Objectives Introduction Responsibility Legal Issues Danger! How to recognise it, how to avoid it Dust masks and respirators Chemicals and solvents First aid training Emergency procedures Signposting for safety Contacts for State and Commonwealth authorities For further reading Self-evaluation quiz Answers to self-evaluation quiz Acknowledgements


At the end of this chapter you should be:

  • aware of the range of health and safety issues;

  • aware of your responsibilities in relation to health and safety issues;

  • familiar with the types of legislation, standards and guidelines dealing with health and safety;

  • aware of the risks involved in caring for collections;

  • familiar with strategies for providing a safe environment; and

  • familiar with ways to develop a better understanding of the issues, including ways of seeking assistance.


Cultural material is not usually considered dangerous. However, there are potential dangers in almost all activities associated with caring for cultural material, for example, lifting heavy objects in storage areas, using a Stanley knife to make boxes, or eradicating insect pests.

Health and safety issues are complex; and it is important that everyone is aware of their responsibility to others and to themselves. If your collection is on public view, you must consider public safety. Where you have staff or volunteers working within your organisation, occupational health and safety issues must be understood by all. Even if you are looking after your own private collections, there is much you need to know to ensure your own and other people’s health and safety.


Health and safety issues are complex and this section is provided only as a guide. You should become familiar with all health and safety issues that may affect you. If you have a collection that is open to the public, or if you have staff or volunteers working with the collection, you are subject to State and Commonwealth statutes and laws. It is critical that you understand your responsibilities and liabilities in relation to them.

The welfare of paid and volunteer staff is a joint responsibility. Each staff member should be aware of the correct ways of handling material and protecting themselves from hazards in the workplace. Management has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for staff, as well as to provide information and training to enable staff to act in a safe and responsible way.

You should, therefore, become familiar with any Workcare or similar schemes in place in your State, as well as legal requirements for the purchase, storage and disposal of chemicals and solvents you may need to use, any requirements for signposting, and other areas of legal responsibility.

Consideration must be given to providing health and safety training to staff and volunteers, and to the preparation of a disaster preparedness plan. You should also assess the building and the storage of the collection, giving thought to emergency access and similar issues.

For more information:

For more information on counter disaster planning, please see Counter Disaster Planning in Managing Collections.

Legal Issues

The types of regulations and guidelines which may relate to you include Occupational Health and Safety Acts and Regulations, Dangerous Goods Acts, Codes of Practice and Australian Standards.

Occupational Health and Safety Acts and regulations

Occupational Health and Safety Acts and Regulations govern the use of machinery, solvents and sprays.

Dangerous Goods Acts

Dangerous Goods Acts govern the use of pesticides or other poisons.

Environmental Protection Acts

Environmental Protection Acts govern:

  • the handling of dangerous goods and substances, especially in public places; and

  • the disposal of wastes in laboratories and other work sites.

Codes of practice

These are issued under state and national legislation. They encompass first aid, labelling of workplace substances and determining and classifying hazardous substances.


Know your responsibilities under the law. Ignorance is not recognised as
an excuse by the law!

Australian standards

These set out standards for specific areas such as 1319-1983 Safety Signs for the Occupational Environment; 1470-1986 Health and Safety at Work; 1940-1988 SAA Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code; 2444-1990 Portable Fire Extinguishers; 2466- 1981 Guide to the Design of Microform Workstations; 2865-1986 Safe Working in Confined Space; 3590-1990 Screen-based Workstations Part 1-3.

Sources of help

You can get copies of acts, regulations and other publications from the following sources:

  • State and Territory government bookshops— for State acts, regulations and codes of practice under your State or Territory Occupational Health and Safety Acts;

  • Australian Government bookshops—for Worksafe Australia publications; and

  • Australian Standards, Clunies Ross House, 191 Royal Parade, Parkville, VIC 3052—for copies of Australian Standards.

Danger! How to recognise it, how to avoid it

Although there are potential dangers in most activities associated with collections, we can become very blasé, especially when doing something we do often. The following notes are guides to good practice, and should also act as reminders that we must take care and act responsibly, even when under pressure.

Manual handling

Lifting, carrying, moving, relocating, hanging exhibitions—people who work with collections are constantly involved in handling objects. In some cases these objects are heavy, in other cases simply awkward. The kinds of problems that can occur when undertaking these tasks are obvious. Nevertheless, they are common. Back problems, pulled and strained muscles, torn ligaments, bruises, cuts and similar injuries can all result from inappropriate handling techniques. Lifting loads that are too heavy is only one aspect of this story. Injury also occurs when the body is stressed—when it twists, bends or reaches in an inappropriate manner.

To ensure that you do not have these problems, check the following points.

Be prepared. When you move an object, know where it is going and have that area prepared. Also have the path between where you are and where you are going clear of obstructions.

Seek assistance. An object may not look heavy or awkward but, after you have held it for a short time, you may find it is increasingly difficult to hold. Awkward objects may not be heavy, but may cause you to twist or turn inappropriately. You are better off not moving an object than moving it without proper assistance. Not only can you hurt yourself, you may also damage the object.

Check the object. Is it secure and stable, or are there sections which may detach or loosen as you carry it? Can you grip it securely? Are there sharp edges? Is it top-heavy?

Plan before you start. If you are going to hang the object, make sure you have padding on the floor so that you can rest it and position yourself properly before lifting it. Check that the hanging system is appropriate and that you have a third person to help position the object, if necessary.

Work out what else you need to assist you. Will you need gloves to protect either you or the object? Do you need to have padded surfaces ready? Will you need equipment, such as trolleys, to assist you? Do you need to make ramps so that you don’t have to lift an object?

For more information

For more information about handling objects, please see the chapter on Handling in Handling, transportation, storage and display.

Dust masks and respirators

There are a plethora of substances that can threaten health through inhalation. Such threats may be short or long term and can result in mild aggravation to, for example, the respiratory tracts or be life threatening.

Airborne substances include dust and particulates —organic and inorganic—vapours and gases.
A broad range of safety equipment is available for protection against these substances including dusk masks which cover mouth and nose for protection from particulates, respirators with filters for dust and specific groups of solvents and full face masks which may be fitted with their own air supply.

Before undertaking any activity which may cause or use potentially harmful substances including paints, varnishes, corrosion inhibitors and pesticides, seek appropriate technical advice from a qualified bureau or government agency.

Protecting your hearing

In working with a collection, you may use, or may be near people who are using, noisy machinery. Floor polishers, drills, saws, grinders are all examples of machinery that produce noise levels that can damage hearing. If a noise is loud enough to be irritating, it is worth protecting yourself by wearing ear plugs or ear muffs. Such protection should be provided for staff and volunteers as well.

Some equipment in conservation laboratories has no audible sound but can be potentially damaging to your hearing. Ultrasonic welders, for example, can be a problem. Ear muffs should be provided and the equipment should be well-maintained.

Eye protection

There are many ways in which eyesight can be damaged. Splintering glass, dust, sprays, solvents and mould spores can all enter the eyes and cause damage. In cases where there is likely to be material which could enter the eyes, safety glasses should be worn.

In some situations UV lights are used for examining objects. These lights can cause irreparable damage if not used properly or used without the appropriate eye protection.

Protective gloves

Some tasks require you to use solvents, pesticides or other chemicals. If you are handling any substance which you think may be harmful, wear protective gloves. There are many different types of gloves, from those that provide a physical barrier to those that provide complete solvent- protection. Chemical suppliers will be able to give you advice about the best types of protection.

Protective footwear

In some instances, problems can be caused by inappropriate footwear. Injuries can be caused by slipping, by dropping heavy or sharp objects, by corrosive chemicals or hot water, or by stepping on sharp objects.

Where possible, footwear should be solid, closed at the toe, and cover the whole foot; and if you are working with electrical tools, it should have non- conductive soles.

Dangers associated with tools and machines

In any operation using tools, it is possible to cause or sustain serious injury. Even seemingly harmless tasks such as mount cutting, drilling, screwing and hammering are potentially dangerous. To avoid injury and accident, make sure you know how to use the tools properly, and that anyone else who uses the tools also knows how to use them properly.

Don’t allow a person to undertake any task unless you are confident that they have the skill, experience and understanding to tackle it safely. Provide people with training where necessary.

Make sure tools are in good condition. If you have electrical tools, undertake regular safety checks of cords, plugs and switches. It is worthwhile considering having an earth leakage circuit breaker or other safety switches installed. A qualified electrician should be able to advise on your requirements.

Check your first aid knowledge, so that you feel confident to deal with an emergency. Refer to section on first aid training later in this chapter.

Chemicals and solvents

A comprehensive list of chemical warning labels on the outside of a chemical cabinet.
A comprehensive list of chemical warning labels on the outside of a chemical cabinet.

Chemicals and solvents are dangerous on several levels. They may be carcinogenic or genotoxic, flammable or poisonous. Most states and territories have acts and regulations that define dangerous goods and outline their correct storage and handling.


If you have chemicals and solvents, you must be familiar with the relevant acts and regulations, particularly if you have amounts stored for use.

You may be legally liable if you do not conform with the appropriate acts and regulations.

Chemical companies also provide safety data sheets. These should be filed and made available to people who will be using the chemicals. In some states, you are required to have material safety data sheets available for staff to read.
You should check your legal obligations with regard to safety information. Be aware also that you need a special licence to be able to purchase and use some chemicals.

Chemicals can affect the human body in many ways.

They can locally irritate the skin.

They can enter the body through the skin, eyes or lungs, or be ingested through the mouth, enter the bloodstream and damage internal organs.

They can have immediate effects, or they may have no immediate effects yet cause problems some time after the initial contact.

At low exposure levels they may produce no problems, but their effect may be cumulative, resulting in major damage that may be life- threatening.

Once you are sensitive to one chemical, you become more susceptible to allergic reactions to others.

Solvents can dissolve the oily barrier in the skin, allowing open sites for entry of bacteria, leading to possible infection.

In some cases one person may have no reaction, yet another may have a severe reaction to the same chemical.


When handling chemicals, including pesticides, solvents and glues, ensure that you are properly protected with necessary protective clothing, including, if appropriate, solvent-proof gloves, goggles, a solvent-vapour or particulate-matter respirator, depending on the chemical, and appropriate shoes and clothing.

Chemical warning labels on solvent bottles.
Chemical warning labels on solvent bottles.

You should always check the labels for special instructions about the use of chemicals and solvents. Check their flammability and toxicity. Make sure you understand how to read the label and that, if you direct someone else to use the chemical, they also understand how to read it.

The do’s and don’ts of using chemicals

  • In order to avoid problems with chemicals, the following commonsense rules should be observed.
  • Become familiar with the chemicals you use and find out the potential dangers. Keep safety data sheets in a file readily available to anyone who may need the information.
  • Don’t use a chemical unless you have checked the health and safety data relating to it.
  • There are rules for the storage and disposal of chemicals. Some of these are legal requirements. Ensure that you are familiar with these rules and that you can abide by them.
  • Proper labelling is critical. Make sure that all chemicals are properly labelled and that the label is as informative as possible.
  • Never decant chemicals into containers that can be mistaken for food or drink containers.
  • Make sure you understand the particular hazards of the chemicals you are using.
    For example, if you are using solvents, ensure you are working in a well-ventilated area with an extraction unit, if necessary. You may also need to use a respirator.
  • Remember that chemicals can work through the skin, so ensure you cannot inadvertently come into contact with the chemicals.
  • Food and chemicals should never be near each other. If you have been using chemicals, always wash your hands before eating.
  • In particular cases and for certain amounts of chemicals, you are required to provide special storage. Check with the relevant authorities, including local councils, regarding requirements in your area.
  • If you are having an area sprayed for pests, check the health and safety data on the chemical. If necessary, clear the area of people while the spraying is done, and for the appropriate time afterwards.
  • Display a notice or notices prominently warning the public and staff of any work being carried out that may present a danger or hazard.

Packing and display material

Packing and display material may contain irritants or chemicals that are dangerous. Plywood and masonite, for example, contain chemicals which can be irritating and dangerous if they are inhaled or ingested into the body, as they can when you are sawing or sanding them. Glues and resins can also be dangerous; for instance, epoxies may be carcinogenic.


Often individual items or whole collections are subject to mould attack. Mould can be dangerous and precautions should be taken when dealing with it. Ensure that you have proper protective clothing, including eye protection and a respiratory mask, and that you are wearing gloves.

Where possible, you should contact a conservator to either undertake the treatment for you or to provide advice on how to deal with the mould.

For more information

For more information about moulds, please see the Biological Pests chapter in Damage and Decay.

Hazardous items in your collections

Collections, particularly museum collections, may contain objects that are dangerous or unstable, or which have been treated in such a way that they pose human-health risks. There are many examples of this type of material. These few give an idea of the types of hazards:

  • asbestos, common in domestic items of the early 20th century;
  • old ammunition, which may be unstable;
  • animal and bird specimens treated with arsenic or formalin as part of the original taxidermy process;
  • cellulose nitrate film, which can spontaneously combust;
  • poison darts;
  • allergen products in natural history collections;
  • lead items; and
  • some mineral specimens.

If you are in any doubt as to the stability or safety of items in your collection, consult a conservator. Specialists at relevant state institutions will be able to provide initial advice.

Also bear in mind that if you want to deaccession material that is a human-health threat, such as old X-ray equipment, you may be subject to health and safety laws relating to the disposal of such items.

Hazards of office equipment

Often cataloguing and condition reporting require the use of computer and photocopy equipment. Prolonged use of such equipment can have serious health ramifications. For example, photocopiers produce ozone; and inappropriately set-up computer workstations can lead to muscle, back and eye strain.

Many publications relate to the safe use of such equipment, for example, Australian Standard 3590- 1990 Screen-based Workstations Part 1-13. The relevant State and Territory occupational health and safety departments will be able to provide advice.

First aid training

The St John Ambulance Association provides various first aid courses, and awards certificates indicating successful completion. A first aid course is a useful way of ensuring workers are prepared to deal with potential problems.

There are also sheets available that outline first aid procedures. It is best to check with the St John Ambulance Association or your local doctor or hospital that these sheets are correct and up to date before you use them or make them available to others to use.

It is useful to have first aid guidelines on file or on display, providing these have been approved by a relevant expert.

You should also have a first aid kit. A basic first aid kit should include:

  • bandaids;
  • sterile eye pads;
  • sterile covering for serious wounds;
  • triangular bandages;
  • safety pins;
  • disinfectant or antiseptic;
  • adhesive tape;
  • crepe bandage;
  • scissors;
  • disposable gloves;
  • eye module;
  • burns module;
  • a fire blanket;
  • extra bandages and dressings; and
  • dressings suitable for small and large wounds.
A well stocked first aid kit, kept in an obvious and easily accessible location.
A well stocked first aid kit, kept in an obvious and easily accessible location.

Emergency procedures

All museums, galleries and libraries should have a clear set of emergency procedures known to all staff and volunteers. These procedures should be printed clearly and displayed, so they can be referred to when necessary.

As part of your emergency procedures, ensure that you have a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of the nearest doctor and hospital, and emergency services including police and fire stations. This list should be kept close to the telephone in a highly visible position.

Your disaster preparedness plan should cover evacuation procedures in the event of an emergency, including fire, gas leaks, dangerous chemical spill and similar situations. Once you have drawn up your plan, it is worthwhile having it checked by your local hospital, police and fire departments.

For more information

For more information on disaster plans, please see Counter Disaster Planning in Managing Collections.

Signposting for safety

There are regulations governing signposting in public places. These ensure that in the event of an emergency the public can move quickly away from the danger. If you manage an area with public access, it is important you understand the requirements of these regulations.

Contacts for State and Commonwealth authorities

ACT Occupational Health & Safety Office 1st Floor, North Building,
London Circuit, Canberra, ACT 2601
PO Box 224, Civic Square, ACT 2608 Phone: (02) 6205 0736
Fax: (02) 6205 0797

NSW Worker Authority
Level 4, 400 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000 Locked Bag 10, Clarence Street, Sydney, NSW 2000 Phone: (02) 9370 5303
Fax: (02) 9370 6107

Work Health Authority
Minerals House, 66 The Esplanade, Darwin, NT 0800 GPO Box 2010, Darwin, NT 0801
Phone: (08) 8989 5010
Fax: (08) 8989 5141

Dept of Employment, Vocational Education, Training and Industrial Relations Workplace Health and Safety
2nd Floor, Forbes House,
30 Makerston Street, Brisbane, QLD 4000
GPO Box 69, Brisbane, QLD 4001
Phone: (07) 3227 4728
Fax: (07) 3220 0143

Workcover Occupational Health and Safety Division 1st Floor, 100 Waymouth Street, Adelaide, SA 5000 GPO Box 2668, Adelaide, SA 5000
Phone: (08) 8226 3215
Fax: (08) 8212 1864

Tasmanian Development and Resources 2nd Floor, Reece House,
46 Mount Street, Burnie, TAS 7320
GPO Box 287, Burnie, TAS 7320
Phone: (03) 64346 378
Fax: (03) 64311 606

Health and Safety Organisation
World Trade Centre, Building B, Ground Floor,
Cnr Flinders and Spencer Streets, Melbourne, VIC 3005 Phone: (03) 9628 8188
Fax: (03) 9628 8397

Dept of Occupational, Health, Safety and Welfare of Western Australia
West Centre, 1260 Hay Street, West Perth, WA 6005 PO Box 294, West Perth, WA 6005
Phone: (08) 9327 8700
Fax: (08) 9321 2148

For further reading

Department of Labour, Victoria 1988, Occupational Health and Safety (Manual Handling) Regulations and Code of Practice 1988, Department of Labour Victoria, Melbourne.

Hall, Bob, 1993, Chemicals and the Artist, A health and safety handbook for students, teachers and artworkers, 3rd edn, Bob Hall, Ballarat VIC 3350, Phone: (03) 5336 2891.

McCann, Michael, 1979, Artist Beware, Watson- Guptill Publications, New York. 2nd ed. 1992, Lyons & Burford, New York.

Safety data sheets, available from companies which supply the chemicals.

The Merck Index, Merck & Co. Inc., Rahway, New Jersey, U.S.A. New editions appear regularly.

There are a number of other regulations and codes of practice in this series. Although they relate to the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 1985, they provide some useful hints and guidelines. Similar publications may be available in other States and Territories. Contact your State Department of Labour or Department of Industrial Relations for information about health and safety publications.

Self-evaluation quiz

Question 1.

It is important that you are aware of health and safety issues because:

a)  they help to ensure that accidents do not happen;

b)  there are many instances where you are responsible in a legal sense for health and safety issues;

c)  many tasks and materials with which you are involved in collections, care and management are potentially dangerous;

d)  you need to be aware of potential dangers, and of your legal responsibilities;

e) all of the above.

Question 2.

What kinds of legal issues can affect you?

Question 3.

Where can I find out what health and safety issues affect me?

Question 4.

There are a number of potential dangers in working with collections of cultural material. Name three.

Question 5.

The St John Ambulance Association provides:

a)  safety data sheets;

b)  gloves and goggles;

c)  proper first aid training;

d)  earth leakage circuit breakers.

Question 6.

As part of your first aid emergency procedures, what should you have?


a)  A first aid kit.


b)  A disaster preparedness plan.


c)  Evacuation procedures.


d)  Contact numbers for local emergency services next to the phone.


e)  All of the above.

Answers to self-evaluation quiz

Question 1


Question 2

Answer: Issues relating to the purchase, storage and disposal of chemicals and solvents, signposting for safety, and work involving manual and mechanical practices are all dealt with under relevant acts and regulations, and Australian Standards and Codes of Practice. Ignorance is no excuse under the law.

Question 3.

Answer: You can contact the relevant department in your State or Territory. Government bookshops provide copies of State and Territory Acts and Regulations. Australian Standards are available from Australian Standards, Clunies Ross House, 191 Royal Parade, Parkville VIC 3052.

Question 4.

Answer: Answers include:

  • mechanical operations, particularly with sharp tools or electrical tools;

  • danger to eyes through contact with harmful materials or rays;

  • high noise levels;

  • fire;

  • long-term health problems such as the development of allergies or cancers through contact with dangerous substances;

  • immediate damage to the skin or organs through contact with dangerous substances;

  • manual handling, particularly lifting; and

  • health problems resulting from contact with moulds.

Question 5.

Answer: c).

Question 6.

Answer: e).