Eye injuries in the workplace are very common. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that every day about 2,000 U.S. workers sustain job-related eye injuries that require medical treatment. However, safety experts and eye doctors believe the right eye protection can lessen the severity or even prevent 90 percent of these eye injuries.
Chemicals or foreign objects in the eye and cuts or scrapes on the cornea are common eye injuries that occur at work. Other common eye injuries come from splashes with grease and oil, burns from steam, ultraviolet or infrared radiation exposure, and flying wood or metal chips.
In addition, health care workers, laboratory and janitorial staff, and other workers may be at risk of acquiring infectious diseases from eye exposure. Some infectious diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye. This can occur through direct exposure to blood splashes, respiratory droplets generated during coughing, or from touching the eyes with contaminated fingers or other objects.
Workers experience eye injuries on the job for two major reasons:
- They were not wearing eye protection.
- They were wearing the wrong kind of protection for the job.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of workers who suffered eye injuries revealed that nearly three out of five were not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident. These workers most often reported that they believed protection was not required for the situation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires workers to use eye and face protection whenever there is a reasonable probability of injury that could be prevented by such equipment. Personal protective eyewear, such as goggles, face shields, safety glasses or full face respirators must be used when an eye hazard exists. The necessary eye protection depends upon the type of hazard, the circumstances of exposure, other protective equipment used and individual vision needs.
What are the potential eye hazards at work?
Workplace eye protection is needed when the following potential eye hazards are present:
- Projectiles (dust, concrete, metal, wood and other particles)
- Chemicals (splashes and fumes)
- Radiation (especially visible light, ultraviolet radiation, heat or infrared radiation, and lasers)
- Bloodborne pathogens (hepatitis or HIV) from blood and body fluids
Some working conditions include multiple eye hazards. The proper eye protection takes all hazards into account.
Computer Vision Syndrome, also referred to as Digital Eye Strain, describes a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use. The average American worker spends seven hours a day on the computer either in the office or working from home.
March is Save Your Vision Month and the American Optometric Association is working to educate both employers and employees about how to avoid digital eye strain in the workplace. To help alleviate digital eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule; take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.
Occupations with a high risk for eye injuries include:
The type of safety eye protection you should wear depends on the hazards in your workplace:
- If you are working in an area that has particles, flying objects or dust, you must at least wear safety glasses with side protection (side shields).
- If you are working with chemicals, you must wear goggles.
- If you are working near hazardous radiation (welding, lasers or fiber optics) you must use special-purpose safety glasses, goggles, face shields or helmets designed for that task.
Know the requirements for your work environment. Side shields placed on your conventional (dress) glasses do not provide enough protection to meet the OSHA requirement for many work environments.
In addition, employers need to take steps to make the work environment as safe as possible. This includes:
- Conducting an eye hazard assessment of the workplace
- Removing or reducing eye hazards where possible
- Providing appropriate safety eyewear and requiring employees to wear it
Your optometrist can assist your employer and you in evaluating potential eye hazards in your workplace and determining what type of eye protection may be needed.
How can I protect my eyes from injury?
There are four things you can do to protect your eyes from injury:
- Know the eye safety dangers at your work.
- Eliminate hazards before starting work by using machine guards, work screens or other engineering controls.
- Use proper eye protection.
- Keep your safety eyewear in good condition and have it replaced if it becomes damaged.
Selection of protective eyewear appropriate for a given task should be made based on a hazard assessment of each activity. Types of eye protection include:
- Nonprescription and prescription safety glasses. Although safety glasses may look like normal dress eyewear, they are designed to provide significantly more eye protection. The lenses and frames are much stronger than regular eyeglasses. Safety glasses must meet standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Look for the Z87 mark on the lens or frame.
Safety glasses provide eye protection for general working conditions where there may be dust, chips or flying particles. Side shields and wraparound-style safety glasses can provide additional side protection.
Safety lenses are available in plastic, polycarbonate and Trivex™ materials. While all four types must meet or exceed the minimum requirements for protecting your eyes, polycarbonate lenses provide the highest level of protection from impact.
- Goggles. Goggles provide protection from impact, dust and chemical splash. Like safety glasses, safety goggles are highly impact-resistant. In addition, they provide a secure shield around the entire eye and protect against hazards coming from any direction. Goggles can be worn over prescription glasses and contact lenses.
- Face shields and helmets. Full face shields protect workers exposed to chemicals, heat or blood-borne pathogens. Helmets are used for welding or working with molten materials. Face shields and helmets should not be the only protective eyewear. They need to be used in conjunction with safety glasses or goggles, so the eyes are protected when the shield is lifted.
- Special protection. Helmets or goggles with special filters to protect the eyes from optical radiation exposure should be used for welding or working with lasers.
Safety glasses must fit properly to provide adequate protection. Also, eye protection devices must be properly maintained. Scratched and dirty devices reduce vision, cause glare and may contribute to accidents.
Combined with machine guards, screened or divided work stations, and other engineering controls, using the correct protective eyewear can help keep you safe from any type of eye hazard.
Can contact lenses be worn safely for industrial jobs?
Contact lenses can’t provide significant protection from eye hazards in the workplace. However, there is no evidence that wearing contact lenses increases the risk of eye injury.
Contact lenses may actually increase worker safety and productivity because they often provide improved vision in the workplace. Individuals who wear contact lenses usually have a wider field of vision than with eyeglasses. They also often have less visual distortion, especially with higher power lens prescriptions. In addition, wearing contact lenses instead of eyeglasses can improve the fit and comfort of eye safety equipment, such as goggles and full-face respirators.
The American Optometric Association believes workers should be permitted to wear contact lenses in most eye-hazardous environments. However, these workers must wear eye protection over contact lenses according to the requirements for all workers performing the same job.
In some cases, such as when hazardous chemical fumes are present, the safety of contact lenses may need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Check your employer’s safety policy regarding the wearing of contact lenses. Your optometrist can help your employer and you determine whether you can safely wear contact lenses in your workplace.
What should be done in an eye emergency?
Seek medical attention as soon as possible following an injury, particularly if you have pain in the eye, blurred vision or loss of any vision. Several simple first aid steps can and should be taken until medical assistance is obtained.
First aid for chemicals in the eye:
- Immediately flush the eye with water for at least 15 minutes. Place the eye under a faucet or shower, use a garden hose, or pour water into the eye from a clean container.
- If you are wearing contact lenses, immediately remove them before flushing the eye.
- Do not try to neutralize the chemical with other substances.
- Do not bandage the eye.
- Seek immediate medical attention after flushing.
First aid for particles in the eye:
- Do not rub the eye.
- Try to let your tears wash the speck out, or irrigate the eye with an artificial tear solution.
- Try lifting the upper eyelid outward and down over the lower eyelid to remove the particle.
- If the particle does not wash out, keep the eye closed, bandage it lightly and seek medical care.
Some particles, particularly metallic ones, can cause rusting spots on the eye if left untreated for several days. If you are unsure if the object is gone, do not delay medical care.
First aid for blows to the eye:
- Gently apply a cold compress without putting pressure on the eye. Crushed ice in a plastic bag can be placed gently on the injured eye to reduce pain and swelling.
- In cases of severe pain or reduced vision, seek immediate medical care.
First aid for cuts and punctures to the eye or eyelid:
- Do not wash out the eye.
- Do not attempt to remove an object that is stuck in the eye.
- Cover the eye with a rigid shield, like the bottom half of a paper cup.
- Seek immediate medical care.