How to Select the Proper Emergency Eyewash for Your Workplace

March 1, 2011
Emergency eyewashes are an often-overlooked part of industrial safety programs. Yet there can be no denying the value of a worker’s vision and the impact that an eye injury can have on both the individual and the employer.

Even though OSHA requires employers to provide the proper eye protection to help prevent injury, incidents that injure eyes still occur. As a matter of fact, more than 700,000 work-related eye injuries occur annually, risking short-term, long-term or even permanent vision loss. Employers who choose the proper eyewash fluid and delivery system can reduce the severity of an eye injury as well as the direct and indirect costs associated with them.

ANSI emergency eyewash safety standards are in place to help ensure that individuals receive the immediate treatment required after an eye injury for the best possible outcome. ANSI always has called for eyewashes to be present at the site of any hazardous material, which is defined as anything that can cause adverse effects on workers' health and safety. The standard requires that eyewashes be made available within a 10-second walk of a hazard, and that a person flush his or her injured eyes for a full 15 minutes. It also details how an emergency eyewash should be delivered in terms of rate of flow, temperature, fluid angle and user's position, as well as station location, installation and maintenance. The latest standard is ANSI Z358.1-2009. This latest version went into effect in January 2009 and makes compliance even easier to understand and follow.

The best way to ensure eyewash compliance in the workplace is by building it into your company's safety plan. Employ a safety manager, assign safety stewards or use a third-party vendor to be responsible for employee training and station maintenance. The appointed safety leader regularly should train staff as a group, as well as new associates as they join, to ensure that everyone is trained and proficient in using emergency eyewash units.

Employees need to know how to reach and activate the unit, and how to properly rinse contaminants from their eyes. The proper flushing technique calls for the worker to hold both eyes open using their forefingers and thumbs and let the fluid rinse across the eyes from the inside corner out continuously for 15 minutes. An injured employee should be instructed to seek follow-up medical care if needed.


Despite ANSI's guidance, approximately half of all businesses required to meet this standard remain in non-compliance — even though the risk is costly.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the financial cost incurred by occupational eye injuries exceeds $934 million per year in both direct costs — such as lost production time, medical expenses and worker compensation — as well as indirect costs. Furthermore, the risk of non-compliance to an employee is immeasurable. The human eye, with 126 million receptors in each retina, is our primary way of experiencing the world and our vision is necessary to perform most jobs.

In order to minimize risk, it's important to know how best to respond to an eye emergency when one occurs. This article will help you determine whether your workplace requires an emergency eyewash. It describes the types of eyewashes available and helps you identify the type that is right for your work environment.


To determine whether a worksite requires emergency eyewash, assess the tasks performed and the hazards they may present. Flying objects, chemicals, harmful vapors and dust can enter the eye through activities such as chipping, grinding or sanding; degreasing, plating and working with blood; and woodworking and buffing.

If workers require personal protective equipment, such as chemical-resistant gloves or goggles, respirators or face shields, the workplace likely requires an emergency eyewash as well. Some surprising places that require eyewashes include hair salons, garden centers and home goods centers. Consult the guidelines set forth by ANSI, OSHA and manufacturers' material safety data sheets (MSDS) to confirm whether your site requires an eyewash.

Planning how and where the eyewash will be used will help determine what type of delivery system is best. What are the most common hazards present? Does the workspace layout change as new jobs commence? Is plumbing readily available at the site of every eye hazard? Once you have determined your needs, there are two types of primary emergency eyewash delivery stations to consider: plumbed and portable.

Plumbed eyewash — Plumbed eyewash units have been used for more than 100 years. These units deliver plumbed tap water to the eyes in plentiful amounts. However, plumbed stations are expensive to install, impractical to move and require weekly maintenance.

Because its temperature is not easily regulated, water straight from a tap often is too hot or too cold to flush with for the required 15 minutes. It also does not match the eye's natural pH, so flushing with it can cause irritation. It is important to ensure that the water is tepid. Plumbed eyewash units require attention to blending valves, scald valves or other components that work to ensure water temperature. Determining water flow pressure through the eyewash heads is another important maintenance task.

Portable eyewash stations — Portable eyewash stations contain water, saline solution or 100 percent sterile saline, which is maintained at room temperature inside the unit. A monthly test of the flow thorugh the eyewash heads is necessary to ensure delivery performance. It also is important that the water is changed or treated, as it becomes impotable over time.

Portable devices offer some advantages over plumbed units. Their fluid is maintained at room temperature to help ensure fluid is delivered at a comfortable — not harmful — temperature. Flushing fluid in sealed-cartridge devices boasts the longest shelf life and, therefore, requires the least frequent maintenance. Portable units with buffered saline solution more closely match the pH of the eye to protect it during flushing. New stations are equipped with RFID technology to provide instant insight into maintenance schedules, help manage inventory, track expiration dates and more using a handheld computer.

Secondary eyewash bottles — Many workplaces also need to consider making secondary eyewash stations available. Delivered in a variety of sizes, personal eyewash bottles are small and highly portable, and, therefore, readily can be made available at the site of any hazard. In fact, secondary eyewash systems can be as critical for the treatment of an injured eye as their primary counterparts.

Eyewash bottles are required at the site of nuisance particles such as pollen, dust, sawdust and smoke. They also are required where very caustic substances exist. In the case of chemical or caustic eye injury, eyewash bottles provide immediate treatment en route to a primary eyewash unit and continuous irrigation on the way to medical care. Bottles containing 100 percent sterile buffered saline solution are best for rinsing injured eyes and provide a lengthy, 36-month shelf life.


An injured worker likely will have restricted vision when en route to the eyewash station, so it is important to select a location that is quickly and easily accessible during an emergency. ANSI specifies that stations be located:

  • Within a 10-second walk from the hazard;
  • On a travel path from the hazard that is free of obstructions;
  • On the same level as the hazard with no steps or stairs in between;
  • Immediately adjacent to the hazard for strong caustics and strong acids; and
  • In an area that is well lit and identified with a sign that is highly visible to everyone served by it.

Consider environmental effects on the station's location as well. If used outdoors, keep the unit out of direct sun or extreme cold to avoid uncomfortable or damaging rinsing temperatures. Look for a unit with a solar shield or move the unit out of direct sun to avoid fluid that may become too hot.

In extreme cold temperatures, look for an eyewash unit with a heated accessory to keep flushing fluid from becoming too cold or freezing. Remember, ANSI's guidelines call for rinsing with tepid water, defined as ranging between 60°F and 100°F, except in the case of certain chemicals.


If not properly maintained, emergency eyewash stations could deliver adverse effects to an injured worker. Be sure that the appointed safety representative maintains eyewash units as required by ANSI or the manufacturer.

ANSI requires that plumbed eyewash stations be activated weekly to rinse harmful particle buildup through pipes and to ensure proper water pressure. Self-contained portable devices require cleaning, disinfecting and changing the flushing fluid every 3 to 6 months as directed by the manufacturer. Sealed cartridge devices containing sterile or purified, buffered saline solution should remain free of bacteria and contamination for up to 24 months.

Emergency eyewashes are an important — and often times required — part of a company's safety equipment. By understanding your workplace's unique characteristics and assessing its hazards, you can develop an effective safety plan to protect workers' eyes and prevent nearly all eye injuries.

But when an accident occurs, be sure you have the proper emergency response in place, including the right eyewash delivery system and fluid, to ensure the best possible outcome. The results will be what every safety manager looks for: increased productivity, decreased medical costs, a safer work environment and the best care for every individual's eyes — our windows to the world.

Kelly Piotti is a product manager, Emergency Eyewash, for Sperian Protection.

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