Physical Safety

Safety Hazards

The first consideration during an emergency situation is the health and safety of Museum personnel and the public. Collections staff should be allowed into an affected area only when emergency service personnel have declared the space to be safe. It is likely you will have to wait for some time before you are allowed to assess the damage that may have occurred to your collections after a flood, fire, or other emergency in the Museum.

Fires, floods, earthquakes and other extreme events can leave a broad range of safety hazards in their wake. These include:

  • Structural
  • Electrical systems and gas lines
  • Exposed hazardous materials
    • Asbestos from insulation, ceiling or floor tiles, and some plasters and wallboards
    • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in some transformers and in old fluorescent light ballasts
    • Lead from lead paints
    • Mercury and mercury vapor from fluorescent lights
    • Broken glass, nails, etc.
  • Contaminated floodwater
    • sewage
    • pathogens
    • pesticides
    • other chemicals
  • Soot, which may contain PCB’s, lead, mercury, and other toxic materials, depending on what was burned.

Clearly, it is important to consult safety specialists, including structural engineers, industrial hygienists, and electricians about possible hazards and the personal protection equipment and ventilation needed to work in safety in the wake of a disaster.

Collection Hazards

Beyond building issues, the collections themselves may also be hazardous to collections staff in the unstable circumstances surrounding a disaster. It is important to know the history of your collections and the specific preparation methods and pest control methods used at the Museum in the past. In the absence of well documented information on these subjects, it’s best to be cautious and assume contamination with possibly toxic substances. Some of the most widespread examples in different collections types include:

  • Zoological Collections (for more on these issues see the Health & Safety sections on residual pesticides and fluid preserved collections)
    • PCBs in old slide mounting mediums (Arochlor 1254)
    • Mixtures of mercury compounds, arsenic and other poisonous compounds used for skin preparation
    • DDT, paradichlorobenzene, naphthalene, and other substances used for pest control
    • Formaldehyde, ethanol and isopropanol in fluid collections
    • Asbestos in plaster used in taxidermy forms and habitat dioramas
  • Physical Science Collections (for more information visit the Health & Safety page on geological collections)
    • A large number of minerals are hazardous, including antimony, arsenic, asbestiform minerals, bismuth, cadmium, cobalt, and many more (see Howie publication cited below for complete list)
    • Asbestos in plaster used to reconstruct fossils, in taxidermy forms, and in dioramas.
  • Herbaria (for more information visit the Health & Safety page on botanical collections)
    • Mercuric chloride used on herbarium sheets, PDB and other pesticides
  • Anthropology Collections
    • DDT, paradichlorobenzene, naphthalene and other substances used for pest control
    • Textiles dyed with copper arsenate or other toxic dyes
    • Paints composed of lead compounds or other toxic pigments
    • Toxic residues on projectile points

In a flood or fire situation, recovery of these potentially hazardous specimens will require familiarity with the collection, and special precautions. Follow the recommendations of your chemical safety officer for testing, protective equipment and ventilation.

Additional Resources for Emergency Response

  • The Minnesota Historical Society Disaster Re-Entry Checklist is a useful short document to ensure that safety is considered when starting response operations.
  • National Park Service Flood Recovery Book: After the Flood
  • National Park Service Conserve O Gram Number 21/1, 2002: Health and safety hazards arising from floods
  • Hawks, Catherine, Michael McCann, Kathryn Makos, eds. 2010. Health & Safety for Museum Professionals. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.
  • Howie, Frank. 1992.The Care and Conservation of Geological Material:Minerals, Rocks, Meteorites and Lunar Finds(Butterworth – Heinemann)
  • Makos, Kathryn A. and E.C. Dietrich. 1995. Health and environmental safety. InStorage of Natural History Collections: A Preventive Approach, edited by C. Rose, C. Hawks and H. Genoways. Pittsburgh: Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.
  • Rossol, Monona. After Disaster: A museum employee’s guide to re-entry. Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety, Inc. (ACTS) (1998, revised 1999).
  • Rossol, Monona. September, 1998. Compliance in Recovery: Regulatory requirements in the aftermath of disaster. AIC News. pp.1, 4-7.