Shipping Out Eye Injuries

Improved PPE and worker commitment help Gulf Marine Fabricators focus on eye safety.

Prevailing 15 to 20 mile-per-hour winds, intense south Texas sun rays, blowing sand -- and those are just the natural eye irritants workers at Gulf Marine Fabricators in Ingleside, Texas, face every day.

As a steel fabricator for the offshore industry, Gulf Marine Fabricators constructs offshore oil structures, barges and boats. Much of the work involves exposure to the outdoors because almost every building in the shipyard is open on one side.

In addition to high winds and ultraviolet rays, eye hazards in this type of environment include small steel particles from grinding and welding operations, paints, chemicals and solvents.

Safety Manager Tracy Yeary, RN, said these hazards are the reason for Gulf Marine's comprehensive commitment to eye safety. "The rule here is simple," Yeary said. "You can't take your safety glasses off for any reason."

Weary said this is a rule seldom broken by employees who have become committed to wearing eye protection.

"We don't catch people without their safety glasses on," Yeary said. "It is a part of the culture here. We are at the point where an employee will walk into my office, and I have to tell them to take off their safety glasses to talk to me."

Beefing Up Protection

Eye safety may be so ingrained in employees that they might forget to take off their safety glasses when they leave work, but Yeary said it was not always that way.

In the early 1990s, the company realized there was a problem with eye injuries and that a stronger commitment to eye protection was needed.

"When I started here back in 1990, we had 20 to 30 employees each day who would come into the first aid station to have foreign bodies removed from their eyes," Yeary said. "We always had a mandatory rule of safety glasses with sideshields, but when the eye injuries began to increase, we began requiring those involved in grinding operations to also wear faceshields."

From the time the policy was instituted in 1990 to the end of 1991, Yeary said, the company was able to cut the number of eye injuries in half.

In addition to faceshields, the company instituted measures that require workers to wear double eye protection -- safety glasses and goggles -- for some operations, such as work in confined spaces.

Still, most of the eye injuries Yeary sees are those where a foreign body has gotten in the eye. To reduce these types of injuries, the company instituted a measure that includes eye checks for grinding and welding crew members after every shift.

"Over time, welders tend to loose sensitivity in their eyes," Yeary said. "We encourage them to come up to the office at the end of the day to get their eyes washed out and checked."

Yeary indicated there are no eyewash stations in the facility because they found the stations were only giving employees temporary relief for serious problems. "We would rather have them come to the first aid station and allow us to wash the eyes out," she said. "They could use an eyewash station, but the real problem with the eye may not be recognizable until hours later after that temporary relief from the eyewash has subsided."

Creating a Culture

To encourage workers to wear their safety glasses, Yeary uses a poster campaign that publicizes worker eye injuries.

"We advertise when someone goes to the doctor," she said. "The identity of the worker remains anonymous, but I explain what that worker was doing, how the injury happened and what the consequences were. This has worked for us because, unfortunately, you learn from someone else's mistakes."

Another reason for the strong commitment to eye safety by employees is the freedom they have to choose the types of protection they most prefer. Yeary remembers when employees asked to wear tinted glasses because of the intense sunlight. "If the employees have an idea about what will make them more productive and still safe, I listen," she said. "As a result, we have allowed them to do things like wear tinted glasses during the day."

The safety culture at Gulf Marine does not end when workers leave the shipyard. Yeary believes the commitment by company employees to safety has endured because that commitment extends to their life at home. "Employees are encouraged to take home any personal protective equipment to use at home," she said.

Commitment from the top helps to enforce safety policies. Yeary said it is corporate policy that everyone inside the yard gates wear safety glasses -- from the delivery person who drops off a package to the president of the company.

Yeary also said that management has embraced personal protective equipment improvements, particularly with eye protection. She recently suggested that the eye protection policy be changed for those employees who wear prescription glasses. The sideshields for employees wearing prescription glasses were flimsy and not working properly. The one's she wanted to buy cost more than the one's they had, but she said that was not a factor.

"Management asked me if it was the right thing to do," Yeary explained. "I told them we were following the rules by using the current sideshields, but that this was the right thing to do. Now we have new sideshields for employees who wear prescription glasses."

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