In the Blink of an Eye

June 9, 2006
It only takes a split second for your workers to lose their vision in an accident and that's before they get to work.

When it comes to safety, Kendall Folds, safety director for Duncan Aviation of Lincoln, Neb., has observed that experience often is the best teacher. "Or pain," he says.

However, if you're planning to conduct an experiment on what happens when household chores are performed without proper eye protection, you can count Folds out.

"Whenever I'm using the weed-eater, I always put on a pair of safety glasses," Folds says. "Because stuff just flies up especially if you hit any pebbles."

Folds attributes his off-the-job safety discipline to his 22 years in the Navy. What really left an impression, Folds adds, was a safety training session in which a Navy commander talked about an eye-opening experience he had while doing some yardwork.

"He hit something that was like a burr when he was using his weed-eater, and it flew up and got stuck in his eye," Folds remembers. "He had to get it removed surgically."

A freak accident? Not in the eyes of the National Safety Council, which estimates that four out of 10 accidents that cause blindness happen at home.

Looking at it from a wider lens, the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety recently analyzed 113,614 interviews conducted by the National Health Interview Surveys and learned that 62 percent of injuries to employed people occur off the job. The National Safety Council which contends that nearly two-thirds of disabling injuries to workers occur off the job estimates that off-the-job injuries and fatalities cost U.S. businesses almost $200 billion annually in lost productivity.

Statistics have their place in occupational safety and health, but safety professionals know that real people are behind those numbers which is what drives Morton Salt's goal of zero injuries on and off the job, according to Michael Resetar, director of health and safety for the Chicago-based company.

When asked why Morton Salt believes that it's important to focus on off-the-job safety, Resetar answers simply: "Because we don't want our people or our families to get hurt."

Leave On Your 'Safety Hat'

Part of the philosophy behind Morton Salt's off-the-job safety program is that the company wants its employees to keep on the proverbial "Safety Hat" when they leave the workplace, Resetar explains. The company wants workers to keep on their safety glasses as well.

Off-the-job eye safety is an important piece of Morton Salt's multi-faceted off-the-job safety program, which includes a variety of activities, contests, events, communications and educational sessions geared to reach out to workers and their families.

"We encourage our employees to take home and wear their safety glasses when they're cutting the lawn or hammering or doing other types of work around the house," Resetar says.

Morton Salt conveys the message of home eye safety in conventional ways from giving out free safety glasses at its Family Safety Day events to emphasizing eye safety in newsletters and other communications and some not-so-conventional ways.

As for the latter approach, when the company provided its employees with train-the-trainer classes focusing exclusively on home eye safety, the participants were blindfolded and given toothpaste and a toothbrush so they could experience a taste of what it's like to be blind.

Says Resetar: "There are some things we believe can't be replaced and that we take very seriously, and eye injuries are one of those."

It's Not Rocket Science

When it comes to home safety, the seemingly routine activities often post the biggest hazards, whether it's mowing the lawn, adding automotive fluid to a car or unblocking a drain.

"That's the hard thing about injury prevention," says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council. "We have a way of doing something that we probably have done since we were kids. Men probably have mowed a million lawns without safety goggles and nothing has happened. Hopefully nothing will happen. But the problem with injuries is that in the blink of an eye, something could go tragically wrong a wood chip gets lodged in your eyeball, or you're pouring automotive fluid that you've poured a thousands times before and nothing has happened and this time your hand slips and it splashes you in the eye. Just because it hasn't happened before doesn't mean it couldn't."

Obviously, the point isn't to plead with your workers to lock themselves in a room bereft of sharp edges when they leave the worksite. Instead, equal doses of common sense and prevention are the best measures workers can use to maximize their chances of returning to work safe and sound.

According to Prevent Blindness America, nine out of 10 eye injuries could have been prevented. In most cases, the preventative measure boils down to wearing a pair of ANSI Z87-approved protective glasses or goggles.

"The beauty of injury prevention is that a lot of times it's not rocket science," Appy says. "It's often a matter of knowing what the problem is and knowing what a good solution is."

If the solution is so simple, why were there 125,000 product-related home eye injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2002, according to the latest data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission?

For the same reasons that some workers are reluctant to wear PPE unless they look "cool" in it, some people hesitate to use eye protection in and around the house.

For those people who are too self-conscious or vain to wear eye protection at home, Prevent Blindness America Senior Vice President Daniel Garrett has this message: "Get over the vanity."

"How important is vanity when it comes to saving your sight?" Garrett asks.

For others, it's not even a matter of wanting to look cool, Garrett adds. Some people don't even think about using eye protection, and still others just plain forget.

For those who might need help remembering to wear safety goggles when performing high-eye-risk activities such as mowing the lawn, Garrett recommends keeping safety goggles near where the activity takes place.

"Get two pairs: Keep one by the workbench and one by the lawnmower," Garrett says. "Just get in the habit of keeping them close at hand."

Eyeing Kids' Safety

Chemical splashes, cooking accidents, sports and do-it-yourself work on cars and homes are among the most common causes of off-the-job eye injuries, according to the National Safety Council. But Appy notes that something we don't always think about is that prolonged exposure to the sun also can be a serious threat to our vision, with the potential to cause cataracts and cancer to the area around the eye.

Again, the solutions are fairly simple: Wear sunglasses that screen out at least 99 percent of UV rays, wear a brimmed hat and consider using special sunscreen for the areas around the eyes, Appy explains.

She adds that parents should get their kids in the habit of wearing sunglasses.

"Start them off with sunglasses that are plastic and nonbreakable," Appy says. "Kids will learn from our example, but you have to get the habit started."

Playing with consumer fireworks, on the other hand, is a habit that parents and all adults, for that matter need to break, Appy asserts. Even those seemingly innocuous sparklers that children love just aren't worth the risk.

"Sparklers burn in excess of 1,000 degrees," Appy notes. "And we're putting that in the hands of a child. You can just picture how a child starts using sparklers: They just start waving them around. Flailing a lit sparkler not only presents the risk of burns, but that sharp point can do real damage to a bystander's eye or the eye of the child using it."

To be clear: Appy is recommending that people do not use consumer fireworks, including sparklers. Instead and she admits she's been accused of being "unpatriotic" she suggests leaving the pyrotechnics to the fireworks professionals who put on displays in your community.

Prevent Blindness America agrees, warning on its Web site that "there is no safe way for nonprofessionals to use fireworks." The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that fireworks were involved in 9,600 injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2004. Of those, 6,600 injuries were treated during the 1-month period surrounding the Fourth of July.

"Fireworks are just too unpredictable to consider them safe for the children we love," Appy says. "I know it's a harsh stance, but I've talked to too many parents who wish they made a different decision."

A 24-Hour Safety Attitude

Protecting the investment in your employees. Keeping your health insurance costs in check. Maximizing productivity by ensuring your workers report to work and report to work healthy and happy.

Those are just a few of the reasons that including an off-the-job safety component in your overall safety program makes sense. It's about "developing a 24-hour safety attitude," explains John Myre, author of "Live Safely in a Dangerous World" and creator of the Safety Times newsletter.

"You see a lot of people with bad safety habits off the job," Myre says. "If those people are unsafe off the job, they're going to be more inclined to cut corners on the job, too."

Von Meeks, safety supervisor for the Illinois Refining Division of Marathon Petroleum LLC one of Occupational Hazards' America's Safest Companies in 2005 - finds that off-the-job safety and on-the-job safety work hand-in-hand.

"We try to establish a whole culture of safety not just at work, but at home," Meeks explains.

That's precisely the mission of the Illinois Refining Division's 11-employee Home Environmental and Safety Committee. Meeks believes the committee's efforts are paying off.

"We get stories of people who never used to wear safety glasses and earplugs at home, and they do now," Meeks says. "And their kids remind them. To me it just shows that our safety program is effective, that people understand and are buying into the fact that the safety culture doesn't just stop at the work doors it applies at home as well."

Sidebar: Sight Savers At Home

  • Wear chemical safety goggles when using hazardous cleaning products.
  • Read and follow all product instructions. Follow all warnings.
  • Choose safe products that are easy to use and easy to dispose of.
  • Do not mix cleaners.

In the Workshop

  • Protect eyes from dust and flying particles by using goggles or safety glasses with side protection.
  • Use goggles with indirect vents for protection from chemicals.

In the Yard and Garden

  • Wear sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays.
  • When mowing, wear safety glasses with side protection or goggles.
  • Check the yard and remove debris before mowing.
  • Wear goggles to protect the eyes from fertilizers, pesticides and other yard chemicals, including lime dust.

For the Sports-Minded

  • Wear impact-resistant, polycarbonate sports eyeguards for racquet sports and basketball.
  • Go to a sporting good or optical store for safety eyewear designed for the specific sporting activity.
  • Lenses should bear an ASTM (American Society of Testing Materials) label, indicating that they meet ASTM standards for the specific sport.

Protecting Children

  • Avoid toys with sharp points or edges, shafts, spikes or rods. Do not allow children to play with darts, BB guns and games or toys with projectiles.

Purchasing Safety Eyewear

  • For maximum protection, be sure that the eyewear has the ANSI Z87 logo on the frames and other parts.
  • Hardware stores, home building centers, safety supply companies and optical supply or vision care centers sell safety eyewear for common home tasks.

Sources: Prevent Blindness America, Safety Times

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