To anyone who thinks eye protection may not be a crucial component of PPE in the workplace, think again. Nearly three out of five injured workers were not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident or were wearing the wrong kind of eye protection for the job. Eye injuries alone cost more than $300 million per year in lost production time, medical expenses and worker compensation.
These are staggering figures that drive home the importance of protecting the eyes of workers both through engineering controls and via personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses; goggles; hybrid eye safety products, which combine the comfort of glasses with the side protection of goggles; face shields; full-face respirators; and welding helmets.
The majority of workplace eye injuries are caused by small particles or objects (such as metal slivers, wood chips or dust) striking or abrading the eye, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 70 percent of eye injuries studied resulted from flying or falling objects or sparks striking the eye. Injured workers said that nearly three-fifths of the objects were smaller than a pinhead.
Injuries also can occur when nails, staples or metal penetrate the eyeball, which can result in a permanent loss of vision. Blunt force traumas caused by objects striking the eyes or face or from a worker running into an object are another threat, as are chemical burns from splashes of industrial chemicals or cleaning products. Welders, their assistants and nearby workers are at risk for thermal burns and UV radiation burns from welder’s flash.
Occupations and Eye Injuries
According to the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (eLCOSH), craft workers have the highest rate of eye injuries, while electricians, plumbers and pipefitters are in the top five trades. Because different hazards require different types of protection, NIOSH recommends evaluating the following before selecting the appropriate eye protection:
- The nature and extent of the hazard, including regulatory requirements when applicable.
- The circumstances of exposure.
- Other protective equipment used.
- Personal vision needs.
Eye protection should be integrated with other PPE to achieve head-to-toe protection. It also should be fit to the individual worker or be adjustable so it can provide sufficient coverage. According to a BLS survey, 94 percent of the injuries to workers wearing eye protection resulted from objects or chemicals going around or under the protective device. Protective eyewear also should be comfortable and allow for sufficient peripheral vision.
Comfort, Style Help Compliance
The role of comfort in eye protection cannot be underestimated. Research has shown that comfort as well as style helps drive compliance with PPE-wearing protocols. As with other types of PPE, protective eyewear won’t protect workers if it stays on the shelf or is worn on top of workers’ heads. So it is essential that protective eyewear be comfortable enough for a worker to wear it throughout the day. Comfort enhancing features include: cushioned brows, comfortable gel nosepieces or padded nose bridges, vented frames, flexible or ratcheted temples and lenses with adjustable angles.
Comfort also extends to features that prevent fogging when worn with an individual respirator. For these tasks, look for protective eyewear that offers an integrated fog and particle shield, along with lenses surrounded by foam for comfort as well as additional particle protection.
Another way to encourage compliance is to select protective eyewear with style features commonly found in fashion eyewear, such as colorful styles, wraparound designs and mirrored lenses. This is one reason why many manufacturers are looking toward the consumer fashion and sports apparel industries for cues on the latest styles, which can then be adapted for the PPE market.
PPE that allows workers to express their individuality also leads to greater compliance. Providing a range of options in terms of color and other style aspects gives workers some control over how they look. When people are content with their appearance in the PPE, it follows that they will be more likely to wear the PPE appropriately. And PPE that is perceived as “cool” is more likely to be worn. However, fashion should not take precedence over function. It is important to make sure all eye protection products offer crucial safety features such as impact-resistance, distortion-free lenses, ANSI Z87.1 (and/or CSA) compliance and sufficient protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays. Keep in mind that prescription safety lenses with tempered glass or acrylic plastic lenses are not suitable for high-impact situations, according to NIOSH. These types of safety glasses should not be used when working in debris areas unless covered by goggles or a face shield. Polycarbonate lenses should be used when working in high-impact areas, as they are much more impact-resistant than glass or plastic. Look for hard-coated polycarbonate lenses that reduce scratching.
Training for PPE Use
Providing adequate training for all workers who require eye and face protection is crucial to ensuring worker safety, and should help workers anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. BLS found that most workers were hurt while on their regular jobs. Those who were injured while not wearing protective eyewear most often said they believed it was not required for the situation. In addition, while the vast majority of employers provided eye protection at no cost to employees, about 40 percent of workers told BLS that they had received no information on where eyewear could be found and what kind of eyewear should be used.
Eye safety policies should be clear. NIOSH suggests that the following key points be addressed and communicated to workers at the job site:
- When to wear safety eye protection.
- What the enforcement processes are.
- How and where workers can obtain protective eyewear.
- How workers can get replacements.
- What to do if eye protection is missing from a workstation.
Employees also must take care of protective eyewear to avoid scratches. Wearing an eyewear retainer strap that lets glasses hang around the neck when not in use is preferable to laying them down on the job. Protective eyewear should be stored in a clean, dust-proof container while not in use. Scratched and dirty devices reduce vision, cause glare and may contribute to accidents. Glasses that are scratched or pitted should be discarded and replaced.
Minor Injuries, Long-Term Problems
An on-the-job eye injury can cause lasting and permanent vision damage, potentially disabling a worker for life. Even “minor” eye injuries can cause long-term vision problems and suffering, such as recurrent and painful corneal erosion from a simple scratch from sawdust, cement or drywall. However, an estimated 90 percent of eye injuries can be prevented through the use of proper protective eyewear, according to OSHA.
With a statistic as compelling as this, it makes both common and economic sense to do everything possible to make sure workers have the right PPE to protect their eyes on the job. With such a wide array of comfortable and stylish products on the market today, there is really no excuse for workers not to wear protective eyewear.