectations but more restrictions to achieving this.

It is within this context that artists are challenged to work. The challenge is to create projects where artists have the opportunity to work creatively whilst not being hindered by restrictions. This guidance note attempts to provide some broad principles and practical steps to address this challenge.

Adding artists to the mix - Commitment, Collaboration and Communication

In entering the realm of the public space, artists are immediately placed within a contested space, in terms of cultural values, social concerns, responsibility for maintenance, control over marketing etc. This is not the clear clean box of the gallery or museum; there are other claims on the function of the space and other people who will have a say in its creation.

Some of the worst stories in relation to health and safety issues have taken place when a nervous client has, on completion or sometimes soon after, made changes to the project in order to mitigate a perceived risk. At the least this might be the addition of warning signs, or more significantly structural changes, additions or removal. Done without the artist's consent, this can only serve to damage the relationship between artist and client, and, in addition, could be in danger of precipitating legal action. Either way the position of artist and client is not a happy one; the artist's work is compromised or the client doesn't have the best work of art following months of investment and development time. Such unresolved situations only serve to fuel concerns over taking new approaches.


Artists work in many ways – as object makers, enquirers, researchers, collators, mappers, provocateurs. They can challenge and question, work beyond boundaries and outside of professional boxes. Above all, the best artists take risks – not some obscure personal and physical challenge – but in terms of their working practices, expanding the premise from which they work and re-assessing their processes and methodologies. From the outset the client needs to understand the work of the artist, as the artist needs to understand the objectives of their client. Both parties need to understand the elements of risk (financial, creative, professional) involved in the project and be prepared to work together in order to work through these to the benefit of the project. A project champion should be identified at the outset in order to provide a mechanism by which the intentions of the project can be promoted and retained. The best projects always have committed clients.


It is acknowledged that working in the public realm requires collaboration – but perhaps it's worth re-visiting this mantra in the context of health and safety?

Artists need to respond to the complexity of the design and delivery of public space. For others working to strict procedures, often externally driven and monitored, the methodology of the artist can be challenging and baffling. There can be an overwhelming concern on deliverables, durability and fitness for purpose. In this context, a collaboration that is based on knowledge of each other's practices, trust and respect is crucial. Artists' don't necessarily undertake special training for this work - they are often working in this context because of their previous track record, or particular interest in the specific context of the work. Knowing the strengths and limitations of each member of the team is essential. A commitment to working collaboratively is a significant one; it involves a meeting of the creative process, practical deliverables and procedures. See the section on collaboration in this website for further information. At the pre-artist appointment stage, the client must clarify the roles and responsibilities of the design/project team in respect of the artists' input to any design work. Designers have particular responsibilities under CDM Regulations and this should be clarified during the artists' appointment process.


An artist working within a design team, or working to make a piece of artwork, will need to marry the development of the idea or concept with the design process for the broader context. This process must link the design development and approvals process with risk assessment. There is no point inviting a review from the Health & Safety Officer post completion (and this does happen). The right people need to be involved at the right time and the artists must have access to these individuals when required.

In summary the avoidance of problems can be alleviated by a project management process that is based on commitment from the client, collaboration amongst the design team and good communication. A risk assessment process is a practical tool in the project management process and should be used within the context of these principles.

Undertaking a Risk Assessment

Undertaking a risk assessment should not be an onerous task. It is not intended to limit the creative response to the project but should allow for a considered view of the likelihood of mishap occurring. The process makes apparent the activities that are likely to take place, highlights the potential hazards attached to these, identifies those in danger and consequently provides some assessment of the level of risk. It can then be used to better make decisions about how the risk should be dealt with.

Some questions to ask:

  • What sort of activities might take place in the context of the project?
  • What is the nature of the hazard and to whom?
  • How severe is the impact? Major, serious or minor?
  • How likely is it to happen?

Once these have been mapped out, the risk factor can be calculated in order to inform the need to take action in relation to a particular risk. The following table shows how these might be laid out and gives a grading structure for the three elements of risk analysis.



Persons in danger

Risk Analysis

Risk Control










3 - death or major injury

2 - serious injury or illness

1 - slight - minor injury or illness


3 - high – certain or near certain harm

2 - medium – harm will occur frequently

1 - low - harm will seldom occur

Severity x Likelihood

1 or 2   low risk no action required

3 or 4   may require remedial measure

6 -   reduce risk, preventative/protective measures required

9 -   high risk, avoid by developing the design/eliminate risk

A check list for addressing health and safety issues through the project:

Assessing the site

Have you assessed the context for the artwork? Are there specific issues that will impact on the scope of the artwork and how might you address these during the development of the project? For example, are there limitations to site access that will need to be addressed? How is the site used now and how might this impact on the brief for the work? What are your aspirations for future use and activity?

Building the Team

Who will you need to involve in the delivery of the project? Do you have everyone you need internally to deliver the project and how will you involve external advice? What will be the relationship between seeking external advice and the approval of design development – do you have a mechanism in place to ensure that clear messages are given to the artist and the design team?

The Risk Assessment

Do you have a tool for risk assessment and have you allocated responsibility for this? How will responsibility for CDM Regulations be allocated within the project and is this clear prior to artists' appointments?

Fabrication and Installation

As an artist have you taken responsibility for your own personal safety and insurances whilst working in your studio or other place of work? When working on site are artists and their sub contractors well aware of the need to conform to health and safety procedures laid out in the Health and Safety plan for the construction project? Has adequate contribution been made during the design to this plan in relation to aspects of the art works design and construction? It is usual for the architects to take the lead in this area.

Post completion

Do you have a period of review identified in the contract in order to follow up on any areas of concern? Do you have a mechanism to deal with this review? It is sensible to agree a period of review in order to respond to any issues that arise during the early stages of handover – where possible this should be built into the snagging of the building, or maintenance regimes. Maintenance plays a key role in relation to ongoing health and safety issues and, to avoid problems, clients have a commitment to undertake maintenance in accordance with the guidance provided by the artists.


Within your contract have you incorporated a commitment to mediation? Where communication breaks down and issues prove difficult to resolve, a process of mediation is recommended. Legal advice must be sought in the drawing up of legal agreements between artists and clients but, where possible, the process of mediation is more cost effective and productive than legal proceedings.

Further resources:

The Health & Safety Executive publishes a range of guidance documents providing advice on Health & Safety at Work, and also information sheets on the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations. These resources can be found at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/index.htm

Temporary public art projects should follow the same checklist. They may need to take additional care in assessing the involvement of people in the event or performance based work. The following site may be of use in this respect.



CDM Regulations

These Regulations aim to improve the safety of the construction industry from concept through to construction. They provide guidance on the responsibilities of the Client and Design, as well as the Principal Contractor (the contractor responsible for the Health and Safety Plan), and Planning Supervisor (the person responsible in ensuring that a construction project complies with the CDM).

The Brief

This is a document that outlines the scope of the project in order to agree the appointment of an artist. It provides details of the site, key contacts, physical or technical constraints or opportunities, budget for the work, details of collaborators for the design process and the wider project team, amongst other issues. The Brief appended to any legal contract, once an artist is commissioned, may be an updated version of the original project Brief.

Design Team

The group of individual design professionals brought together to undertake key design tasks in relation to a new build, refurbishment, masterplan, landscape or other build project. Typically this could include Architect, Landscape Architects, Artists, Lighting Engineers, Urban Designer. One consultant will usually take the lead on legal aspects of the work and management of the design process.

Project Team

With a wider makeup than the Design Team, the Project Team will include representatives of the Design Team, but also representation from other areas of the Client Team (PR, Marketing, Finance), other specialist advisors, stakeholders and partners for the project. The group may also include external funders.

Project Champion

A nominated individual who is respected amongst the Project and Design Teams and has the ability and commitment to advocate for the project in order to mitigate delay, safeguard resources and provide continued clarity on the purpose and aspirations of the project.

Risk Assessment

A project management tool that seeks to eliminate or reduce the risk of delays, injury or harm, and additional costs to the project.

Health & Safety Officers

Many organisations will have an internal Health & Safety Officer. These officers are responsible for implementing the Health and Safety Policy adopted by that organisation. These policies deal in the main with occupational issues, safety at work etc. In some instances officers will be providing advice on public safety in respect of public events or activities in public places.

© Emma Larkinson January 2006

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