Eye Safety: What You Need to Know
By Earl Smalts
When we think about debilitating injuries from industrial accidents, we tend to focus on damage to extremities or lost limbs. But every day, nearly 1,000 American workers suffer some form of eye injury. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those injuries create a financial burden of more than $300 million annually – not just in medical costs, but in workers’ compensation and lost production time.
Those statistics fail to address the other cost of eye injuries: the impact that blindness or visual impairment has upon the worker’s quality of life. Each of us depends upon our eyes constantly during the day for basic tasks. Beyond the physical challenges created by the loss of even some eye function, these injuries also do damage to an individual’s well-being.
No industry is immune when it comes to the potential for eye injuries, but certain types of work involve more inherently hazardous tasks. That’s why it’s important to consider potential eye hazards when conducting a hazard analysis of every site and task, and to recognize the correct type of personal protective equipment (PPE) for each task.
There are five primary types of hazards that can lead to eye injuries. We’ll examine each and talk about the best ways for workers to protect themselves.
Hazards from Impacts
Impact hazards generally include any objects that fly or fall, including sparks that may strike the eye. Government statistics suggest that these hazards account for nearly 70 percent of eye injuries. What may surprise you, though, is the size of the objects involved. More than 60 percent of impact injuries were caused by objects that were smaller than the head of a pin. Those tiny objects can cause punctures, abrasions and contusions.
Working with drills, saws and chisels pose particular risks, and tasks that create a risk for impact hazards include woodwork, machining, fastening, sanding, and riveting. When performing these tasks and others where there are impact hazards, a worker’s primary means of protection should be either safety spectacles or goggles. Face shields or other secondary protective devices may also be needed to protect the worker’s face, particularly when there will be greater exposure to hazards.
Hazards from Heat
Exposure to high temperatures, molten metal or sparks may create a heat-related hazard. Such hazards are most common in processes such as casting, furnace operations, dipping and pouring. Burns represent the most common injuries.
To protect the eyes, goggles and safety spectacles are again the first choice, although they should employ special heat-resistant lenses and side shields to protect the entire eye surface and surrounding tissue. Face shields may also be needed, depending on the nature of the heat and the length of exposure.
Hazards from Chemicals
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a fifth of eye injuries are the result of exposure to chemicals. In addition to direct splashes, exposure also may include contact with chemical vapors, mists and fumes—as well as blood (particularly in medical settings).
Goggles typically offer the best eye protection against chemical exposure, with additional protection for the face delivered by face shields. Workers who are performing tasks with or around chemicals should also be aware of the nearest eyewash station and know how to properly use eyewash equipment.
Hazards from Dust
Dust is all around us, but it tends to be present in larger quantities with certain types of work, such as woodworking. In addition to the potential irritation to the eye, especially for workers who wear contact lenses, dust may include harmful chemicals or other substances. Safety goggles that completely cover the eyes and surrounding tissue are the best choice in dusty work situations, because they seal the area around the eye.
Hazards from Optical Radiation
Some types of work involve intense or concentrated light, part of which may be outside the visible spectrum. Whether a worker is using lasers, infrared light, ultraviolet light or any source that concentrates either the brightness or the heat of light, the eyes must be protected. The same holds true when a worker is using torches or other sources for work such as welding and brazing. The worker could be at risk for injuries such as cataracts or burns to the retina. Even if injury does not occur, eyestrain is a possibility.
When choosing protective equipment for these tasks, the first consideration must be given to the intensity of the light or the heat. Then, the worker can select lenses and/or filters that provide protection while allowing the task to be completed.
PPE must be in good operating condition and properly fitted to deliver the protection workers need. It should be inspected at the beginning of each workday, repaired or replaced if deficient in any way, and kept clean during the day. For example, scratches or other flaws on the lenses of goggles or spectacles may impair the worker’s vision or create uncomfortable glare.
It also is a good idea to make sure that workers remove dust and debris from their hair, forehead and hard hats before they remove eye protection. They should also avoid rubbing their eyes with their hands or clothing.
Finally, be sure that workers are fully aware of the right protective eye wear for each task. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many workers who suffer eye injuries while performing their normal jobs claimed that they did not know that they were supposed to wear eye protection. In fact, around 60 percent of workers who suffered eye injuries were not wearing the correct eye protection. That’s why a supervisor or safety professional should never assume that workers already know what they’re supposed to do.
Earl Smalts is the radiation safety manager in the Office of Environmental & Human Safety.