It was an innocent-enough question. A client wanted to know if the staff of Occupational Hazards had heard anything about a study that examined the efficacy of prescription safety glasses. That was it: Had we heard anything?
That simple question, it turns out, was a loaded one.
In one of his comedy routines, comedian Dane Cook refers to “tiny, Tic-Tac-sized comments” launched by former girlfriends — whom he calls “brain ninjas” — in the middle of an argument. In reality, these comments are “detonators,” says Cook, “torpedoes in the water.”
These comments “go deep into your cerebellum and sit there and at some point, could be 3 days later or 30 days later, they are going to explode, rotting your brain from within,” he claims.
As it turns out, a simple question about prescription safety glasses was my Tic-Tac-sized detonator. The more I thought about the question, the more it ate away at me. Who performed the study and what was it about? Where was it published? Had I missed something crucial? How did I not know about this?!
Turns out there was such a study, published in the February 2007 issue of Optometry, Journal of the American Optometric Association. (See, that's the problem with detonators; it can take a while for them to explode.)
According to the study, researchers from the Illinois College of Optometry at the Illinois College of Optometry, led by Janice M. McMahon, O.D., and Stephen Beckerman, O.D., tested 75 frames from five major safety eyewear manufacturers.
An independent laboratory fitted the frames with 2.0-mm plano polycarbonate lenses in compliance with ANSI Z87.1-2003. The finished eyewear was sent to a laboratory testing facility where each frame was subjected to both high-mass and oblique-incidence, high-velocity impact. According to researchers, more than half of the eyewear failed the safety tests.
“The ANSI Z87.1-2003 standards applied in this study produced an unexpectedly high number of failures in the eyewear tested,” commented Beckerman when the study was published. “High-velocity impacts have the potential to dislodge lenses from the frame which has the potential to permanently impair vision.”
Paul F. Vinger, M.D., a clinical professor of Ophthalmology at Tufts Medical School, went a step further at the time, saying, “This study suggests that many of the prescription safety glasses being worn by American workers and consumers may not provide the protection that the manufacturer claims.”
Wow, I thought, I did miss something — something big.
I read on to discover that only one manufacturer's frames passed all the study's tests; frames that feature a spring-loaded lens retention system. According to the study, the failure rate of the standard V-bevel design frames used by other manufacturers was 75 percent.
What was downplayed in news about the study was that the research was funded by a grant from the manufacturer of the frames that passed with flying colors.
“Ahhh” said my brain as its internal sprinkler system turned on.
Now, it's not unusual for safety equipment manufacturers to partner with universities and other groups to conduct testing of new products and comparisons of their equipment versus that produced by competitors. Having conducted reader surveys of my own, I know the questions asked — and probably the tests conducted — tend to favor the products produced by the company funding the research.
Here's my issue, and it's not so much with the study but in the way it was reported: According to Prevent Blindness America, every year, more than 800,000 American workers will suffer an eye injury on the job, and close to 36,000 of those injured will require time off of work. Eye injuries are highly preventable if workers are wearing eye protection. So I cringe at the thought of anything — research study, press release, news article — that gives workers a reason not to wear eye protection.
I strongly believe that manufacturers who are in compliance with existing regulations want their products to be as safe and protective as possible.
Millions of dollars was spent on research and development of personal protective equipment last year, and millions more will be spent this year. That money is a drop in the bucket compared to estimates from the Department of Labor that place the cost to employers of eye injuries at work at more than $300 million annually.
On May 15, OSHA will begin requiring employers to provide required PPE — all of which hopefully meets or exceeds ANSI standards — at no cost to employees. And since March has been designated by Prevent Blindness America as Workplace Eye Health and Safety Awareness Month, I hope that employers will start by providing all employees with safety eyewear, along with training about the necessity of protective eyewear and information about the cost — both personal and monetary — of eye injuries.
Studies to determine product efficacy are important. But so is the use of ANSI-compliant personal protective equipment, worn correctly and consistently.