New asbestos regulations come into effect on 4 April 2018 under the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016. These regulations are focused on eliminating, and where this is not reasonably practicable, controlling the risks of exposure to asbestos.
A large majority of the regulations are focused on the construction industry, though given the nature of collection items, museums also have a responsibility to ensure that we are taking all steps necessary to prevent our workers from exposure to asbestos.
A key component of the regulations require the people in control of a workplace to identify where asbestos may exist, develop a register of items containing asbestos and develop management plans aimed at removing the asbestos or developing strategies to encapsulate the asbestos. This all needs to be in place by April.
Asbestos in museums
The general practice is to treat materials in buildings which were built prior to 2000 as potentially containing asbestos. Some types of objects in collections made prior to 2000 are also likely to have asbestos content.
The types of museum objects that may contain asbestos include irons, ironing boards, pot holders, WWI and WWII gas masks and helmets, heat resistant clothing and accessories, fireproof clothing, curtains, blankets and ironing board covers, appliances such as hair driers, hair wavers, electric jugs, toasters, stoves and clothes driers. Many of these items are especially not safe for children to come in contact with in schools programmes.
Asbestos has also been used in vehicle brake pads, linings, clutch facings and gaskets, and around the engines of working models.
Identifying asbestos in Te Papa’s collections
Te Papa has undertaken an assessment of its collections, with the help of an external consultant, to identify those that potentially contain asbestos. The assessment has shown that asbestos containing items are likely part of the museum’s collection.
Te Papa is currently developing an asbestos management plan. This will include compiling a register of collection items which possibly contain asbestos and planning for their longer term care and use. The plan will also include work with the collection staff to ensure they have adequate resources and training to identify and manage any risk of asbestos in the museum’s collections for the future.
What does my organisation need to do?
The requirement sits with the PCBU, the building owner, or landlord, to have a record of and manage any asbestos within the building.
At a minimum, organisations with collections should keep a register of any objects which may contain asbestos and have a management plan for these in place which may including how these objects are stored and staff training in appropriate management and handling.
Information on requirements for assessing whether asbestos is present, what needs to be included in an asbestos record, and an asbestos management plan is available on the WorkSafe website.
This is also a timely reminder that collections may contain other hazardous materials. The following resource from Museums and Galleries of NSW is a list of the sorts of materials in general museum collections that may present a danger, either to museum workers and visitors, or to other objects in the collection.