Adequate ventilation and housekeeping are necessary for staff safety in any fossil prep lab. Preparation activities, such as the use of pneumatic percussion and grinding tools, can generate huge amounts of airborne dust.

In the short-term, this can cause irritation to skin, eyes, lungs and airways, but longer-term exposure may pose serious health risks, particularly if specimens contain certain forms of silica or radioactive elements that can cause silicosis or cancer. Samples of matrix can be analyzed by an industrial hygienist to understand what dangers may be present.

Airborne hazards can be mitigated by using appropriate dust masks, respirators or an efficient mechanical dust evacuation system.  Disposable dust masks (N95 respirators) are only appropriate for preventing the inhalation of nuisance dust. To protect yourself from more than nuisance dust, a half mask respirator must be used.  If a respirator is required a medical clearance must be provided by a physician and an annual fit test must be completed by a competent professional. Preparators should also note that smoking compounds the hazards of dust inhalation.

Look online for resources that adequately explain the types of dust masks:

  • Respiratory Protection page on the Occupational Safety & Health Administration website
  • A Conservator’s Guide to Respiratory Protection has information on a range of ventilation devices including respirators.
  • Suppliers of respirators often have Buying Guides to help determine what kind of mask is appropriate to meet your needs– for example www.lss.com.
  • Read Scott Madsen’s case study Dust And Fume Evacuation Systems For Fossil Preparation Labs on the installation of a ventilation system at Dinosaur National Monument.  
  • Download the PowerPoint of Heather Finlayson’s 2008 Society for Vertebrate Paleontology presentation Health and safety in the prep lab: a step-by-step guide to installing an efficient and cost effective dust collecting and ventilation system.
  • Air Monitoring Guide by Industrial Hygienist Dennis Ertel gives information on how to conduct and evaluate air quality tests. The document is available in the Health and Safety section of the American Institute for Conservation’s website.