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For Workplace Safety, the Eyes Have It

Taking a moment to put on protective gear can save sight

WEDNESDAY, March 3, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- It can happen in the blink of an eye.

Laura Lee Carter was using an industrial air-pressured staple gun to box up products at the factory where she worked when something went terribly wrong.

"My gun was pointed up towards me," she remembers. "You know, you're just doing your routine -- staple, staple, staple -- and it just caught and pointed up towards me, and before I even thought not to pull the trigger, I pulled it, and shot that staple right up at me."

The force of impact shattered the safety glasses Carter routinely wore on the factory floor. "You know when a rock hits a windshield? Just like that," she says.

Carter, a 23-year-old from Rocky Mountain, Va., credits those safety glasses with saving her sight. "Something that takes five seconds to do -- putting your glasses on -- if you don't do that, it could change your life forever."

Unfortunately, every year hundreds of thousands of Americans are not so lucky. According to Prevent Blindness America (PBA), nearly 97,000 workplace-related eye injuries were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2002 alone. Injuries can range from minor burns, cuts and bruises to total blindness. Besides causing vision impairment, workplace injuries cost the American public nearly $4 billion a year in worker's compensation claims and lost worker productivity, PBA says.

According to PBA statistics, welding equipment remains the biggest source of eye danger at work, causing nearly 14,000 injuries in 2002. Another 9,000 workers reported injuries from use of a wide variety of tools. Chemicals such as acids and adhesives can splash into the eyes, causing serious damage, as well.

"Hammering and grinding are especially likely to produce little metal particles that can fly off in high velocities and actually penetrate the eyeball," adds Dr. Ronald Danis, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Wisconsin and a member of the board of directors at the American Society of Ocular Trauma. "Other common mechanisms are poking-type injuries -- for example, when someone is pulling on a wire and suddenly it comes free," hitting them in the eye, he explains.

PBA each year tries to bring attention to workplace eye safety by declaring March "Workplace Eye Health and Safety Month." According to Danis, some of their efforts may finally be paying off.

"The large industrial plant environment and commercial construction sites are a lot safer today than they were 10 or 15 years ago," he says. "Because I think corporate America has realized, both from an economic standpoint as well as from an ethical standpoint, that it makes a lot of sense to keep your employees safe and keep them productive."

But small business may not be getting the message, he says. "The auto-body shop, the farm, and the small construction site remain places where safety eyewear isn't mandated and it's generally up to the individual, and that's where injury is occurring."

Even when protective eye gear is available, many workers -- especially men -- don't use it. "Maybe it's something about the Y chromosome," Danis says. "Men can know the risks, but it's just sort of a 'guy thing' to ignore it. I've seen many examples of people who've had eye injuries while their safety glasses were in their pockets."

Too many workers also neglect to wear safety glasses because they find them uncomfortable. But Danis says there's a lot more available than cheap, off-the rack models found at many hardware stores. "With a little more careful attention, [workers] can find products that have very good ventilation and fit well," he says. "There are plenty of options to choose from, and I would encourage individuals to persist in trying to find something that works for them."

As part of their workplace-based "Wise Owl" eye safety program, Prevent Blindness America recommends individuals wear only safety glasses that meet industry safety standards. Consumers can recognize these products by looking for the number "Z87" marked on the frames or lenses.

Richard Jenkins, manager of health, safety and environment at a chemicals plant in Louisville, Ky., has seen firsthand the value of a good pair of safety glasses. In 2001, one of his mechanics was busy taking apart a pipe used to carry highly corrosive sulfuric acid under high pressure.

"It was supposed to be depressured, but for some reason it hadn't been, and he took a shot straight in the face," Jenkins, 63, recalls. But because the mechanic was wearing goggles and a protective suit, he received only minor burns to the face, with no eye injury.

That incident convinced Jenkins. "Always wear your safety gear and use your safety training," he says, since, for those who neglect eye safety, "the consequences can be terrible."

More information

Learn about the new program at Prevent Blindness America. Get more on eye safety at work from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

SOURCES: Ronald Danis, M.D., professor, ophthalmology, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Richard Jenkins, Louisville, Ky.; Laura Lee Carter, Rocky Mountain, Va.; Prevent Blindness America
Consumer News