Beware the Hidden Eye Hazards

Feb. 18, 2005
Each day, more than 2,000 people injure their eyes at work, according to Prevent Blindness America. When employers address this problem, they sometimes learn some eye-opening safety lessons.

Eye injuries in the workplace remain all too common, afflicting more than 700,000 Americans each year. Yet Prevent Blindness America says 90 percent of these injuries can be avoided with a simple and obvious expedient: safety eyewear.

If that's the case, why do so many workers and employers appear to be blind to the value of safety glasses?

Jim McKay, plant manager at McMormick and Co. Inc., the spice manufacturer based in Hunt Valley, Md., doesn't know the answer to that question, but he knows how to solve the problem. After joining the company as safety manager, he began a mandatory safety eyewear program that applied to everyone at all times in McMormick's production facilities. Serious eye injuries have been virtually eliminated.

"I've worked for Miller Brewing and General Motors," says McKay, who manages McMormick's spice mill plant, where spices are ground and processed. "I'm amazed by how many people I've seen who nearly lost an eye, but yet this wasn't seen as an opportunity to institute a mandatory safety eyewear program."

McKay counsels that if a company is going to require workers to wear safety glasses, the employer needs to pay for them. The costs associated with this offer one possible answer to the question posed above. Although he says that one serious eye injury can pay for a lot of eyeglasses, the reason for the policy is "it's the right thing to do."

Soon after the company started offering to pay for employees' prescription safety glasses, McKay made another startling discovery: Many employees needed not just prescription eyewear but bifocals.

"This means they weren't seeing that well to begin with, and that raises another huge safety issue that touches every aspect of your job," he says.

Male Vanity Hazards

Alan Friedman, OD, national clinical director for Spectera Vision Plan, confirms McKay's experience about the large number of workers who aren't seeing as well as they should. With headquarters in Baltimore, Spectera is one of the nation's largest vision care plans.

"You'd be surprised, but it's true especially for guys: They feel that if they have to wear glasses, they are getting older," says Friedman. "If you can't see what you're doing when using a dangerous tool, that's another hazard, and I see this every day."

The "old fogy" stigma associated with bifocals may explain why so many of McKay's workers needed some encouragement to change their prescription eyewear. Vanity, or the age-denying temptation that leads some workers to resist wearing proper prescription eyewear, is an issue that could grow in importance as the U.S. work force grows older. Friedman recommends annual eye exams for all employees to make sure they have the proper prescription if they need glasses.

OSHA regulation 29 CFR 1910.132(d)(1) requires employers to perform a hazard assessment to determine if hazards are present (or even likely to be present) that might necessitate the use of personal protective equipment.

The first priority should be to abate such hazards with engineering controls. If eye hazards remain, say McKay and Friedman, companies need to ensure that all employees wear safety eyewear at all times. To make this happen, companies need to pay for their employees' safety eyewear.

Friedman offers two additional reasons for everyone on a site to wear safety eyewear at all times. First, eye injuries can occur when the worker doing a dangerous job has eye protection, but a nearby worker does not. Second, Friedman says some serious injuries to the cornea happen without a worker realizing it.

"I've known patients who have lost an eye after working on a high-speed drill, because particles can fly off so fast they don't feel it," Friedman explains.

In such cases, the particles can be removed in an eye examination, although scars and permanent eye damage may result. But if the worker isn't aware of the problem, there may not be a timely eye exam, the particles can remain in the cornea and this can lead to more serious problems.

Selection Guidelines

Employers should be aware of ANSI Z87.1-2003, a newly revised voluntary standard that provides guidance in the selection of safety eyewear (see sidebar).

In order to ensure employees will wear safety eyewear, companies need to go the extra step and provide prescription safety eyewear when needed, according to Francine Jones, safety representative for Titmus Optical Inc. The Petersburg, Va.-based company may be presumed to take special care of its workers' eyes, as it is in the business of manufacturing prescription safety eyewear frames.

If companies don't provide prescription safety glasses, what often happens is workers will wear safety glasses over their regular glasses. The extra weight of the second pair of glasses means that many workers will simply remove the safety glasses after a few hours another reason why many workers aren't always wearing proper eye protection.

"A person will not wear two pairs of glasses for 8 hours," says Jones. "They may wear them for an hour or 2, then take the safety protection off and work with the dress eyewear."

Both Jones and McKay say annual training on the need to wear safety eyewear and workers monitoring one another to make sure they are complying are key components of a successful eye protection program.

In addition to comfort, style is the second factor that can determine whether workers will wear safety eyewear, according to Jones. Heavy, ugly safety glasses are a much tougher sell than attractive, lightweight models. She thinks a good way to ensure that workers wear safety eyewear on the job is to give them a pair of glasses they will want to wear off the job.

"That's why we try to provide lightweight eyewear they would wear to church. That way, we know they will wear it to work."

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