A Pitch for Safer Cultures

"This is the one area we focus on that is almost entirely preventable: eye injuries. There's really something that can be done here," says Prevent Blindness America COO Jeff Todd.

Eye2Eye –- perhaps you've heard of it -– is a new program with a big goal: building a stronger culture of safety in workplaces across the land. Its specific focus is vision protection, befitting the two partners involved in it, which are Prevent Blindness America and Uvex. If it succeeds, the program will create and nurture a community of certified Eye2Eye Safety Ambassadors who become a positive force for culture change, and these people will help to reduce the 800,000 work-related eye injuries occurring annually in the United States.

Those injuries represent an estimated $934 million in costs to U.S. industries each and every year.

The partners decided Eye2Eye would be a peer-to-peer online initiative after they conducted a survey of about 200 safety directors in the United States and Canada in 2009. "We found that folks felt culture was important," said Jeff Todd, JD, MS, chief operating officer of Prevent Blindness America. "We really wanted to go with a peer-to-peer program that emphasized the importance of safety culture, the safety environment. We felt that, historically, the way eye safety and safety in general has been managed has been more of a supervisor/supervisee situation, where the supervisors were looking out to make sure employees were wearing their safety goggles. This puts a different slant to it."

He contrasted Eye2Eye with the Wise Owl Eye Safety Recognition program, which Prevent Blindness America began in the 1970s in an attempt to address occupational eye injuries. Member companies would submit reports of incidents where PPE saved an employee's sight and would receive a certificate to present to that worker, providing tangible recognition he or she had been smart about safety.

"The program really was focused on people who had had accidents and were wearing their goggles or safety glasses, so it prevented eye injuries. But we really didn't like the idea of rewarding people who had had accidents. We wanted to come up with a new, more positive effort," Todd explained. "We really haven't tried anything like this. This is trying to encourage a culture of safety so that accidents really don't happen at all."

Basing it on a peer-to-peer model and designating a group of Safety Ambassadors seemed to be the best way to approach it. The plan is to build a social network within the ambassador group that would be open to anyone who’s a member of Eye2Eye. Members will pay a one-year $250 membership fee to obtain online access for as many as five employees.

The partners developed an online training program with a series of training modules to equip the ambassadors to go out into their work environments and encourage everyone to work safely. "Rather than taking on the task of trying to educate everybody in a workplace -– and educating of everyone needs to be done when they start working –- this particular program identifies a group of safety ambassadors within a program who can be trained using these video modules, which are pretty simple and straightforward," Todd said. "[They] can go through this process of learning the key points about eye safety, recognizing why they're important, and then encourage others to do it."

Promoting the program is one of their challenges, he admitted. Prevent Blindness America and Uvex jointly announced Eye2Eye on Oct. 18, then representatives from both participated in a panel discussion Nov. 1 at the National Safety Council's Congress & Expo in Philadelphia.

Prevent Blindness America's network of affiliates operating in about 30 states will be on-the-ground promoters of the program. About 25 professional staffers work at the national Prevent Blindness America office in Chicago. It is a voluntary health organization with a volunteer board of directors and volunteer committees.

Todd said Uvex's sales force will promote the program. The company provided the resources to design and implement the www.Eye2EyeProgram.com website and also is providing product samples and promotional prizes to the ambassadors.

JoAnne P. Goldman, brand manager for Uvex and Fibre-Metal with Honeywell Safety Products, said when a company initially signs up for the program, it will receive samples of Uvex safety eyewear as a thank you for participating. Beyond that, as part of the program, the eyewear manufacturer will run quarterly promotions among the community of Safety Ambassadors. Goldman said the promotions are designed to encourage sharing of ideas across the community and to keep the program engaging. She said each quarter will be a bit different, and prizes will range from eyewear to T-shirts to small electronics, adding, "In terms of numbers of participants, we believe that safety managers will recognize the value of this type of program and hope that the community of Safety Ambassadors reaches several thousand over the next few years."

Todd said he expects the incentives will boost participation. "We'd like to think that individuals and companies are going to participate in this because they think it's the right thing to do," Todd said. "I think incentives always add something extra to it. We’re certainly hoping that corporations realize the value, both to personal safety and to their business. We know that just under 800,000 eye injuries happen per year in this country and just under 90 percent of them can be prevented. Something needs to be done about that. Certainly, the cost to business from that number of injuries is enormous. Putting into place programs like this, number one, is going to reduce cost, and more importantly, reduce injuries."

A Thousand Ambassadors by 2013?
Is it realistic to expect the program and its Safety Ambassadors to make a significant difference in the number of workplace or home eye injuries occurring annually in the United States? "Absolutely," Todd replied. "Our hope is that this program creates a kind of domino effect. Training these core ambassadors means they can go out and spread the message. We're not thinking all of sudden we'll have occupational settings all across the country jumping up and down and thinking eye safety. We're hoping that slowly, this general understanding about why it’s important kind of permeates the workplace."

"We keep coming back to that: How can we start to create a culture where people appreciate safety," he continued, "and it becomes part of the fabric of their workplace?" Todd said the idea is not deciding to be safe because of the threat of punishment, or because a supervisor tells you to work safely, or because OSHA rules require it -– but instead, behaving and working safely at all times just because it’s part of the fabric of the place where you work.

"What we'd like to see in the short term -– the next six months to a year -– is 100 to 200 companies participating in the program, and through that ... we'd have about 500 to 1,000 Safety Ambassadors out there," he said. "The long-term goal -– and we're still trying to figure out how we capture this -– is reducing the number of vision safety accidents in the workplace by introducing this program. I think that will be challenging to measure, but we're hoping that this, coupled with additional efforts by us and by other organizations, will have a result that will bring those numbers down."

"Companies with strong safety cultures have proven that reducing –- or even eliminating -- injuries is absolutely a possibility," Goldman said. "The Eye2Eye program is designed to support the development of a safety culture that can achieve that sort of success. From our research and discussions with numerous safety managers, we learned that peer-to-peer education is one of the most popular and effective approaches for safety programs. This is due to the fact that workers tend to be the most receptive to new ideas about safety when they're presented by a trusted, respected co-worker -- rather than handed down as a directive. These peer networks already exist in every workplace and have a powerful influence on the culture of the workplace. We believe that having an effective peer-to-peer safety network could help improve workplace safety and reduce injuries. This is why the Eye2Eye program was designed so the majority of the education will take place between peers."

Prevent Blindness America supports research, provides vision screening, and helps millions of Americans detect and learn about vision concerns such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and children's vision problems. The organization recorded $12.3 million in income and $14.8 million in expenses during fiscal year 2009-2010, according to its online annual report. Its largest categories on the expense side of the ledger were:

  • Community services: $4,591,045
  • Public health education: $4,212,452
  • Professional education and training: $2,056,402
  • Research: $713,937

Collected Eye2Eye membership fees will be used both to support these services and to maintain the Eye2Eye program and website.

"This is the one area we focus on that is almost entirely preventable: eye injuries. There's really something that can be done here, which is why we put this program in place," Todd said.

Don't Forget Eye Safety at Home
About 2.5 million eye injuries occur annually in the United States, with more than half of them happening in or around the home. They occur frequently during work in the garden or the yard and while doing home repairs.

Prevent Blindness America declared October as Home Eye Safety Awareness Month to remind Americans to take extra care to avoid painful and potentially blinding eye accidents.

The organization recommends:

  • wearing protective eyewear approved by the American National Standards Institute and bearing the "Z-87" logo stamped on the frames
  • providing effective lights and handrails to improve safety on stairs and reduce the risk of falls
  • not mixing cleaning agents, as well as reading and following all manufacturer instructions and warning labels
  • wearing safety glasses with side protection or dust goggles to protect against flying particles and chemical goggles to guard against exposure to fertilizers and pesticides

For more information on home eye safety, call Prevent Blindness America at 800-331-2020 or visit www.preventblindness.org/eye-safety-home.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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