I am diabetic, and diabetes, which runs rampant in my family, is a leading cause of blindness. I also have scratches on my cornea, owing to the years I spent working an assembly line where safety glasses weren’t required or even available for purchase. I have also been diagnosed as having the early stages of glaucoma.

I am a writer and a consultant which means I have to read copious amounts of reference material to make a living. The time will come where I will likely be sightless – provided something else doesn’t kill me first. So I value my eyesight in a way that no one who hasn’t had his or her eyesight threatened ever can. My advice to you is simple: WEAR YOUR SAFETY GLASSES.

Let me tell you a couple of stories about people who suffered eye injuries that were lessened or prevented, or not, by safety glasses.

Years ago, I was commissioned to produce a video immortalising the stories of people who had been the victims of serious injuries. They ranged from a woman who had received a severe cut on her thigh because she slid over on a picnic table and was impaled by a large sliver of wood, to a man who narrowly escaped death in a forklift truck accident. But for me, the most compelling story was of a young man who worked on a machine that would push parts into a hopper that in turn fed them into the next piece of equipment in the process. This particular piece of equipment needed to be cleaned after every load, so once it had completed its cycle the crew would feverishly sweep up any dross, or trash, or foreign objects. After one such occasion, the crew broke for lunch and sat eating and chatting, as the parts continued to accumulate in the machine some seven metres away.

Unbeknownst to the crew, someone had left a broom in the equipment area and it had become lodged inbetween the pillar and the wall-like component that pushed the parts. One of the crew looked over just in time to see the badly bowed broom handle snap and come flying, spearlike, at the crew.

She shrieked. Her reaction caused one of her crew mates to look in the direction she was looking. As he did so, the trajectory of the jagged wooden stake saw its full force heading right for his eye. But as luck would have it, he was still wearing his safety glasses. Speaking about the incident, he told me: “I forgot to take off my safety glasses so I was sitting there like an idiot eating lunch wearing safety glasses.” The broken broom handle struck him with enough force to penetrate the safety glasses and the jagged tip made the slightest of contact with his eye. The doctors told him that had he not reacted to the woman’s scream he would have likely been struck in the back of the head and killed. Furthermore, had he not been wearing safety glasses he most assuredly would have lost his eye and most probably either died or suffered severe brain trauma. As he told me his story, his voice still crackled and broke as he relived the event.

“It just felt like someone had snapped me in the eye with a rubber band” he told me over and over.

Over the years I have heard specious arguments against wearing safety glasses, from “they don’t fit right” to “how much protection are they really going to get me?” Based on his story I would say they offer a great deal of protection, but ultimately that’s for you to judge. I know others who weren’t so lucky.

A 32-year veteran of a now defunct company at which I worked, was employed setting up and operating a machine that dispensed industrial epoxy into a part. There were two lines running into the machine: one with epoxy and another with a catalyst to activate the chemical reaction that was required to meet the specifications. He was a chronic offender of the safety glasses requirement and there was just no reasoning with him. “In 32 years of working here I have never had as much as a speck of dust in my eye,” he would say in defiance of his ludicrously adopted policy. One day while he was operating the machine, the epoxy line broke and sprayed a large amount of epoxy into the man’s face.

He was rushed to the emergency room at the local hospital as was the protocol (the eyewash station was completely ineffective in flushing the man’s eyes clear) but by the time they got there the epoxy was now a solid mass over his face.

The treatment was to apply a chemical roughly equivalent to nail polish remover to the epoxy to soften it enough that it could be safely removed. When it came to his eyes, the doctor had to apply the nail polish a Q-tip at a time, laboriously removing miniscule amounts of epoxy with each stroke of the Q-tip. The process took hours and miraculously the man escaped without any loss of vision.

“It was the most painful and horrible ordeal I could ever imagine” he said of the incident. He wore safety glasses from that point on. As sort of an epilogue to the story, another operator was working that same piece of equipment when the epoxy line broke (it was later found that the machine manufacturer had mistakenly specified a hose that was not sufficient to withstand the pressurised line that carried the epoxy) spraying his face with epoxy. But this operator, perhaps having heard the horrific story of the day shift operator, was wearing his safety glasses. He took off his glasses and laughed when he saw himself in a mirror. His face was covered with epoxy except where his glasses were, leaving a comical outline of his safety glasses on his face. With the help of the medic he was able to peel the epoxy off his face without an injury. He laughed, saying: “It wasn’t what I would call fun, but I got lucky – I didn’t have to have them remove it from my eyes with nail polish remover!”

Safety glasses are required for a reason, and yes they have their limitations – they won’t stop a bullet for example – but given the cost of safety glasses and the hassle of enforcing their use, do you really honestly think that your employer would require you to wear safety glasses if they didn’t believe they were absolutely essential to your health and safety? I broke a pair of my cheesy disposable safety glasses while tending my garden (yes, I am one of those guys). I was mowing the grass when a stone or piece of wood or similar (I never found out what it had been) flew up at a great velocity and shattered the lens of my safety glasses. I took that as a sign that God didn’t want me to do yard work and I have never done it since.

“it was the most painful and horrible ordeal I could ever imagine”

Safety glasses can be a nuisance, of course. Years ago, the American army struggled with enforcing compliance with their safety glasses regulations and had an inordinate amount of eye injuries. When they investigated, they found that the soldiers didn’t like wearing their eye protection because the glasses made them look like geeks. The army commissioned new glasses that were identical to the glasses issued to fighter pilots. Compliance reached nearly 100% because the new glasses made the wearer look cool. I would counter that eye patches look cool too, but I don’t want to have to wear one because I value my vision more than looking like a pirate.

Protection from UV radiation

Safety glasses aren’t the only Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) you will need. There are other dangers that you may face in the course of your duties. One obvious example includes welding. Most of us understand that properly rated welding goggles are essential for anyone welding, to protect the eyes from harmful ultraviolet radiation. In fact, face shields are even better at protecting your eyes as they protect your face from sparks and your skin from exposure to UV rays. UV radiation is insidious; it damages your eyes so slowly that you don’t even realise anything is amiss until the damage is done.

As obvious as it may seem, I should warn people against watching someone weld unless they have approved UV protective lenses. This can be a problem for workplace visitors who are inexplicably drawn to those welders’ flames like moths with mouths’ agape. Barriers or welding curtains should be in place and in good condition to ensure the protection not only of the welders, but also those so overwhelmed by the beauty of the welding flames that they dare not look away.

Chemicals and superpowers

Chemical goggles are designed to protect our eyes from exposure to chemicals typically in the form of a chemical splash. Now, if comic books have taught us anything it is that getting splashed with chemicals is the quickest way to gain super powers. Unfortunately, this mistaken belief is a big fat lie. Getting splashed with chemicals is dangerous and potentially lethal. So much in fact, that if you get splashed with a chemical while wearing chemical goggles you should still flush your eyes at an eye wash station. In fact, you have a corrosive substance in your eye the first 10 to 15 seconds after exposure are critical. Any delay in treatment can greatly worsen the severity of the injury.

In addition to wearing the appropriate PPE when working with or around chemicals you should first review the Safety Data Sheet. Not only will the SDS provide you with information as to the hazards associated with the chemicals with which you are working, but it will also provide you with first aid information, reactivity (which can turn a harmless chemical into something very dangerous) and where to go for additional information.

Caring for your eye protection

One of the most common eye injuries is a foreign object in the eye and perhaps the most common cause of this injury is improper storage and maintenance of glasses and goggles. Many workers are in the practice of removing their glasses and leaving them in their workstations until it is time to return from their break. The glasses are left in a dirty, dusty, or smoky environment, in many cases where work is still actively being performed. It is quite common for a foreign particulate to land on the glasses and a combination of sweat and gravity, or just normal movement, will introduce the particulate into the eye. This can result in a serious injury.

Responding to injuries

As with all injuries, eye injuries must be reported. This is worth stating in this article because many times eye injuries – particularly seemingly minor injuries – go unreported and this can create a much more serious injury. Consider a metal shaving that is introduced into the eye. The human body will do its utmost to force the foreign particle out of the eye. This usually takes the form of itching and aggravation of the eye. The average person will not even notice that they are rubbing their eye, but that rubbing, in addition to the strong possibility of introducing even more foreign particles into the eye, can cause the particle to scratch the cornea and create a more serious injury. Instead, the best response to a particulate in the eye is to flush the eye with water – unless you are working with chemicals that are reactive to water, but all the more reason to find that out before starting works.

Emergency eye first aid devices

Despite our best efforts and the most well-thought-out engineering controls we still have to look beyond our typical engineering controls, for example, we need to think beyond administrative controls and PPE for eye protection, since – even with good engineering controls and safety precautions – accidental chemical exposures can still occur. The following are some emergency devices that every organisation should consider.

Eye wash stations

Eyewash stations allow for on-site decontamination, as they provide workers with the means to provide an immediate response to the hazard and to flush the hazard from the eye. Eyewash stations can be fixed in a permanent location or portable.

Emergency showers

Another emergency device for responding to a chemical spill is an emergency shower. In addition to flushing chemicals from the body the emergency shower can also be used effectively in extinguishing clothing fires or for flushing contaminants off clothing.

Let’s talk tinting

Another conflict that often arises over safety glasses is tinting. “Safety sunglasses” are appropriate for people who work outside most of the time, but when worn inside a facility they can pose a significant risk of injury. As one plant manager put it: “I can’t believe that insufficient lighting is a hazard, but then half the employees are wearing sunglasses indoors.” Truthfully, wearing sunglasses indoors does pose a hazard as it greatly reduces visibility. So, while it may not in itself be a hazard it does often create a catalyst for injuries by concealing hazards that might otherwise have been seen.

There are many types of eye protection and each has a specific purpose. When PPE companies design eye protection they have a specific circumstance in mind. If you are selecting eye protection a sales representative from one of these companies can be an invaluable resource.

Before putting on eye projection be sure to:

  • Inspect the glasses for any noticeable weak spots or damage
  • Clean the glasses to remove any dust or debris
  • If your glasses are overly worn, scratched or otherwise damaged, replace them immediately
  • Ensure that they are the right glasses for the job or task that you will be performing

Storing eye protection

Obviously, (or perhaps not, I don’t know you or your cognitive abilities) keeping your eye protection in good condition is of paramount importance. Damaged PPE is not likely to offer you full protection against the hazard for which it is designed. So, when your PPE is not in use, store it in a case and keep the case in a clean and dry area. Be sure to clean your PPE when putting it into or removing it from storage.

Eye protection is easy and relatively inexpensive, but in a major way it depends on your vigilance and cooperation. In the final estimation, it’s up to you how strictly you protect your eyesight, so as you read this, ask yourself, what is my eyesight worth?