Preventing Workplace Eye Injuries
JERROLD J. SCHARNINGHAUSEN, Ph.D.
Workplace Safety Division
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Eye injuries in the workplace are a common occurrence. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that every day about 2,000 U.S. workers suffer job-related eye injuries requiring medical treatment. Chemicals or foreign objects in the eye and cuts or scrapes on the cornea are the most common workplace eye injuries. Other common eye injuries come from splashes with grease and oil, burns from steam, ultraviolet or infrared radiation exposure, and flying wood or metal chips. Healthcare workers, laboratory and janitorial staff, and other workers may be at risk of acquiring infectious diseases from eye exposure. Some infectious diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye. This can occur through direct exposure to blood splashes, respiratory droplets generated during coughing, or from touching the eyes with contaminated fingers or other objects. If proper eye protection were worn, 90 percent of these eye injuries could be lessened in severity or even prevented.
Workers experience eye injuries on the job for two major reasons: 1) They were not wearing eye protection; or 2) They were wearing the wrong kind of protection for the job. The required eye protection for any job depends upon the type of hazard, the route of exposure, other protective equipment used and individual vision needs. This should be determined through a job hazard analysis performed by the workplace supervisor.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of workers who suffered eye injuries revealed that nearly three out of five were not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident. These workers most often reported that they believed protection was not required for the situation. This shows a lack of training of workers by the supervisor on hazards in the workplace. Eye protection is mandatory in all areas with potential for eye injury. There is no exception. This applies not only to individuals working continuously in these areas, but also to persons who may be in the area only temporarily, such as an inspection team or maintenance or administrative personnel.
Some laboratory operations require specifically designed eye protection. Working with lasers or intense visible light may require specialty eyewear. Laser eyewear should be selected to protect against the specific wavelength of light generated and with a sufficient optical density for the given laser power.
There are four things you can do to protect your eyes from injury:
- Know the eye hazards at your worksite.
- Eliminate hazards by using machine guards, work screens or other engineering controls.
- Use proper eye protection.
- Keep your eye protection in good condition and replace it if damaged.
Selection of eye protection should be made based on a hazard assessment of each given task. Types of eye protection include: Prescription and nonprescription safety glasses
Safety glasses are designed with lenses and frames much stronger than regular eyeglasses. All eye protection equipment must comply with the requirements set forth in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard "Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection," Z87.1-2010. Look for the Z87.1 mark on the lens or frame. Commercial sunglasses advertised as “military grade” do not meet the ANSI testing standards.
Safety glasses provide eye protection for general working conditions where there may be dust, chips or flying particles. Side shields and wraparound-style safety glasses can provide additional protection. Safety glasses are available in plastic, polycarbonate and Trivex materials. While all types meet or exceed the minimum requirements for protecting your eyes, polycarbonate lenses provide the highest level of protection from impact. Goggles
Although safety glasses provide adequate eye protection from dust and impact hazards, they are not sufficient for operations involving substantial danger from chemical splashes or dense particulate environments. Goggles provide protection from impact, dust and chemical splash. Like safety glasses, safety goggles are highly impact-resistant. In addition, they provide a secure shield around the entire eye and protect against hazards coming from any direction. Goggles can be worn over prescription glasses without the need for specialized inserts. Take special note that goggles come in vented and non-vented versions. When working with chemical fumes and vapors, always wear a non-vented goggle. Face shields
Face shields are required when there is a need to protect the entire face and throat. Examples include using/mixing strong caustics or acids, blood-borne pathogens or reactions with the potential for explosion. Face shields may require additional protective eyewear. They may need to be used in conjunction with safety glasses or goggles to protect the eyes when the shield is lifted or in environments with extreme dust or caustic vapor. Welding helmets and shields
Welding helmets are a type of headgear used when performing welding operations to protect the eyes, face and neck from flash burn, ultraviolet light, sparks, infrared light and heat. A welding hand shield is a metal plate containing the same protective lens as a welding helmet with a handle on the bottom, intended to be held up in front of the face while working. Helmets with special filters to protect the eyes from optical radiation exposure should be used for welding or working with lasers. Conclusion
Eye protection must fit properly to provide adequate worker safety. If you are issued eye protection that does not fit properly, immediately contact your supervisor. Eye protection devices must also be properly maintained and stored. Scratched and dirty devices can reduce visual acuity, increase glare and may contribute to accidents. If at any time your eye protection becomes unserviceable, report this to your supervisor. Eye protection should be stored in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations. Combined with machine guards, screened or divided workstations, and other engineering controls, using the correct protective eyewear can help keep you safe from any type of eye hazard.