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Museum reopens after shutting down following apparent chemical exposure

Walters Art Museum. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Walters Art Museum quietly opened its doors back up to staff and visitors last week after an abrupt three-week closure.

The closure, which was inconspicuously announced on the museum’s website and Facebook page, came on the heels of a chemical exposure from rooftop renovations that left workers feeling sick with symptoms of nausea, dizziness, and other respiratory issues.

According to staff at The Walters, management did not take immediate steps to remedy or communicate the chemical exposure after workers first brought the issue to light on June 2. In fact, according to Jessica Figard, who works in Building Operations, gallery officers continued to be posted near affected areas, with workers being sent home only after they reported feeling sick.

Recognizing the need to act quickly, nearly half of union-eligible staff rallied together and signed a letter to management demanding employees be protected from further exposure and requesting that the museum disclose the name and details of the chemicals used during the renovations.

A week after pressuring management to act, staff were given access to the safety data sheets, which listed a range of safety hazards. Staff were also told that the museum would be closed for a week, which was later extended to three weeks, after an industrial hygienist was brought in to test odor levels and assess the safety of the building, according to emails from management to workers.

For many workers at The Walters, the incident highlighted a longstanding pattern of lack of transparency and disregard for staff safety.

“What’s most concerning is that The Walters went weeks without communicating to all staff about the risks associated with these vapors even when multiple employees went home due to side effects. It took a large number of us coming together to send a letter for management before management took action, which makes me feel that my safety and my co-workers’ safety is not a priority,” said Gallery Officer Garrett Stralnic.

“Our safety is non-negotiable,” he added. “This is exactly why we need a union at The Walters now. We need to be able to advocate and protect ourselves since it’s clear they won’t."

Workers at The Walters are organizing to form a union with AFSCME Council 67. Through the organizing drive, known as Walters Workers United, workers are seeking to address issues such as health and safety, lack of transparency, pay equity and job security by forming a union. They have already reached supermajority support among their workforce and are now requesting voluntary recognition from The Walters. For more campaign updates, follow @WaltersUnited on Instagram.

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