September 2000 Volume 21 Number 3

Health and Safety

Chris Stavroudis, column editor

Working upwards:

The Chin.

If you are male and have a beard, you can't protect yourself from airborne hazards with a conventional (negative pressure) respirator. This applies both to organic solvent vapors and to toxic or hazardous particulates. [I feel, in the name of full disclosure, that I should mention that I have a short beard. I dutifully wear a respirator on occasion, but must face the facts. I'm not obtaining the protection that I pretend I'm getting. I'm deluding myself and am not in compliance with OSHA requirements. Were I ever to be in a situation where there was a significant hazard, I would shave my beard off.]

Many female conservators have a difficult time finding respirators that fit properly. Forget about the nuances of a rigorous fit test, they don't even fit well enough to pass a negative pressure test (you cover the air inlets and inhale -- the test fails if you feel air entering from the bridge of the nose or from under the chin).

The only inexpensive option is to try all the different manufacturers' respirators and hope that one brand or another will fit your face. And, similar to the case of a beard wearer, if the respirator doesn't fit properly, you are deluding yourself. And if you haven't had a proper fit test, get your respirator and a note from your doctor and get one the next time the AIC Health and Safety Committee offers fit testing at an AIC Annual Meeting.

The Mouth.

I've flapped mine about this for a number of columns now. Don't eat in the studio. Don't drink in the studio. 'Nuf said.

The Nose.

Use it intelligently. It is often your first warning that you are in a hazardous environment. Know about olfactory fatigue -- the point at which, after you have smelled something for a while, you stop noticing the aroma. Also know how the odor thresholds for chemicals compare to their TLVs. In most cases, if you have a well functioning nose, you can smell a solvent before it reaches a hazardous level. There are a few nasties we use where this is not the case. When you get that whiff of DMF, you are well over the safe exposure limit.

By the same token, if you ever smell something (other than the garlic you had in your lunch) while wearing a respirator, take immediate action. Because failure of the sorbent cartridges happens slowly, it is easy to be exposed to a subtly increasing concentration of solvent vapors. The slow appearance of the fumes can cause olfactory fatigue. You may just notice an odor when it is actually becoming dangerously strong.

Another oft repeated theme of this column - for the sake of both your nose and mouth - use a HEPA vacuum for general studio clean-up. Don't blow potentially hazardous material into the air by using either a conventional vacuum or a broom. A percentage of the tiniest, most respirable particles that go into the nozzle of a conventional vacuum comes back out the other end. They can enter your body via an inhale or can settle on surfaces, get onto your hands, and eventually into your mouth.

The Eyes.

These baby blues (or greens or browns, or even bloodshots) are arguably your most important asset as a conservator. Yet we generally take them for granted and are resentful if we are forced to protect them.

First off, wear safety goggles or face protection whenever you are doing things that you know require wearing eye protection -- handling hazardous liquids, grinding, etc.

If you wear glasses, pay extra for the clear UV absorbing coating next time you get a new pair of lenses. The development of cataracts in later life is thought to correlate to UV exposure. All sunglasses are now required to include UV filtering. If you have older shades, however, you might want to check them with a "black" light and a UV light meter. Sunglasses that don't have UV filtering should not be used. It is asking for trouble. The dark lenses allow your pupils to open further than they would otherwise. If the lenses don't filter out the UV, your eyeballs are getting an extra high dose of UV radiation.

All studios that use UV examination lamps should have UV filtering goggles on hand. Make sure you have enough pairs for everyone, including the occasional owner or curator. If you use short wave UV (used for examining ceramic objects) you must, must wear protective eyewear. In the case of long wave UV -- the type used for examining paintings and for illuminating those "black light" posters that are almost making a comeback -- it is more of a discretionary call. I would strongly recommend going with the goggles. Take the argument for wearing UV filtering sunglasses and multiply it by a whole bunch (your eyes are completely dilated when using UV in that dark examination room).

There is some evidence that certain vitamins and herbs can improve the health of the inside of your eyeballs. (Sort of a modern day "eat your carrots, they are good for your eyes.") Bilberry leaf has been shown to decrease the occurrence of cataracts in rabbits. It probably does no harm (except, perhaps, to your pocketbook) to take one of the commercially available herbal supplements formulated for maintaining eye health. If you have problems with your eyes, you might want to consider this more seriously. My ophthalmologist recommended I take this type of supplement.

And, speaking of ophthalmologists, see one regularly. Your eyes are your most important tool, operate them carefully and maintain them responsibly.

The Ears:

Two considerations here. If you work with loud equipment, by all means wear hearing protection. Some form of ear plug or sound muffling device should be present wherever there is machinery that leaves you shouting "what?" after you have used it. In the ear hearing protection is often difficult to use properly. Ask for training or spend a good deal of time reading the directions and practicing before you need to rely on it.

Music in the studio. I'm all for it. I think it makes for a pleasant work space and can make some tedious jobs bearable. However, I fervently believe that the choice of aural stimulation must be agreeable to everyone in the studio. I think the lowliest volunteer should have the unquestioned right to object to the program selected by the highest, most exalted conservator. And if common ground cannot be found, it's back to a quiet studio with everyone plugged into their own personal listening devices (with their volumes adjusted to safe levels, please).

And... That which is behind the eyes and between the ears:

Lets talk about mental health. Let me start out by saying, with the exception of you, gentle reader, we are all quite nuts in this profession.

In all seriousness, I think there are factors, perhaps even personality flaws, that lead many of us to become conservators. And, as hideous as it sounds, I think some of these flaws can actually help us be better conservators even if they do not aid us in becoming happy, contented individuals.

It takes an odd combination of interests, or proclivities, to become a conservator. Many of them are perceived to be contradictory if not mutually exclusive. Art and science. Scholarship and hand skills. Get the picture? We are a little different, a little odd.

Many of us floated around in our own, odd little universes vaguely discontented, rarely being able to utilize the contradictory sides of our personalities. Until, that is, we gravitated towards conservation.

Has living with the contradictory sides of our personalities taken a toll? I would argue that for many of us, it has.

On the psychological down side, there is our profession's zero tolerance for error. It is simply not acceptable to make a significant error in a treatment. This is a given and entirely appropriate when you consider what it is that we are doing. But it can be difficult emotionally.

Rarely discussed in our profession, is how to deal with this psychological pressure. On one hand, professionally, it is good to be hounded by self doubt. It keeps us on our toes. It forces us to consider other options, to constantly reexamine our assumptions. On the other hand, this constant self doubt can make our personal, odd little universes a little darker and bleaker than they need be.

The reality is, we all make mistakes. [I've often thought that experience can be judged by how well a conservator can catch and fix a mistake.] And it can be horrid. It can leave you feeling professionally incompetent, and worse, like a worthless hack below contempt.

Because mistakes are taboo (they don't happen to good conservators) they are not talked about. And when we confide our sin to another conservator, we are surprised that they say "you know, a similar thing happened to me...."

Always remember that what we do, professionally, is really quite wonderful and remarkable. So talk among yourselves. Pick a sympathetic conservator to be your confessor. It could help you to reinterpret your odd little personal universe in a kinder light.

Let me know what you think. Let me know how you feel.

Chris Stavroudis is a conservator in private practice

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