From using hazardous materials to working at a computer, there are many workplace activities that present the risk of damage to our eyes. Our eyes are very important in our everyday lives, so it is vital that we look after them.
We wouldn’t do something outside of work which would harm our eyes, and the same should go for while we are at work. Employees should be able to expect that they can return home at the end of their working day without any injuries being sustained to their eyes – or any other part of their body for that matter.
There are some industries where risks to eyes are more common and more severe in their nature than others. One of those industries with high levels of risk is construction.
Being in this industry myself, I come across many activities that present risks to the eyesight of employees. Hence, ensuring systems are in place to control these risks – and ensuring everyone is aware of them and how they can be overcome – is a crucial part of my job.
Construction industry risks
Eyes are a delicate body part. They are very easy to damage. Unlike other parts of the body, a hard blow to the eyes is not necessary to cause injury. In fact, all it takes is a tiny sliver or speck of metal, a particle of dust or a trace of chemical and a great deal of damage can be done. Often this damage is irreversible.
You may be wondering what the risky activities presented in construction are. Some are certainly more obvious than others. For example: hammering, grinding and cutting work, which are very common on construction sites, can cause eye injuries through ejecting material. Handling chemicals can lead to splashes in the eye. Examples of such materials are diesel and paint.
We must also consider protruding nails and rebar, which can cause severe eye injuries, while wet or powdered cement in the eye can cause a chemical burn.
Other activities are: welding, which leads to exposure to arcs and flashes (intense UV radiation) for welders, helpers, and bystanders; dusty or windy conditions, which can lead to dust particles in the eye; the use of power tools; and sunlight, which can cause eye damage as well as skin damage.
Perhaps a lesser-known risk for people who work in construction is that provided by long hours of continuous work on a computer. As there are often many office staff on a construction project, we must also consider this.
Plumbers also do work which carries risks, for example cutting pipes, removing pipes, welding, soldering, grinding and fitting.
Unfortunately, thousands of eye injuries occur in workplaces each year, some causing temporary damage, others more long-lasting and even permanent, with blindness being the worst-case scenario.
These injuries come at a great cost to businesses – taking into account time off work and even compensation claims – but an even greater cost to the workers themselves. They are the ones who have to live with it. But can such injuries be avoided?
Organisations who are taking their business seriously and who want to grow in the future are taking into account their workers’ safety in the first place. It reminds me of a quote: “Success is in the detail”. In this instance, the detail reflects safety and this rule works from individual workers to small and medium enterprises, right the way through to multinational organisations.
So the question remains: who is responsible for ensuring workers do not sustain damage to their eyes?
Ultimately, it is a joint effort involving both the employers and employees. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) believes that all workers in all industries should be covered by a culture of care. This culture of care should cover the prevention of injuries to all body parts, including eyes.
Organisations are responsible for putting in place management systems which maintain safe and healthy working practices. As a safety and health practitioner myself, my role is to design these systems and obtain the buy-in from senior management to implement them.
However, these systems require buy-in from the whole workforce, not just management. Employees must realise that safety and health is the responsibility of everyone; not just practitioners like myself. In other words, as an employee you are responsible for your own welfare and that of your colleagues.
Safety and health specialists can introduce the management systems designed to prevent workplace accidents and educate staff on it,
something I’ll come back to. However, if a worker spots something which could be potentially harmful, it is their responsibility to report it. In the same way if they are provided with some equipment to protect themselves from harm, they should use it properly. Everyone must be diligent about their own protection. As the age old proverb goes: “You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
I can relate this with brushing your teeth; brushing is a choice, not a result. It is the same choice that you make to act safely or unsafely. It is you who are responsible for your own teeth and your own safety – not your employee, not your partner, not your child. The worker is the only one who is truly responsible.
Good practice comes in many forms. We must educate the “gatekeepers” – the chargehands and foremen – who can get squeezed by the site engineers on progress and production. On my sites, we ensure staff on all levels are educated, from one-to-ones with workers on site to discussions with chargehands and foremen. We try to utilise the system of ‘Eliminate, Reduce, Isolate, Control, PPE, and then Discipline (ERIC before the PD)’ but most importantly we train and educate our safety officers on conflict resolution, to understand how to communicate ideas and to inform.
Avoiding eye damage
As mentioned, many injuries are avoidable, as are other workplace accidents. By designing and introducing safety and health management systems, the risks can be overcome.
Following the hierarchy of controls it is important to consider first of all ways of designing out the activities which carry risks to someone’s eyes. That means looking into ways of preventing workers from conducting tasks which can lead to eye damage.
As those in construction will know, in many cases it is not possible to design out the risks in such a way. In that case, we can then look at keeping worker exposure to potentially harmful materials to a minimum. Again, this is not always possible. Many tasks in the industry, including those listed above, simply have to be performed despite the risks they carry.
Employers in this case can take the following actions:
- Perform a risk assessment of the activity and address the risk assessment to the workers
- Develop a method statement and address this to workers
- Make procedures for performing the activity
- Provide information, training, instruction and supervision
- Provide good quality tools and machines
- Make sure people know how to use tools properly
- Keep bystanders out of hazardous areas
- Regularly provide tool box talks
- Deploy appropriate signage near work area
- Identify hazards from nearby workers, large machinery, and falling/shifting objects
Having looked at all of the options to prevent workers from damaging their eyes, it is then important to look at what sort of personal protective equipment can be used. This is a very important issue. However I must stress that this equipment should be a last resort. Employers should look at other methods in the hierarchy of controls first.
This protection can include the following:
- Safety spectacles - These protective eye glasses have safety frames constructed of metal or plastic and impact-resistant lenses. Side shields are available on some models.
- Goggles - These are tight-fitting eye protection that completely cover the eyes, eye sockets and the facial area immediately surrounding the eyes and provide protection from impact, dust and splashes. Some goggles will fit over corrective lenses.
- Welding shields - Constructed of vulcanised fibre or fibreglass and fitted with a filtered lens, welding shields protect eyes from burns caused by infrared or intense radiant light. They also protect both the eyes and face from flying sparks, metal spatter and slag chips produced during welding, brazing, soldering and cutting operations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires filter lenses to have a shade number appropriate to protect against the specific hazards of the work being performed in order to protect against harmful light radiation.
- Laser safety goggles - These speciality goggles protect against intense concentrations of light produced by lasers. The type of laser safety goggles an employer chooses will depend upon the equipment and operating conditions in the workplace.
- Face shields - These transparent sheets of plastic extend from the eyebrows to below the chin and across the entire width of the employee’s head. Some are polarised for glare protection. Face shields protect against nuisance dusts and potential splashes or sprays of hazardous liquids but will not provide adequate protection against impact hazards. Face shields used in combination with goggles or safety spectacles will provide additional protection against impact hazards.
Selecting PPE is a crucial process, as is the training that should go with it. Employers should ensure that the equipment fits the wearer properly. If the equipment doesn’t fit properly this leads to the real risk of an employee sustaining damage to his/her eyes. For example, small particles could come into contact with eyes through a gap between the protection and the person.
Employers cannot physically force workers to wear the protection, though they do have a role to play in encouraging it. Once the correct type of equipment has been selected and it has been tested to make sure it fits, it is also of vital importance that there is a good level of education and training. This means that employees must be educated on the reasons for wearing the equipment – this may sound obvious, but we really must get the message delivered – including the pitfalls of not doing so.
Often in extremely hot working environments like those we experience in the Middle East, there can be a tendency among employees to think to themselves ‘it’s too hot to wear this protection, I’ll do without. I’ll be okay –nothing bad will happen’. This is not an attitude we want to encourage.
With the right amount of education, employees need to be thinking ‘it is hot and the protection is uncomfortable, but I will wear it anyway. I would rather put up with the discomfort for a short period of time than sustain serious damage to my eyes, which could mean I cannot see anymore’.
To summarise, we can look at what OSHA says. OSHA requires that employers protect their employees from workplace hazards that can cause injury. This puts the employer in line to make sure that they are doing all they can to protect their employees. However, the employee must ultimately follow the employer's training and safety procedures. If the employee does not follow rules when the employer is not watching, then the employee should be held accountable.
OSHA rules establish minimum standards for both employers and employees to deal with eye protection standards and state:
“The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles, molten metals, liquids, chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapours, or potentially injurious light radiation.”
The costs involved
In addition to the physical loss caused by eye injuries, they also come at great cost to business in terms of medical bills, compensation and downtime. To overcome all of this, employers have to make sure that workers are provided with, trained and supervised for the correct eye protection for each work situation depending upon the type of hazard.
We’ve looked already at personal cost; what about company cost?
Businesses in the Middle East are increasingly recognising the importance of preventing eye injuries and what the consequences can be; not only to the victim but to the organisation itself.
As businesses that prioritise looking after their workers know very well, good safety and health management systems lead to improved reputation, resilience and results.
Yes, as a business you have to pay for this. But is it really a cost? In my view, and that of IOSH as a whole, we should view it as more of an investment. It is an investment in the employees, and such an investment can really bring rewards with it. Employees who are well looked after will not only have fewer sick days, they will be much more committed to the company and, as a result, be much more productive.
If you compare this to the pitfalls of not taking safety and health as seriously, particularly with someone’s eyes, there is a huge difference. If an employee sustains an eye injury they will likely need time off work. This can lead to costs including lower productivity and replacing them with another member of staff (which can involve training). There is also the possibility of compensation claims.
So, responsible businesses are seeing many benefits arising from putting safe systems of work in place, including protecting the eyes of employees.
To look at an example of how matters are improving, the Abu Dhabi government is leading the way with the implementation of AD EHSMS, which is providing a platform for the requirement and guidelines.