Think about the senses you use every day, without thinking. 

Imagine losing or damaging your sight because of an accident at work. This is the reality for about 20,0001 people per year in the USA alone according the to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – costing an estimated $300 million2 per year in lost productivity, medical treatment, and worker compensation.

Then think, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology3, an estimated 90 per cent of eye injuries are preventable with the use of proper safety eyewear. It has been reported that approximately three out of five workers4 injured were either wearing the wrong kind of eye protection, or not wearing any at all at the time of the incident. The same study also found that half of workers who were injured while wearing eye protection through the eyewear had minimised their injuries.

In this article we will explore the risks to your eyes whilst at work and the best ways of protecting them.

What are the risks?

Wherever you work, there are potential sources of harm to your eyes, whether you work in construction, manufacturing, automotive industries, industries which use significant chemicals, health care, offices, warehouses, and shops.

We will start by exploring the main risks to your eyes and then identify what can be done to protect these fragile organs.

“half of workers who were injured while wearing eye protection through the eyewear had minimised their injuries”

Light and heat

One of the easiest risks to identify to the eyes is that of light and heat because we can imagine these causing problems in both a work and home setting.

One of the primary causes of damage to the eyes is solar radiation. UV light can have a detrimental effect on your eye health. UVA rays can pass through the cornea and into the retina of the eye. Overexposure to UV light is one the leading causes of problems including cataracts and photokeratitis. When selecting low risk UV eye protection, look for the relevant standard for the task you are undertaking. This could be UV 400 for personal eyewear.

You should always ensure it complies with the relevant ANSI or ISO standards. If dealing with intense UV light not normally found due to extreme heat from fires, furnaces, welding, and sparks, ensure the eyewear meets the correct standard for that high-risk task. The above standards would be unlikely to protect you in these circumstances.

Welding torches will cause problems as a result of UV light, such as a condition called ‘welder’s flash’ or ‘arc eye’. These flash burns are like sunburn in the eye’s surface and can result in pain, changes in vision or in extreme cases, loss of vision.

It is also important to check if any workers could be suffering from photosensitivity – meaning the eyes are abnormally sensitive to UV radiation. This can be caused by many substances, including some industrial chemicals, plants, and medication. In these cases, it is essential that the appropriate eye protection is selected.

It is important to note that it is not only UV light which puts our eyes at risk. Blue light has also been found to have a range of implications for both health and wellbeing. Light in this range can cause disruption to sleep patterns which can have a significant knock-on impact on both physical and mental health. This is even more prevalent during the lockdowns which have occurred globally, resulting in many people being at home, increasing the use of TVs, tablets and computer monitors. It is a startling fact that computer monitors emit up to 35 per cent blue light – that is 10 per cent more than is emitted by the midday sun.

Sharp objects

At some time or other, we have all experienced the pain of simply getting an eye lash in the eye. Whilst this is a temporary inconvenience, there are many other objects which could strike the eye causing damage in the working environment, such as airborne pieces of metal created during the use of manufacturing tools such as grinders. Damaging the soft tissue in this way can lead to irrevocable sight loss. Again, ensure glasses are suitably specified for such impacts. Personal eyewear is not likely to be impact rated. You must ensure that safety glasses specified to the relevant impact standard are worn.

Dust

Dust, sand, and dirt can all easily enter unprotected eyes, particularly if picked up on the wind. Abrasions to the cornea can cause injuries ranging from minor scratches which heal in a few days to more severe abrasions which can cause lasting damage. 

Chemicals

The eye is a fragile organ with a very particular PH range. This means that chemicals such as acids and alkalis as well as solvents and cleaning agents can cause chemical burns if they come into contact with the eye. In addition, there is the risk of exposure to mists, fumes and vapours which can cause serious eye damage. The BLS states that contact with chemicals causes one fifth of eye injuries in the workplace5.

“in the age of Covid-19, we are learning that the eyes can also be an entry route for the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection”

Viral transmission

In the age of Covid-19, we are learning that the eyes can also be an entry route for the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection.6 Airborne droplets and close contact with other people can cause the virus to enter the body, which can in turn cause infection.

Preventing eye injuries

As with any workplace risk, identifying the appropriate controls must start with the hierarchy of control.

Eliminating the risk

If it is possible, eliminate the risk to the eyes by removing the worker from the immediate vicinity of the risk. This is usually achieved through automation of activities, such as in manufacturing industries, whereby the tasks are carried out by machinery and operated remotely.

Substitution

Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, consider the tools and materials you are using. Think about the tools that are being used, for example can you choose one with improved dust suppression?

Engineering controls

If you cannot eliminate the risk or substitute it with something less risky, the next step is to try to isolate people from the hazard. This can be achieved with the use of screens, which are now commonplace in many shops to isolate workers from customers and the potential risk of viral infection through the eyes. 

Administrative controls

Make sure you have safe systems of work in place, particularly when dealing with hazardous activities such as those involving chemicals, welding, and laser use.

PPE

In many cases, you will not be able to mitigate all risk with the above measures, so it is likely you will need to select eye protection as part of your control of the risks associated with the work being undertaken. This article covers some of the basis you should consider when selecting, promoting, and maintaining eye protection.

When nothing else but PPE will do

Whilst PPE should be viewed as the last resort in controlling hazards, in many cases involving eye protection, it will form a significant part of the control programme and ensuring you protect the health of your employees’ eyes will in many cases require some form of eye protection to be worn. But it is not just as simple as picking any old pair of glasses of the shelf. There are several things that should be considered when selecting eye protection to make sure that it is suitable for both the task being undertaken and the person wearing it.

Consider the task at hand

The type of work being carried out will have a significant impact on the type of eye protection that is required. For example, if you are working on a construction site, you will be looking for protection such as mechanical resistance and dust protection. Whereas working with chemicals will require a different level of protection.

What to look for

On the eye protection, you should look for CE markings and standards. Employers are expected to provide their employees with suitable personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of injury and, in the case of eye protection, to guard against the potentially life changing injuries which can be sustained to the eyes.

In the UK, all PPE is regulated by the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 which ensure compliance with the EU directive (2016/425) on Personal Protective Equipment. This places specific duties on manufacturers, importers, distributors, and authorised representatives. It also requires all PPE to be tested and marked to prove that it can meet the required protective standards. In addition, all eye protection must comply with EN166:2001.

Similar standards exist elsewhere around the world, such as AS/NZS 1337.1 and 1337.6 in Australia and ANSI Z87.1-2015 in the USA. 

Checking the level of protection

The codes in the table to the right will be shown on the PPE so that you can confirm it provides the required level of protection.

Achieving compliance

Once you have established the level of protection you need to provide to your workers, the next area to focus on is how to make sure that the PPE provided is worn. Rather than purely focusing on negative reinforcement techniques of punishing those who fail to wear their eye protection, it can be more effective to focus on more positive techniques. These can include positive reinforcement and making sure the specific PPE selected is comfortable to wear.

You can also go a step further with the wide variety of options on offer and select eye protection which looks good too. For example, if the eye protection looks like a stylish pair of sunglasses, workers are more likely to want to wear them than if they are bulky, uncomfortable, and cumbersome.

If you are selecting new eye protection, why not involve some of your employees in the selection process, once you have narrowed the search down to items that meet the technical requirements so that you get additional buy in to wearing them? Lastly, lead by example – make sure that senior leaders within the business set an example and demonstrate wearing appropriate eye protection too.

It is essential that any PPE you provide does not compromise the safety of the person using it. You therefore need to consider the individuals you are providing it for and adapt to the needs of the user.

Prescription safety glasses

For those who already wear prescription glasses, prescription safety glasses are available in single vision, bifocal and varifocal lenses, meaning that in certain circumstances they can replace regular glasses and remove the need to wear googles over the original glasses. This is much more comfortable and, therefore, there is a better chance that people will wear them.

The individual

Another factor that should be considered is the face size and shape. A pair of glasses that fits a large male is unlikely to fit a small female as well. Eye protection comes in different sizes and styles for a reason, and it is that we are not all built the same. If the PPE is too big, it will not deliver the required level of protection for the individual.

A recent development with the requirement to protect workers from COVID19 is the mainstream introduction of visors in many working environments. When selecting these, it is important to make sure that they fit the individual. Depending on the stature of the individual, the visor itself may be too big to provide adequate protection. 

Another aspect of PPE in respect of Covid-19 is the impact of wearing a mask on the eye protection which is selected. It may be appropriate to consider an anti-fogging coating on eye protection as this can be a source of irritation when wearing both a mask and eye protection, which poses a risk of a lack of compliance.

Keeping it clean

Once you have selected your eye protection and made sure that it meets your requirements, and you have got buy in from your workers to wear it, the final step you need to consider is the ongoing maintenance of the PPE.

It is essential that eye protection is well maintained and cleaned to keep it functioning in the way that is intended and to protect from eye infections which can be caused by dirt on glasses, goggles, and visors.

In order to effectively clean and store your eye protection you should follow the steps above.

The bottom line

You have one pair of eyes. There are many ways that they can be harmed in the work environment, whether that be heavy industry, construction, laboratories or in the office – it also extends to when you are off duty and undertaking DIY at home.

Despite this, there are many ways that you can protect them. Once you have exhausted other control measures, appropriate selection of eye protection – making sure you have the right protection for the work being undertaken, that it suits the person using it and that it is well maintained – is essential to keeping you and your workers safe and healthy. Nothing you do is so important that it should put the health of your eyes or those of others at risk, so take time when you are assessing the risks and identifying control measures and you could make the difference between someone going home with or without their sight.