NN: So Val, we are in the final days of the project and for me it feels like we have covered quite a lot of ground. Two case studies, 2 focus groups and 3 studio visits, in amongst plenty of dialogue and experimentation. It has been fascinating to start to understand the detail that ergonomists go into when making a study. Right back at the very beginning when we first met I can remember me saying I think we will see that artists and craftspeople will have a variety of different postures and you said you expected to find similarities. From the project I learnt it was the tasks that were varied, the combination and grouping of tasks were different, but that actual movements and postures had lots of similarities. Movements such as pinch, twist and grip were commonly seen. I quite like this as it puts art practice labour alongside a wide range of other occupations, more comparable and less elite. Was there anything you found out from the project that surprised you?
VW: Observing and discussing the work of the makers and artists in this study has been fascinating from many perspectives. Although my main focus has been on postures adopted while working, the wider aspects of their work have also been incredibly interesting and often surprising to learn about, e.g. their work-life balance, their social interaction or lack of it, their working environments.
Yes we have identified postural similarities between artists who conduct very different work but have also have seen similarities with other non-art professions, e.g. seamstresses. I agree there have been lots of pinch grips! We have also observed much wrist flexion and extension, and a significant amount of radial and ulnar deviation of the wrists. Not surprisingly, many of the tasks we have observed the makers conduct have been quite meticulous, often requiring dexterous finger movements and most of the tasks observed are visually intensive. Arms are often unsupported and abducted. We have also seen force being exerted, sometimes in awkward postures. In general the back and neck although often flexed have been held static throughout the sometimes quite long tasks we have observed. We saw more back movement during our last studio visit to a basket maker, which was considered to be a multi-limbed task.
We also discussed pain with the makers and there appears to be quite a high prevalence of upper limb discomfort experienced while at work. Was this more of an issue than you thought it might be?
NN: Before I answer your question I have to draw attention to the detail in your reply above. The way you have written about the body in the movement of making is so interesting, the terminology is so far from a vocabulary that I would normally use in my art practice. Yet we were both there, looking at the same thing, during the studio visits, and the focus groups. The case studies are of two of my artworks and I would never think of describing them in the terms you have used. This is why I wanted to work with you, to open up a new way of seeing, the case study documents you have put together with numbers and graphs, timings and analysis; movement is being described in such a different manner.
To answer your question I think what I noticed most about the pain and discomfort was for many, the mainly temporary nature of it, and that most people learned to live with it, knowing taking a break would ease the symptoms. During the studio visit with Les, I was fascinated by the pain he described as originating from using a big heavy printing press some 20 years previously; reappearing with the light touch activity of using a computer mouse. So that’s a useful insight, it may not simply be a case of no longer using a particular process because it causes pain, that may not be enough, the pain may simply re-appear when undertaking another activity. It’s a cautionary note for us to take care of ourselves, as you pointed out in one of our discussions, self-employed people are take sole responsibility for their health and wellbeing.
From talking to practitioners during our project I found the discussions about autonomy with work set-up and task selection to be really interesting. How does this differ from some of the other studies you have undertaken where there is less autonomy?
VW: Yes I agree, as I recall I think nearly everyone we talked to during our study mentioned some pain and discomfort but seemed to manage it by taking breaks; however most said when there is a deadline there is no option but to work through it. Thumbs, wrists, hands, shoulders, backs were the most prevalent areas of pain and discomfort. I think given the varied tasks that the makers undertake it is difficult to avoid. As well as close, intricate, static work that many conduct, there is often an element of manual handling in their work, whether it’s carrying the final product or equipment or moving materials like large bags of clay or they might have to hold a heavy tool for a substantial amount of time in order to conduct their work. One person we observed held a heavy piece of equipment at an awkward angle while conducting a specific task as the cable for the tool was not long enough to allow a more comfortable posture. Further, I noticed during our studio visits that even when back support was available it was rarely used.
Some of the young makers we talked with in the focus groups who are starting out on their careers had limited funds to spend on setting up a good workspace and this might contribute to the occurrence of pain and discomfort. Problems can be cumulative and long-lasting if they are not managed. I am hoping some of the ergonomic sessions during the focus groups might have been of some help to encourage them to think about their workstation set-up but also to think about the structure of their working day. This leads me on to your question, I think that artists and makers like many self-employed workers are incredibly lucky to be able to organise their work content, work pace and schedules, and their working environments. This takes discipline and also is not easy from a financial aspect, particularly at the start of a career. I have met many different types of workers whose work control has varied from none at all (e.g. assembly line workers) to those with a lot of job autonomy and flexibility (e.g. journalists). Most workers had to meet deadlines during the work just like the artists and makers; however the people who we have met during this study are different in that they are in charge of their whole working life from small but important things like sourcing a chair or a work desk/bench, to ensuring their work environment is suitable for their work, to organising their accounts etc. It’s really daunting although I imagine incredibly rewarding.
I am sure these are issues that you have experienced in your work too. One area that I think is particularly difficult for many artists and makers to get right is the working environment – temperature, lighting, ventilation, noise – it can be very expensive to get these conditions right and this might be an area that is out of their control, for example if they are in a shared, rented workspace. Would you agree?
NN: I think this is a really good question. Studio provision for artists can be poor, the best studios are expensive and out of reach of many artists at the start of their careers, the cheaper studios are often shared, cold and temporary. Sometimes the temporary nature can extend for years but having a studio on that premise can be a real headache – the thought of having to move at short notice. I set up a research project a few years ago, visiting artists in their spaces and talking to arts professionals about ‘the studio’. Those with shared space often talked about the noise as being a real issue, having to listen to other people’s music or radios. It can be very distracting and some studio complexes have a rule that if anyone is in at the same time music gets switched off. Security can be an issue also, as studios can be temporarily adapted from other uses so leaving expensive kit overnight isn’t advisable, this means carrying a lot of stuff around. I’ve also had some very cold and damp studios in my time, my current studio is in a sign makers, there are other artists dotted around the building but I rarely see them if ever. I don’t ever feel like I’m solitary working as there are always other people around but I can always close my door if I just want to get on. I couldn’t do all my work in this studio though, it gets too chaotic and it’s pretty grubby in places so I have an office at home too for clean work – digital work, administration, emails etc. I quite like having these two spaces, and separate tasks for each. I don’t have the Internet at the studio and although I take my laptop its good as I don’t get distracted by internet browsing or emails. So working across two spaces works well but sometimes I am in one space and need something from the other and with a 30 minute walk between the two it isn’t always practical. But there is never an ideal working situation for anyone, regardless of the industry or profession they work in, there are always issues to address or manage, it’s just the way it is.
As the final art works are being fabricated I am thinking about the new audiences we can reach with the project work. Its visual nature offers a different entry point into the subject of ergonomics, when you have worked on research projects before would the end result usually be a report? Who would the main audiences be and how would you access them?
VW: Smaller research studies would result in a report to the company who commissioned the study. It might also be possible to write a paper based on the study for publication in an academic journal or for presentation at a scientific conference. Most of my large research studies were conducted for the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), their reports are all ISBN publications published by HSE Books and are also available to be downloaded from their website. These are detailed research reports. Aspects of these reports were turned into papers and presented at national and international conferences and also published in academic journals like International Journal of Ergonomics, Applied Ergonomics and Occupational Medicine. Sometimes we would write articles for health and safety magazines.
Generally the results of our studies were presented to academic audiences. However when we completed a two-year study investigating the musculoskeletal health of cleaners, which was funded by the HSE & UNISON, we thought it important to take a different approach. As well as presenting the findings at conferences and publishing in journals, we held a one-day seminar to disseminate the findings to the cleaning industry and invited many people from different parts of the industry to participate – trainers, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, safety reps, managers etc. This participatory approach enabled participants from the cleaning industry to share workplace experiences, including work organisation and health strategies that had already proved effective as well as discussing new ideas and approaches and the findings of our study. The major seminar outcome was a request from the participants for the provision of industry guidance – something that would actually be useful for the day-to-day management of the health of cleaning staff. With funding from the HSE, this resulted in Caring for Cleaners – Guidance and case studies on how to prevent musculoskeletal disorders.
Another particular interest of mine is social support at work and the positive effects of this on health and wellbeing; so I have been interested to learn about social interaction and also social isolation at work from the participants in our study. Often artists and makers work on their own, but might share a workspace or some may collaborate. What were the main feelings about social support you learned from the interviews and discussions we conducted during the focus groups and studio visits with respect to people’s experiences of working on their own?
NN: I can remember it being a mixed bag of responses to lone working. Some said they really enjoyed it, loved working on their own, but they also had opportunities to talk about their work with someone at the end of the day. Quite a few people work from home, studios in garages or in purpose build studios in their gardens, so work was mingled with family / friends lives. Some ran courses from these spaces so at particular points working in isolation would be broken. Most of the designer makers we spoke to, talked about how in addition to working on a self employed basis they also worked for other designer makers or in associated industries. This work opportunity was also an opportunity for social interaction. There were some people who found solitary working more challenging, but they had identified strategies to manage this, they engaged in sport or trips to the local library to get out of their workspace at specific times during their working week which interrupted the solitude. I know from wider conversations before we started the project that working in a solitary manner can be very important, this was particularly true for people with caring responsibilities with children and that solitude gave them uninterrupted thinking time.
Thinking time is an interesting area in relation to solitary working, as this kind of work may take place away from the studio, when commuting or out for a walk, in a solitary manner or through conversations with a friend or peer. This leads me to think about when work starts and stops and how a work life balance does or doesn’t work for those with creative disciplines. Practitioners may not always be ‘making’ work, but as making is thinking when work starts and stops is hard to define. Would you like to close our discussion with some thoughts about work / life balance?
VW: With regards to thinking time and work-life balance I think the art practitioners are actually similar to other workers, particularly other self-employed workers, but actually I believe that a blurred life-work balance is becoming the norm for many. It is increasingly difficult to draw a line between work and non-work time. Instant and constant communication via text, emails and other forms of on-line contact has contributed massively to this. The need to respond to these communications outside work time is a huge pressure for many people. Also our immediate access to vast amounts of information via the Internet means that ideas can be explored and investigated at any time and anywhere. In addition, many people now work at home full or part-time so the balance between work and non-work time can be easily blurred.
Nicola, this has been a fun way to round up our study. We have met some fascinating artists and makers who have been very generous with their time and very patient with us as we asked them to demonstrate their methods over and over. I have learnt a lot from observing and talking with them and have been so impressed by their dedication to their craft.
NN: I agree we have met some really interesting people and they answered our questions with honesty and generosity. We have already spoken about what we would like to do next, so I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation and the collaboration and seeing where we go with things next.