The chemical plant worker wore safety glasses -- a fine item of protective equipment in its proper place, but the wrong kind for the particular hazard he faced. When a mishap occurred, alcohol fumes wafted around the safety glasses and injured the man's eyes.
The metalworker at a mom-and-pop workshop wore no eye or face protection as he dumped concentrated sodium hydroxide into a water bath. The resulting reaction severely burned his eyes. Today, he has partial vision in one eye after getting a corneal transplant.
These two anecdotes are passed along by Dr. Bernard Blais, clinical professor of ophthalmology at Albany Medical College in New York, to illustrate the prime lesson of eye health in the workplace: Accidents are as preventable as they are potentially devastating.
Eye protection has long been one of the trickiest areas of workplace safety. The rate of preventable accidents remains stubbornly high at 90 percent, safety experts say. Studies have shown that the absence of protective eyewear is one of the greatest risk factors in the workplace.
About 2,000 eye injuries occur each day in American workplaces. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2004 almost 37,000 people suffered eye injuries serious enough to require time off from work. Taking into account indirect expenses such as legal fees and training, the BLS puts the overall cost of occupational eye injuries at close to $1 billion a year. Most injuries are caused by tiny particles, such as sparks or metal fragments that enter the eye because the worker is not wearing eye protection, or there are gaps between the safety equipment and the face.
Eye protection is nothing new
The principles of industrial eye safety were laid out before World War I. Partial government enforcement began in the 1940s, decades before the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
The BLS detailed the risk in 1980, reporting that a large number of workers either wore no eye protection or, like the chemical plant worker, wore the wrong kind for the job. The agency cited high levels of noncompliance in manufacturing and construction. Industry later developed comprehensive voluntary standards to meet the wide variety of workplace eye risks. In 1994, OSHA adopted them as legal requirements for employers.
Industry and government continue to work on refinements to the standards, focusing on education, on customizing protective equipment for specific risks, and on keeping pace with technological improvements that are bringing lighter, less ugly, and more effective protective eyewear to the workplace.
Blais feels so strongly about the issue that he wrote an article showing dozens of types of glasses, goggles, and face masks matched to the various hazards -- including impact, heat, chemicals, and radiation -- for which they are appropriate. It appeared as a special article in Ophthalmology Clinics of North America, published by W.B. Saunders of Philadelphia.
Despite decades of reporting on injury experience and on the rules of prevention, human ignorance and resistance remain a large part of the problem. Many employers dismiss eye injuries as relatively infrequent and generally minor. For workers, the trouble with protective equipment includes the fear of being taunted for wearing nerdy glasses and the discomfort and potential obstruction of goggles in such work environments as construction.
Even some professional athletes have resisted eye protection, despite accidents in their field that have left some unable to continue playing. Retired basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a notable exception. He donned eye goggles regularly after being poked in the eye one too many times when he went up for a rebound. Ophthalmologists say the risks justify wearing goggles -- a finger in the eye, a scratched cornea, a contact lens broken in the eye, to name a few. "You know the old story from when they started making the professional hockey players wear safety protection for the face in Canada," says Blais, who is co-chairman of the eye and vision committee of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "The hockey players said, "I'm macho, nothing can hurt me.'"
Better eyewear needed
Experts acknowledge that protective eye gear often needs improvement. "Eyewear isn't always comfortable,'' says Tod Turriff, vice president of program and information services for Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago. "There's an attitude on the part of some old-line safety directors that one size fits all. [Actually], you need different types of styles to accommodate different facial features... In order to change attitudes, there's no one general approach."
Others agree. Comfortable eyewear requires case-by-case attention on the part of employer and employee, says Ray Cordeiro, health and safety training officer for the Carpenters Training Committee of Northern California. "They do get sweaty and foggy unless you've got a particular design for the face structure," Cordeiro says. "If these things are wet, they slide around on your face."
Generic eyewear costs employers less but also is worn less often, Cordeiro adds. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is undertaking a study to determine how many carpenters are using protective eyewear. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 16 percent of 600,000 eye injuries occurring annually in the workplace happen to workers in the construction industry, with carpenters at particularly high risk. The CDC study will also promote an eye-safety campaign among carpenters and assess the effectiveness of the campaign on workers' behavior.
Tips for eye safety
Prevent Blindness America has these suggestions for preventing and responding to on-the-job eye injuries:
- Establish a mandatory eye-protection program and put its safety provisions in writing in prominent places throughout the workplace.
- Do an analysis of the plant and identify hazardous areas. Test employees' vision for problems that could contribute to accidents.
- Select eyewear that meets OSHA standards and is designed for a specific operation or hazard, and make sure the protection you use fits employees properly and comfortably.
- Establish first-aid procedures for eye injuries. Make eyewash stations accessible, particularly where chemicals are used, and train employees in basic first aid.
- Conduct ongoing educational programs to establish, maintain, and reinforce the need for properly using protective eye gear.
- Set an example as managers by using protective eyewear whenever and wherever it's required.
Online eye health information: National Library of Medicine http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/eyeinjuries.html
Workplace eye safety: Prevent Blindness America http://www.preventblindness.org/safety/worksafe.html
Prevent Blindness America. 10 Ways to Prevent Eye Injuries at Work. http://www.preventblindness.org/safety/prvnt_injuries.html
Federal Occupational Health. Eye Injury Prevention Month. http://www.foh.dhhs.gov/Public/NYCU/eyeinjury.asp
Centers for Disease Control. A Compendium of NIOSH Construction Research. February 2003. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2003-103/pdfs/2003-103.pdf
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nonfatal Occupational Injuries Involving the Eyes, 2004. http://www.bls.gov/opub/cwc/print/sh20060823ar01p1.htm