By Victor J. D'Amato, CIH, CSP
Eye injuries occur at an estimated rate of 1,000 per day in the American workplace. That’s a very good reason to ensure employees at risk are protected from face and eye injuries. There are other reasons why face and eye protection in the workplace is so important, besides the regularity with which these types of accidents occur. One is compliance. Eye and face protection must be provided whenever necessary to protect against chemical, environmental, radiological, or mechanical irritants and hazards. An employer could be fined by OSHA for not providing an eyewash station, for instance, or even for not complying with the General Duty Clause to provide a safe and healthy work environment.
Cost is another strong incentive to prevent eye injuries. The financial price of these injuries is enormous and can range from $300 to $3,000 per case. More than $300 million per year is lost in production time, medical expenses, and workers’ compensation according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But, no dollar figure can adequately reflect the personal toll these accidents take on the injured workers.
The return on investment for creating and implementing an eye and face safety program is huge. Eye and face personal protective equipment (PPE) is inexpensive with a good pair of safety glasses costing less than $20. Compare that to the expense of eye injuries including emergency medical expenses and workers’ compensation, the possibility of a worker permanently losing sight in one or both eyes, the bad PR for the company, and the impact on worker morale.
What causes eye injuries?
The goal of face protection is to shield the eyes from injury. Most impacts to the face come from flying objects, usually particulates. When a particulate hits the face it might cause a cut or scratch and the skin will repair itself over time, given proper medical attention. If the particulate hits the eye, it causes direct damage and it is far more difficult for the eye to repair itself. BLS found that almost 70 percent of eye accidents resulted from flying or falling objects or sparks striking the eye. Injured workers estimated that nearly three-fifths of the objects were smaller than a pin head. Most of the particles were said to be traveling faster than a hand-thrown object when the accident occurred.
Contact with chemicals is responsible for one-fifth of occupational eye injuries. Other accidents are caused by objects swinging from a fixed or attached position, like tree limbs, ropes, chains, or tools which were pulled into the eye while the worker was using them.
Eye and face protection programs
As with any safety program, the first step in establishing an eye and face protection program is to conduct a hazard assessment. After determining the hazards, the written program should document what PPE will be used to protect against these hazards, how the PPE will be selected, how workers will be trained to properly use the PPE assigned to them, and how prompt emergency care will be provided in the event of an accident.
Hazards are assessed by occupation and work activity, and the hazard assessment will determine the specific type of protection required for each activity. OSHA has an excellent Eye and Face Protection e-Tool on its web site that provides a comprehensive hazard assessment, information about selecting PPE as well as OSHA requirements.
ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard for eye and face protection is Z87.1 and the 2003 edition specifies requirements for safety glasses, safety goggles, face shields, and full face and hooded respirators.
Nearly one-fifth of injured workers with eye protection wore face shields or welding helmets. However, only 6 percent of workers injured while wearing eye protection wore goggles. If pouring or handling chemicals, goggles must be worn because the seal around the face prevents splashes and vapors from getting into the eye. Of the injuries to workers wearing eye protection, 94 percent resulted from objects or chemicals going around or under the protector.