Consider this scenario: a worker is in the process of sealing a coupling on an air pressure activator when all of a sudden, the sealing gun explodes, causing the brass end of the gun to fly off and head directly for the worker's eyes, potentially causing serious eye injury.
This scenario, a scary one for any worker to experience, actually happened to Joseph Balessil, a second-shift helicopter maintenance worker at Boeing Rotorcraft Philadelphia Inc. Fortunately for him, Balessil had safety glasses on and avoided serious eye injury, although Boeing Rotorcraft Philadelphia Inc.'s safety and health specialist Beth Ann Salemi says it could have been worse.
“I remember that you could see the indentation the metal made on his [safety] glasses,” she says. “It could have caused serious damage if it would have entered his eye.”
According to Salemi, when incidents such as the one Balessil experienced happen at Boeing Rotorcraft, injuries rarely occur because of the company's eye safety program.
“Fortunately we are big on eye protection,” Salemi says. “I would say we rarely have serious eye injuries, because there is good compliance.”
The issue of eye safety at work has many companies focused on prevention and it is not surprising to see why. Data published by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) in 2005 reveal that 1.2 million American workers were injured on the job and required recuperation away from work. Of that number, 34,740 were eye injuries.
As a result, companies want to eliminate any type of eye injury. The proof that eye and face injuries are some of the most preventable is out there: Prevent Blindness America has recognized more than 86,000 workers in recent years who were involved in potentially serious incidents, but saved their sight by wearing proper eye and face protection. At Boeing Rotorcraft, for instance, all employees — both those working in the manufacturing facility and those who are passing through on their way to another location — are required to wear eye safety glasses at all times. In addition, Boeing safety personnel conducts weekly safety reviews and walks through production areas daily to make sure that employees are wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), especially safety eyewear.
While many companies increasingly have been adopting this type of diligence for eye safety, the same level of concern about protecting the whole face is another story. While it's not uncommon to see baskets full of safety eyewear for workers to wear, full face protection such as face shields generally is not found in great quantities hanging near entrances for workers to don, despite the fact that the rest of the face also faces a similar risk of injury. Although no formal data has been compiled on the incidence of facial injuries in the workplace, industry experts point out that employers should place an equal amount of importance on protecting the entire face by having their workers wear safety glasses or goggles in conjunction with a face shield, as the consequences of facial injury can be severe.
Consequences of Not Wearing Full Face Protection
“Workers who get injured badly either by chemicals or electric arc flashes are subjected to major psychological trauma,” says Joseph Chery, marketing director of the New Bedford, Mass.-based safety equipment manufacturer Oberon Co.
Depending on the severity of the facial injury, workers are unable to return to work either because they have lost their eyesight or have to deal with a disfigurement, he explains. If, for instance, a worker was badly burned, he or she would need to get skin grafts and endure a long rehabilitation. Because such an injury has an effect on self-esteem, these workers often suffer from depression, which can lead to disruptions in their personal relationships.
Although these situations are rare, they serve as an example of what can happen if workers and employers don't take the necessary precautions to protect the entire face.
“I think it is absolutely the responsibility of the employer to make sure that there are procedures in place that require the correct PPE to be used,” says Chery. “There is a dual responsibility when it comes to protection in the workplace: the employer is required to provide the equipment and the employee is required to wear it.”
Occupations such as grinding equipment operators, machine operators, welders, boiler workers, painters, grit blasters, ship fitters and burners, to name a few, are required by OSHA to wear full face protection, which means that in addition to wearing eye safety glasses or goggles, they also are required to wear a face shield. The voluntary American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z87.1-2003 standard also applies to these workers. But according to Tom Webb, eye, face and head protection product manager for Fibre Metal, now a North Safety brand, many employers and employees don't comply with these regulations.
“The biggest problem in the U.S. market is that workers who are supposed to be wearing full face protection are not doing so,” Webb says. “The guys are just wearing safety glasses.”
Battling With Non-Compliance
According to Webb, industry statistics point out that only 15 percent of workers who are required to wear a face shield actually wear one. Webb, who received the data “from a reliable third-party source,” says he has been in the industry for more than 20 years and has himself seen many workers wearing just safety eyewear when their tasks required full face protection.
“In my opinion, companies and workers tend to think that since the eyes are protected, everything else is,” says Webb. “They don't think of a grinding wheel shattering and knocking [their] teeth out. Or something hitting [their] nose or cheeks or ears. It's just complacency in the market. Or it's a legacy no one has thought about changing. [And] no one has brought it up to them when conducting hazard assessments.”
Numerous factors contribute to workers not wearing full face protection when they should. The issue of comfort often arises in discussions about PPE, and eye and face protection isn't any different. As with any type of protective gear, the more comfortable it is, the higher the probability it will be worn, says Ariel Rodriguez, product manager for Uvex, a division of Sperian Protection, formerly known as Bacou-Dalloz.
“The natural human tendency is that if something is bothering you, you shift it away from the area that is bothering you,” says Rodriquez. “It's not that the worker wants to be non-compliant … it's that the natural reaction to discomfort is to remove the discomfort.
“These are the instances when we find injuries occurring,” Rodriguez adds.
Ron DesJardins, a product manager for head, eye and face protective equipment for North Safety Products, agrees that comfortable face protective equipment is hard to find.
“It tends to be less comfortable to wear a face shield,” admits DesJardins. “It's larger, bulkier, you have some sort of a head gear that is mounted on top of all this, which is a lot more bulky than just wearing a standard pair of spectacles.”
Many workers believe that safety eyewear provides adequate protection, which points to a certain level of complacency on the part of workers and employers, who are not doing a good job of accurately evaluating hazards, DesJardins states. But according to him, “If they ever saw a grinding wheel explode, rest assured they would always were full face protection.”
Welders Should Know Better
Chery asserts the issue of discomfort especially is prevalent among welders, who risk incurring severe burns to their eyes and face. Even more alarming, Chery says he has seen situations where welders — who work with an electric arc and are exposed to burns, electric shock, poisonous fumes and overexposure to ultraviolet light — don't wear proper protection, which should include, at minimum, goggles and a welding helmet.
“They [welders] turn their head as they are working and they turn their heads as they are welding so they aren't facing the flash,” he explains. “They think that by not looking at it, they are protecting themselves and that's not what they should be doing.”
Chery surmises that the attitude some welders and their employers have toward using face protection during welding operations may have to do with the way safety standards are spelled out in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.
The standard includes a table that groups hazard risks into six categories, which are defined by the amount of energy or calories per square centimeter to which a worker potentially could be exposed. The categories range from Category 1, which is the lowest level of risk, to a Category 4, in which a worker is potentially exposed to 40 calories per square centimeter. In Category 1, where the worker has a choice of either safety glasses or safety goggles, the energy or heat exposure limit is 4 calories per centimeter square, which still is a considerable amount of heat, Chery says.
Full face and head protection isn't introduced in the standard until Category 2, where heat exposure levels can get as high as 8 calories per square centimeter. Imagine holding your finger over a lighter until you can no longer stand it and multiply that sensation by eight, and that is the equivalent of Category 2, says Chery.
When an arc flash occurs and the energy level reaches the worker, the amount of energy exposure exerted on the worker depends on variables such as the distance the worker is from the arc flash as well as the length of time the arc flash remains in the body.
“The closer you are, the more heat you will experience,” Chery asserts. “Also, arch flashes usually happen very quickly, not usually lasting more than a fraction of a second, but if it stays there for a second, which is not implausible, you can get exposed to more heat.”
Nevertheless, Chery says that experiencing 4 calories per square centimeter is no small thing and the standard should include the addition of a face shield within that category.
“It doesn't matter if it's 4 calories, you will get burned,” he says. “If this thing hits you in the face, you will get burned, and severely so.”
Missing Face Shields Not Obvious
A worker without full face protection removing burrs from a metal part at a grinding wheel is a less-obvious safety violation than seeing a construction worker without a hard hat. Although both workers easily can do their jobs without the use of PPE, somehow seeing a construction worker without his hat just seems more wrong, says Webb, who emphasizes that should not be the case.
“Since we don't see people walking around factories with a face shield on all the time, it's a lot less expected and seen as less needed by workers because it's not as obvious,” Webb says, adding that this misconception has certainly played a role in the lack of attention placed on wearing full face protection.
One way to short-circuit the problem is to educate both the end user and the employer on the hazards associated with tasks and perform a hazard analysis to see what kind of protection OSHA and ANSI mandates workers wear, Chery explains. Having employers enforce the rules and provide their workers with the right types of PPE, along with specific training about potential hazards and the use of PPE to protect against those hazards, should give workers little room to not comply.
“It's the responsibility of the employer to give you a parachute if the task that you are performing is tantamount to the risk you will have if jumping out of a plane,” Chery says. “It's also the responsibility of the worker to wear that protection, as it is unlikely that anyone could convince anyone else to jump off a plane without a parachute.”