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Document Cornucopia – retention and protection


(Part 2)

When the decision is made to protect a document class, a process is instituted to govern the creation, storage, and access to that document. Historically, this was accomplished through the infamous file room key. keysAccess to documents was physically controlled through the use of a door key. In todays business environment access to physical documents is still governed by a mechanical process like a key. However, the key has become a last resort method of opening a door lock when the primary method fails.

biometricThe electric latch is now widely used as the primary method to affect physical access, and is controlled with a variety of devices. Some of the devices used include:

  • an access card with a magnetic stripe,
  • a rf card key or fob,
  • a combination keypad,
  • a biometric sensor evaluating:
  • a fingerprint,
  • a palm print,
  • facial recognition,
  • blood vessel patterning in the eye,
  • voice recognition,
  • heart beat analysis.

Soon to come will be DNA marker identification. – that actually sounds a bit creepy and invasive.

Each of the electronic methods listed above also come with a record keeping component that helps to infuse responsible behavior in people who have access to the protected documents.

The physical access to the document is the first step in protecting a document. The next step is to protect the document from harm. This includes a variety of methods that generally look to stopping or severely limiting any external force that could be applied to the document to cause it harm. The force is damaging when it comes in direct contact or causes something else to come into direct contact with the document.

Protection against water

A few examples of damage are water, heat, contaminant, and/or mechanical. Water damage has as its primary source a sprinkler head followed by a desk beverage and then floods. Generally speaking water and paper are short lived companions. Once paper becomes saturated it immediately becomes subject to fungi and the inevitable conversion back to soil.

sprinkler headWater damage from a sprinkler head is surprisingly common. Aging or poorly manufactured sprinkler heads are often the culprit causing water damage. There are even some heads that are designed to fail as part of a fire abatement system. They fail not from heat, but from water pressure associated with a fire pump pressure augmentation system. This system is designed to create an overpressure condition in a pipe segment that forcibly causes sprinkler heads to open and disgorge water at impressive pressures.

If you must have sprinkler heads in your file room then specify that they be part of a dual action air charged system. This system requires multiple events to trigger a sprinkler head/fire pump actuation, and the sprinkler system is only charged with air normally. So, no standing water in the pipes behind the sprinkler heads until it’s necessary.

To protect against water put your documents in covered cabinets or in a fire safe. Both are available and both will provide protection.

Protection against heat

Heat damage to a document can arise from sunlight or from fire/combustion. Sunlight damage occur over time with a document exposed to the damaging ultraviolet radiation of the sun. This causes fading and can render a document unreadable. With laser printed documents this is less of a problem, but with faxed documents this can be a nightmare depending on the technology your fax machine uses to print.

computer fire safeHeat damage is most often from a fire event. The best protection from fire damage is a fire rated safe. The safes are rated by time in a specified temperature, and by drop. All fire safes will eventually succumb to heat providing the safe is exposed for long periods to intense heat. The additional drop protection is due to the safe falling through floors as they disintegrate/burn or to a roof falling on the safe.

Bear in mind that the mechanism for heat protection within the safe is typically a moisture release media in the walls of the safe. When the media heats up it releases water vapor that acts as a cooling agent as part of evaporation. So, do not keep your documents in the safe without some envelope for protection against the water vapor – very very hot water vapor. Hot enough to melt plastic storage bags. For long term storage and protection consider ph balanced waxed paper to prevent toner from becoming mechanically bonded to facing pages/envelope/binder it is housed within.


Contaminant and mechanical protection

Contaminant destruction of a document can be sourced from chemical, biological, or radiological sources. Depending on the contaminant a business may not be able to gain access to documents after an event or the document may become physically unreadable. Follow the guidelines for water contamination and house documents within a safe and within individual containers in the safe.

Mechanical destruction of documents can be inadvertent on the desktop when they become mixed in with other documents that are shredded. Generally this is not a problem if the documents are kept in a safe or in restricted access cabinets with a specific review area. Usually a desk set up in the document file area.


Do I need to keep the physical document

This is an on-going discussion in the business community. There are some who take the position that the document issuing organization keeps a copy of the document and acts as the protector of the official document. Others argue that the physical possession of a document is proof positive of authenticity and ownership. This organization relies upon itself to maintain their records and does not rely upon another organization to maintain records for them.

The most defensible position is a hybrid of the two viewpoints. While it is true that most issuing organizations will likely retain a copy of any documents sent forth, it is also true that accidents happen. The issuing organization is not bound by any law or policy to inform recipient’s when a document thy generated and stored is lost. The recipient organization could be in for a surprise when they have to provide a copy of a document only to find out that not only is their copy unavailable, but the issuer’s copy is also unavailable.

Due to the ever-changing legal landscape on this topic, it is probably a wise position to retain the physical document that is characterized by your organization as a permanent record or a document that has an original signature attached. Your organization should follow the advice of legal counsel. bear in mind that there is substantial case law at this point which would support the position that an electronic copy of a document carries the same value in the eyes of the court as the original.

Electronic records and documents

Many organizations retain the original document in their permanent files and keep an electronic copy as well. This serves two purposes:

  1. a) the original is protected by the organization, and limited access is granted to the original.
  2. b) an electronic copy is kept by the organization and general access to the document is provided via images in an electronic fashion.

Keep in mind that the retention schedules discussed above will pertain to the physical document and the electronic copy equally. When it is time to discard the document, both are discarded. In the event the original document is destroyed the organization call fall back and use their electronic copy.

Look for further discussions on the topics of electronic document retention and the associated risk and reward.

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