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Conservation Notes: Safety first!

January 24th, 2014

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

By Maria Sullivan, Manager of Conservation

In the AGO Conservation Department, we’re always concerned about the condition of the artwork… but of course we’re very careful about our own health and safety, too.

Visitors to our labs often wonder about the long contraptions that resemble elephant trunks dangling from the ceiling. We do often call them trunks, but they are, in fact, extraction units that we use when working with small amounts of solvents. When the units are on, the trunks suck air away from the working area so that the conservator isn’t exposed to the solvent vapours. We always consult our material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to understand the materials we’re using and what protective measures are needed. We also try to use less toxic materials whenever possible.

Recently, we were extremely fortunate to host a highly distinguished visitor who’s an expert in this area: Monona Rossol. Monana is a chemist, artist and industrial hygienist who has spent a lifetime advocating for safety in the arts, and she is president and founder of Art, Crafts & Theater Safety (ACTS), a non-profit dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. Her expertise is also relevant to artists, who use some of the same substances in their work (see tips below).

Monona investigates items in the AGO's Conservation Department.

Monona investigates items in the AGO’s Conservation Department.

Monona presented a workshop for staff members from the AGO and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) on Safety in Art Conservation and Museum Practice. The workshop addressed issues such as working intelligently and safely with chemicals and disaster planning. The AGO partnered with the ROM, OCAD University and the University of Toronto to bring Monona to Toronto for a series of educational events on safety in the arts.

While we are always careful in our practice at the AGO, it’s always good to have a reminder of the potential hazards and to consider measures we might take to improve our practice further.

Monona addresses the workshop attendees.

Monona addresses the workshop attendees.

Monona’s tips for conservators and artists:

  • Follow WHMIS (workplace hazardous materials information system) and have handy the old MSDSs or the new safety data sheets on all chemicals. This includes items such as solders, welding rods and wood products.
  • Make sure you’ve been trained to understand the safety information. This includes Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs), Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), evaporation rates, flash points and other technical data.
  • Make sure all chemicals have labels that identify the substance and its hazards and that can be understood by everyone — not just you and your lab/studiomates.
  • Store incompatible chemicals separately. Solvents, acids, alkalis, organic peroxides and oxidizers must each have separate special storage units. And some chemicals must be stored completely alone because they react with almost everything. These include nitric acid and glacial acetic acid.
  • Read, learn and research for safer chemicals and procedures to replace the more hazardous ones you use.
  • Check your local exhaust ventilation systems. You can use smoke from a stick of incense, tiny bubbles from children’s bubble-making toys, a bit of talcum powder or any visible substance that will suspend in the air long enough for you to watch it move. If it is not moving steadily away from you as you work, adjustments or repairs must be made.
  • Wear the right protective gear. Not all gloves are barriers against all chemicals. Not all respirators work for all air contaminants. Each type of protective eyewear is designed for a specific limited purpose. Consult with safety people and manufacturers until you are sure you have the right gear for the job.
  • Err on the side of caution. Most lab and studio accidents occur in ways that were not anticipated. Think through your procedures keeping in mind that Murphy was an optimist. Most of your chemicals have never been tested for long term-effects such as reproductive damage or cancer. Don’t be the lab rat.

Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


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