Your eyes are a valuable asset. Could you imagine a day without sight? Our eyes have been called the most complex organ in our bodies, with six million cone cells giving us detailed colour daytime vision to 120 million rod cells giving us our dim light, or night vision. The value and capability of our eyes is truly priceless.
Each day in the United States alone, about 2,000 workers have a job-related eye injury that requires medical treatment. Of these 2,000 injuries, about one third are treated in a hospital emergency room, and more than 100 of them require one or more days away from work.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, these eye injuries cost employers and insurance companies more than $924 million annually in workers’ compensation, and nearly $4 billion in wage and productivity losses. Of course, there is no dollar amount that can accurately reflect the toll that the loss of eyesight has on an individual. The good news is that about 90% of all eye injuries are preventable with proper eyewear and safety precautions.
Common types of eye injuries
Eye injuries can occur whenever eye protection isn't worn. The type and severity of the eye injury can be from a blinding chemical burn to a small scratch that could heal in a week. The irritant that causes these injuries will usually come into direct contact with the eye in the form of dust, fumes, chemical splashes or through various activities. Understanding different eye injuries is a key element in creating a preventative safety culture at work.
According to one study, 70.4% of eye injuries occur in manufacturing workplaces, 11.7% of eye injuries took place in service industries, and 8.4% of the injuries took place in the construction trades. Of these injuries, 72.7% of the injuries were the result of foreign materials in the eye, and 19.4% were from flash burns.
The most common activities represented by these numbers were welding and grinding activities - but don’t let that hinder your judgment; there are multiple types of occupational eye injuries that can occur while at work.
Foreign bodies in the eye
A foreign body is essentially any material that enters the eye, such as a shard of metal, a woodchip, dust, or even particles of cement. This material can be embedded into the cornea, causing potential damage. Any type of metal material can cause a ring of rust within the eye, which needs medical attention.
There are two types of foreign bodies in the eye:
• Intraorbital - These are foreign bodies that are smaller in substance and are trapped within the eye socket, but have not penetrated the eye
• Intraocular - These are foreign bodies that can be any size and have penetrated into the eye
Foreign bodies account for nearly 70% of all eye injuries, and in about three fifths of those incidents, the object that caused the injury was smaller than a pinhead, demonstrating that even a tiny unseen object can cause serious damage. First aid protocol for a foreign body in the eye includes same day medical attention. The injured person should also avoid rubbing or touching their eye as much as possible.
Chemical exposures and burns
This injury includes any chemical liquid being transferred to the eye, which can occur from rubbing your eye with a contaminated hand or an accidental splash of liquid. Where many substances such as detergents or soaps may not cause very serious injuries, some chemicals, such as acids or alkalis, can cause permanent blinding effects.
Aerosol exposure can also lead to an eye injury. Fumes, dusts and mists are created when working with paint, woodwork and scaling. Those working with cleaning agents, aerosols or any other chemical substance should know where their eyewash stations are located. In the event that a chemical agent comes in contact with a worker’s eye, thoroughly flush the eyes at the eyewash station for 15 to 20 minutes to dilute the chemical.
Direct trauma or a scratch to the cornea from a foreign body can result in a corneal abrasion. The cornea is a transparent layer that covers the eye and it is the first and most powerful lens in the eye's optical system. To keep its transparency, the cornea contains no blood vessels.
Corneal abrasion injuries are very common and can be easily overlooked as they can heal on their own in a couple of days. Common causes can be by an accidental scratch from a fingernail, a piece wood, plastic or fibreglass.
They can be slightly painful to very painful and cause tearing or blurred vision. In the event of a substantial corneal abrasion, medical attention should be sought right away. The injured person should also avoid rubbing or touching their eye as much as possible.
Hyphemas and orbital blowout fractures
This type of injury can be caused by a severe force to the face, such as getting kicked in the eye or struck by an object. With a hyphema, there will be bleeding in the eye that occurs in the front part of the eye called the anterior chamber. This is also the space right between the iris and the cornea.
An orbital blowout fracture is the cracking or breaking of the bones that surround the eye, which can cause severe pain, blurred vision and even double vision. In the event that a hyphema or orbital blowout fracture occurs, take the patient to the hospital immediately - this injury is a medical emergency. The injured person should remain upright and try not to talk or move their face in any way.
This injury can occur the same way that a corneal abrasion can and is also related to a blow to the eye from a blunt object. It is an inflammation of the iris, which is the coloured part of the eye, and is a ring of muscle fibres located behind the cornea, in front of the lens. It contracts and expands, opening and closing the pupil in response to the brightness of surrounding light. Just as the aperture in a camera protects the film from over exposure, the iris of the eye helps protect the sensitive retina.
During this injury, people will complain of a stronger aching eye pain and extreme light sensitivity; there may even be a headache and some short term blindness. Someone who has incurred this injury should seek medical attention and may want to use sunglasses to help with the light sensitivity.
This injury is also known as a corneal flash burn and is the most common light-induced trauma to the eye. Keratitis can develop from flash burns or prolonged exposure to bright light, causing a type of sunburn to the cornea. This injury can cause pain, redness and a feeling of something in the eye. Light-induced injuries may require ongoing medical attention until all symptoms are gone.
Preventing eye injuries
Many steps can be taken to prevent eye injuries, such as assessing the work area and job task for hazards, implementing a concrete safety programme to reduce the exposure to hazards, and the use of the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job.
For the matter of eye safety, using various forms of safety eyewear is the preferred method to prevent most eye injuries. According to the US Center for Disease Control, the eye protection chosen for specific work situations depends upon the circumstances of exposure, other PPE used and personal vision needs. There is a wide variety of protective eyewear, and appropriate selection should be based on a number of factors, the most important being the nature and extent of the hazard.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 94% of injuries to workers wearing eye protection resulted from objects or chemicals going around or under the eye protection device. Each selection of protective eyewear should be made first and foremost on the evaluation of each activity, including regulatory requirements when needed.
Any eye protection worn by the employee should be comfortable and allow for adequate peripheral vision, as well as be adjustable to ensure a secure fit.
When purchasing eyewear, be sure to get various sizes, types and styles.
Various jobs that eye protection should be considered for include: carpenters, electricians, machinists, mechanics, plumbers, welders, labourers, chemical process operators and handlers, and timber cutting workers.
OSHA suggests the most common types of eye and face protection are: 1. Welding shields - These are constructed of vulcanised fibre or fibreglass and are fitted with a filtered lens. They protect the eyes from burns caused by infrared or intense radiant light; the eyes and face from flying sparks, metal spatter, and metal splinters that are created during welding, brazing, soldering and cutting operations.
2. Goggles - These should be appropriately fitted and ventilated for best use. An anti-fog coating can be applied to prevent blurred vision. They should cover the entire eye socket to prevent splashes or sprays coming into contact with the eyes. Many types fit securely over prescription lens glasses with very few gaps.
3. Face shields - This is a transparent sheet of plastic that extends from the eyebrows to below the chin and across the entire width of the employee’s head and are a common alternative to goggles for infection control, providing protection to major areas of the face. Some are also polarised to protect from glare.
They should be used as a secondary form of protection in addition to goggles or safety glasses.
4. Safety glasses - These are protective eyeglasses that have safety frames constructed of metal or plastic and have impact-resistant lenses. These lenses do not, however, offer very much protection from splashes or sprays. There is a wide variety of options, uses, colours, fits and styles. These include:
• Clear lenses - General purpose, highly functional and fairly inexpensive. They offer true colour recognition and the ability to see everything clearly and efficiently
• Indoor/outdoor lenses - Lens has a tint that is light enough to be worn safely indoors and outdoors; good for workers who move inside and outside to do their jobs
Polarised lenses - Suited for most outdoor jobs, with a dark tint that reflects glare to help workers see more clearly. Glare can be found in snow, sun, water and even cement, which causes blind spots that can be hazardous if not eliminated
• Amber lenses - These lenses are used for areas where lighting may be inadequate, helping the eyes see with the use of increased contrast. Good for outdoor jobs between the hours of dawn and dusk, or in hazy conditions, such as landscaping, construction, or aviation
• Mirror lenses - For workers in bright light, they reflect it, thus reducing what actually passes through to your eye
• Green lenses - These are the darkest lens available, block infrared lighting and are commonly used for welding
Employers and employees are often unsure of what eye protection to choose. Countless options, procedures and protocol can prompt some of the questions below.
Q: What is my best defence against eye injuries? A: Eliminate hazards before starting work. Use machine guarding, work screens or other engineering controls and know the eye safety dangers in your workplace. Complete an eye hazard assessment and always maintain wearing the appropriate PPE.
Q: When should I protect my eyes? A: Whenever you are working on a job that could cause an eye injury or are passing through a work zone. Signage can help employees remember when and where eye protection must be worn.
Q: Is there a difference between plastic, glass and polycarbonate safety lenses? A: Glass lenses don’t scratch easily, can be used around hard chemicals and can have a prescription lens added. Polycarbonate lenses are very lightweight, resist fogging and are impact resistant. Plastic lenses are inexpensive, resist fogging and can be lightweight.
Q: What are good eye safety practices? A: Brush, shake or vacuum dust and debris from hardhats, hair, the forehead and the top of eye protection before removing it. Avoid rubbing your eyes with dirty clothing or hands, and clean eyewear regularly.
Q: How should eye protection be disinfected? A: Contaminated devices should be reprocessed where other soiled equipment is handled. It should be cleaned and disinfected with the designated disinfectant, rinsed, and allowed to air dry.
Q: What eye protection is available for prescription lens users? A: Many different safety goggles fit over prescription glasses and provide a good fit without leaving a significant gap between the face and the goggles. They can protect against splashes with side protection. Safety glasses can have bifocals or readers added to the lens to aid those who need the extra magnification.
Q: Do contact lenses protect my eyes? A: No, but they can be worn with other eye protection, such as a full face shield.
Better training and education
Having all of your PPE in place will not help unless your employees understand its use. Most workers are hurt doing their regular tasks without eye protection because they think they don’t need it. This is where the problem lies for a lot of facilities. Educate, educate, educate. Spreading awareness is vital.
Here are various ways to improve your eye protection programme:
• Require participation - Ensure you have a programme that has 100% mandatory participation and requires all employees and management to adhere; this will not only keep everyone on the same page, but will help create an efficient safety culture
• Emergency preparedness - Ensure your eyewash stations are up to date and in working order. These are required for work environments that may expose employees to harmful chemicals and are designed to immediately flush contaminants out of the eyes after exposure. They should be located near high risk areas and have the ability to be activated immediately.
They should also be tested weekly to ensure all parts function properly and that contaminants do not accumulate. Be sure to explain first aid procedures to your employees and how to properly use the eyewash station. Also, put up signs and procedures for a quick reference
• Training - Make this ongoing and stay up to date with new regulations and protocols; the more you fall behind in safety guidelines the harder it is to catch up. Ensure workers receive at least annual training, know the proper procedures and best practices - and that safety stays at the top of their minds when on the job
• Management support - Supervisors, leaders and managers need to be prominent role models to guarantee success. They should follow the rules just like everyone else; this helps employees respect their management team and helps them remember to put their eyewear on during all tasks
• Update - Always review and update your safety programme. It is important that you look over reports and check into near misses to help eliminate incidents before they happen. Constantly updating your training programme helps to keep the zero-injury facility status
Write it down - Put your training programme in writing. Give a copy to all your employees and management staff in case they need to make a reference. Put a copy in the break room for workers so they know exactly where to find it
Eye injuries are a common workplace incident. Although this is an unfortunate fact, it is important to know they are 90% preventable. People often overlook the severity of losing their sight, but by wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, following safe practices and educating yourself on the injuries and illnesses that can occur, your worksite can prevent life changing eye injuries. Keep working together to improve the safety of your organisation, and don’t be blinded by bad habits.
Eye Safety. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Atlanta. December 5, 2011. www.cdc.gov. Eye Injury Prevention FactSheet. The Texas Department of Insurance. December 5, 2011. Eye Safety Checklist. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Atlanta. December 5, 2011. www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/eye/. Braun, Ted. Preventing Eye Injuries When Welding. OHS Online. February 1, 2007. www.ohsonline.com/articles/. Types of Eye Protection. OSHA. December 5, 2011. www.osha.gov. Occupational Eye Injuries. Lomax Consulting. December 5, 2011. www.lomaxconsulting.info/.
Stephanie Zizzo, ASHM, Environmental Health and Safety Specialist, Summit Training Source Inc Stephanie Zizzo, ASHM is a native of Chicago, Illinois. She came to Michigan to attend and graduate from Grand Valley State University. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree while majoring in Occupational Safety and Health Management. She is currently working at Summit Training Source as their in-house Environmental and Health and Safety Specialist (EH&S Specialist).
Summit Training Source has been an environmental, health and safety training innovator for more than 29 years. In excess of 40,000 clients worldwide trust the health and safety of their employees and work sites to Summit’s expert training capabilities. With more than 600 environmental, health, and safety training titles in multiple formats, including Online, DVD, Streaming Video, Summit Elements, and Online OSHA accepted 10 and 30 Hour, Summit provides proven content that delivers the business results expected in today’s competitive global environment.
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Published: 10th Jan 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East