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Providing workers with appropriate hazard-based eye protection is critical to injury prevention, notes Larry L. Jackson, chief of the Injury Surveillance Team for the Surveillance and Field Investigations Branch of NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research. However, this does not necessarily mean workers will use the provided personal protective equipment.
“Employers and workers often do not understand or appreciate the danger that hazards may pose to their vision,” Jackson said. “Also, if [workers] recognize that there is a hazard, they may not believe that it will impact them.”
Many workers incorrectly believe one type of PPE will protect them from all eye injuries. According to the National Safety Council’s “Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene,” 6th edition, some workers believe their corrective eyewear can protect them from injury, giving them a false sense of security.
Jackson said workers also may be unaware of the potential severity of eye injuries, which are “often perceived as only being minor.” In truth, the eye is much more likely to suffer permanent injury than a body part such as a finger because the unique tissues that make up the eye are not present elsewhere in the body.
Another factor leading to non-compliance is the belief that eye protection reduces productivity or safety in other areas, such as fogging leading to a fall, Jackson said. Additionally, some workers find eye protection uncomfortable or unstylish.
To encourage worker compliance, “employers should explore the many options for acquiring eye and face protection and involve workers in the selection of the products used,” Jackson recommended. “Offering workers a selection of eyewear styles may improve fit, coverage and comfort while allowing workers personal style choices.”
Education and intervention
Employers also need to train workers on the proper eye protection for each hazard, Jackson said. For example, a construction worker who readily wears safety glasses while performing carpentry work may be unaware that eye protection must be worn when working with cement, which in powder or wet form can cause severe alkaline burns. Jackson suggests safety professionals follow the following guidelines when updating or creating an eye safety program:
- Review applicable OSHA eye safety standards and learn about common eye safety hazards in their industry.
- Identify hazard sources by walking through a work area and speaking with employees, including asking about hazards at all times of the day.
- Evaluate ways to mitigate eye safety hazards at the root cause, reducing the need for employees to use PPE.
- Look to the ANSI standards for each hazard to determine appropriate eye protection.
- Consult with workers on their eyewear preferences, and offer a variety of styles and sizes to increase the likelihood that employees will find the eyewear appealing.
- Incorporate employee input into training programs and written eye safety plans.
- Ensure supervisors and health and safety staff serve as role models when implementing or updating an eye safety plan by wearing the same eye protection as employees.
Ultimately, safety professionals should establish a culture where eye protection is the norm. “Culturally, wearing eye protection must become equivalent to a construction worker wearing a hard hat – a symbol of who they are and what they do, one that they don’t leave home without, and that they can’t start work without,” Jackson said.
A debilitating outcome
Not wearing eye protection can result in permanent blindness. Edward Bernacki, professor of medicine and chair of the joint committee on health, safety and the environment for the Johns Hopkins Health System and University in Baltimore, described an incident in the 1990s in which a graduate student who was not wearing eye protection suffered permanent blindness following a lab explosion. The individual was unable to work in the lab again, he said.
Sudden, permanent vision loss can take a serious toll, noted Lauri Dishman, manager of counseling services for Second Sense, a nonprofit blindness counseling organization based in Chicago. “Being blind is difficult for everyone,” Dishman said, “but for adults who are newly blind [or visually impaired], it can be a very big stigma. They typically have to go through all the steps of grieving in the post vision-loss process.”
To encourage workers to always use eye protection, Anita Stone, safety manager for Johns Hopkins Medicine, recommends sharing personal stories about the damaging effects of eye injury and vision loss. Stone said it is important to remind workers how something simple can save them hardship later in life. “It takes only one injury to change the rest of your life,” she said. “There are only so many things in life you can control, but this you can. Just taking that one step to put on your PPE can make a major difference.”