Volume 15, Number 1, Jan 1993, p.22

Health & Safety: Errors Big and Errors Small

by Chris Stavroudis

To err is human...unless of course you are a conservator. Harsh sentiments, but a professional rule most of us have learned to live by. I have long believed that the difference between a novice and an experienced conservator is not so much a question of knowledge, but knowing how to avoid making mistakes. More precisely, experience teaches the conservator to anticipate problems. Experience also aids in catching little mistakes and correcting them before they escalate into serious problems.

What do errors have to do with Health and Safety? We do not discuss the emotional impact of working in a profession where there can be no tolerance for error. We labor under a necessarily harsh and unforgiving ethical structure, but we have not anticipated the cost of placing such a heavy burden on our mental health. We are given no training in coping strategies. There are no special sessions on psychological self defense at our meetings.

Safety errors. We must at all times consider our own safety, the safety of our colleagues, and the safety of our charges--the artworks with which we are entrusted. Everyone has been shocked by the fire at Windsor Castle. Sadly, initial news reports indicated the fire may have been caused by conservators. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to our profession.

What do you know about fire safety? Have you ever used a fire extinguisher? Where is the nearest one, right now? When you are working on-site, do you know where the fire extinguishers are located? Do you bring extinguishers suitable for dealing with any emergency you might cause? Do you overload your electrical outlets? Do you ever leave hot lights "burning" when you leave the work area? Should all of our outlets be protected with ground fault interrupt circuitry? Should we have portable smoke detectors with us when we work on-site?

I'm embarrassed to admit that, until the other day, I hadn't spent much time thinking about these sorts of questions. I don't know the answers. I will carry a fire extinguisher to on-site jobs in the future. I like the idea of installing ground fault protected outlets in my studio. Maybe I'll be inspired to attach a ground fault interrupt to the extension cords I take on-site. (A ground fault interrupt circuit or outlet, by the way, is a safety device which constantly tests for electrical failures that could lead to electrical shocks. When such a condition is detected, power automatically switches off at the outlet. Most building codes require GFI outlets in new wiring in bathrooms and kitchens.)

Now for some smaller errors. In last issue's column, I rejoiced in the restoring of the AIC Health and Safety Committee. I also erred in the spelling of half of the names. For the record, the committee members are: Sandra Blackard, chair; Dan Riss; Sara McElroy; and John Messinger. Sorry Sandra and Sara.

The committee's premier installment of "Health & Safety News" in the September issue of AIC News was also beset by errors. Due to editorial miscommunication, a number of errors insinuated themselves into the column and were not exorcised before going to press. For the full correction, please see "From the Editors" and "Health & Safety News" (pages 8-10) in the November "AIC News". Quoting from Monona Rossol's correction:

"The information published in the September 1992 AIC News stated that propylene glycol monomethyl ether (PGME) is a 'nontoxic' substitute for cellosolve. This is not the case....Far from being of 'low toxicity' as ARCO claims, PGME has been assigned a TLV-TWA of 100 ppm. This puts PGME in the same range of toxicity as other solvents with a 100 ppm TLV, such a turpentine, xylene, and Stoddard solvent. However it is still wise to substitute PGME for cellosolve, whose TLV is 5 ppm."

The column continues with much more information. If you are a member of AIC, dig out the column and read it. If you are not a member--shame. Join now, before you are found out.

Errors? How about broken promises. Rosamond Westmoreland and I are working furiously on the carpal tunnel syndrome article for next issue's column. It was promised for this issue. We have amassed stacks of reference materials, spoken to many kind readers with problems, and Elizabeth Welsh has obtained reprint permission for other excellent materials. It will be well worth the wait, and that is a promise.

(Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice.)

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