A Harder Sell

"We believe there's only a 50 percent, at best, compliance with prescription eyewear programs in manufacturing facilities."

Editor's note: Broad changes in the U.S. manufacturing sector and within the safety industry have made it more difficult to sell prescription safety glasses to employees, who collectively pay an increasing percentage of the glasses' cost, say Titmus Optical, Inc.'s Mike Franz, senior marketing/product manager, protective products, and Joe Parsons, director of sales. Titmus, an ISO 9001:2000 certified manufacturer of vision screening equipment and a leading supplier of premium prescription safety eyeglass frames (www.titmus.com), is based in Petersburg, Va. Franz and Parsons discussed these trends Dec. 2, 2005, with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow:

Let's talk about today's workplaces and vision hazards. Are there new hazards out there, or are safety managers and employees mainly facing familiar threats?

Joe Parsons: I really don't think in the general workplace there have been a lot of changes, like we might expect with first responders in the terror arena, where they're looking at biohazards and things like that. In the general manufacturing workplace, I don't think that the hazards have changed that much. We're still looking at dust and flying particles and objects that might be propelled from lathes or whatever it may be.

Nothing is much different, either, in terms of what those dusts and materials consist of?

Parsons: Not a lot. There are some new rare metals that are being used in metallurgy today, but generally it's not significantly different from what we've seen in the past.

Are the protective products available to workers these days any different or better at protecting against these hazards?

Parsons: That's something we've been working on a great deal and have some new products coming to market. I think for the past 20 years--I started in the business in '78--and I think for the last decade or so, we really swung to the fashion side of protective eyewear.

We tried to get it to where it was cosmetically and aesthetically nice to wear, but I don't know that we did a lot of things to improve necessarily the protection aspect, especially on prescription eyewear. As trends got smaller in dress eyewear, we got smaller in safety glasses.


Parsons: But what has been the situation in the last three to five years--and this could be economically driven--companies are no longer as concerned about aesthetics . . . but have swung back now [to] protection. More protective than what we've been in the past seems to be an issue. We, like many other companies, are really looking at protecting the eye cavity and doing things differently than we've done in the past eight to 10 years or so.

That's interesting. I know the pendulum swung significantly toward style. I'm not surprised this change is happening, but I wasn't aware it was happening.

Mike Franz: If you go back to the ANSI standard of 1968, it was a design standard. Safety prescription eyewear had to meet design criteria. Each time the standard is updated, OSHA expects ANSI to increase the stringency of what those protective devices are able to accomplish.

In 1989, the standard became a performance standard. That is, design was left to the manufacturer's responsibility, but whatever resulted had to pass these tough performance tests. That was a huge, major, watershed event in terms of how we as manufacturers looked at the product. Frankly, it allowed us to continue going more toward a fashionable product, but one which has a high level of performance. Because if you go back to the late '70s and early '80s, compliance by the factory worker was a huge issue because the product was unsightly. When we started going toward a more fashionable look, what that did was increase compliance a great deal among the workers where programs were present.

As we return to the idea that products should be more protective, what goes into that? A different material? A different thickness or size of the product?

Parsons: I'll tell you what has driven this. We've had two issues that seem to have really come to the front in the last year or two. [One is] dust particles. There's not the major, high-impact type of injuries that happen. It seems people are more having particles come from the top or the side. A lot of times, what we're found is, a guy can wear a hard hat and wear safety glasses. And when he goes to take off his hard hat, there have been particles that have been underneath the hard hat, he takes it off, and they come down behind his safety glasses and get into his eye. It may just be a small particulate that has gotten into the guy's eye, but he ends up going to the emergency room or whatever to have this thing removed and flushed out, and it ends up being a reported injury.

People are asking more for dust protectants and brow guards. We've seen a big rush to what we call an insert, where they're taking a larger, full-face plano glass and putting a prescription insert behind that.

I see.

Parsons: I mentioned this to Mike yesterday, and we really agreed about a couple of issues in our industry. We've got a very much diminishing labor force, obviously, as plants continue to downsize and go offshore with their manufacturing. So we look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics [data] about the decreasing amount of injuries: A lot of that has been based on just having smaller workforces.

I've definitely thought much of it is just the way the economy is moving.

Parsons: We've become much more robotic and automated in the manufacturing process.

Are you talking about eyewear manufacturing or manufacturing in general?

Parsons: Just in manufacturing in general. When you go in plants, you've got robots that are now spot welding and painting, and all those kinds of things. So you don't have the number of employees nor the employees doing possibly hazardous, repetitive jobs.

Those things have to be taken into account when we look at the variety of eye injuries, as they are declining. That plays a major role, I think, in the percentages and so forth.

It suggests, I guess, that industry as a whole isn't a lot safer. Because the injuries haven't been going down as far as they should with those kinds of changes going on.

Parsons: I brought some statistics in with me. When I looked at these, one of them is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site: 11.9 eye injuries per 10,000 workers in 1992 to 5.9 per 10,000 in 2000. So in eight years, they went down by about 50 percent.

Franz: This goes directly to the comment you made. You asked us if we thought in fact eye injuries really weren't declining because the workforce was declining. This really flies in the face of that; what it says in fact is they are. The rate has changed remarkably.

Okay. And that's partly what Joe was reporting a second ago--the change in what kind of work is being done?

Parsons: That's exactly right.

Franz: Partially. And it's also because people, I think, are wearing their safety eyewear more than they used to because they wear their safety eyewear all the time.

Right. And fashion had a role to play in making that happen.

Franz: Yes.

Parsons: And it's the type of manufacturing. When we go back, looking in 1992, there was probably a whole lot more heavy manufacturing than there is now in 2005.

I think that must be true. Given what Ford and GM are announcing, soon there will be even less heavy manufacturing than there is now.

Parsons: Here's the issue that we have: We know based on our own surveys--and we've made thousands of phone calls, up into the 5,000 and 6,000 range, randomly calling manufacturing facilities--we believe there's only a 50 percent, at best, compliance with prescription eyewear programs in manufacturing facilities.

When we call these places and we ask them whether they have a safety eyewear program, the first answer that we get is always yes. We follow that up with, "Who is your provider for prescription eyewear?" There's dead silence on the phone. Most of them give out over-the-glass or planos but don't have a prescription eyewear program. So we know there's a major need for improved compliance . . . .

In this area of have injuries been reduced, and are they falling or rising--the Prevent Blindness America Web site tells us that there are still over 700,000 work-related eye injuries every year. To me, 700,000 is a lot.

Your point is well taken. These calls and surveys you're taking, is this more the case now than ever before? Or has it always been true that companies don't have prescription safety eyewear programs?

Parsons: I would say it's pretty much always been true.

To what do you attribute that? They're not thinking in those terms?

Parsons: As budgets have been cut and as safety professionals a lot of the time have been cut from budgets, they still continue to hit the real priority safety things, which would be hazardous chemicals and electrical and things like that. But eye protection and some other issues that might not be considered high-visibility--they don't get the same amount of effort put behind them.

You're certainly right that safety has gone toward consulting in a much bigger way in the past five to 10 years. They're outside contractors now. They may have worked full time inside in the plant before, but now they're coming once in a while, and the emphasis has probably changed.

Franz: It's not the priority it used to be. And very honestly, if you're working in an environment where business is going offshore, at a lot of these companies their focus begins to develop in other areas besides safety.

It's unfortunate but true, and it's of great concern to us, as you can imagine.

How can this be reversed? And who else is working to reverse it?

Parsons: We have really tried to work with Prevent Blindness, with organizations like ASSE and VPPPA, the ISEA group.

It's just a matter of at what level does education overcome economics. I really believe that, as much as we try to educate--and we do a lot of that through media such as yourselves and through training classes, and wherever we can speak at VPPPA or ASSE--but it still comes down that the industry and the safety professional, either on site or coming in, has to try to address these things. And they really don't hit it that well.

Franz: In effect, safety is a tough sell. You can't sell it with the threat of danger and bad things happening. People don't react to that. The fact that we had to legislate seat belts in automobiles kind of tells you that.

Parsons: It's hard to find safety professionals in a lot of these plants these days to work with us.

That's got to be frustrating.

Parsons: It is. It's tough enough to get into a plant to start with or even talk with one because of emails and voicemails and all that. But once you do get in, to find someone who actually can implement a program or has that authority is a very difficult issue today. And I know that that's affecting compliance. Every year it becomes more difficult to enact compliance, if you will.

In your surveys, you do get some of these people on the phone. You say they don't have such programs now; do you make any headway? When you explain what you're talking about, are they interested? Do they want to follow up?

Parsons: I would say it's not even 1 percent. . . . A lot of companies, years ago, allowed their employees to purchase prescription eyewear through some sort of payroll deduction. What has happened with the financial cuts--I'll give you an example. I went into a manufacturing company in Maryland. The safety director was still there, the guy responsible for safety. They had an eyewear program on the books--in other words, they had documentation of what it consisted of. This guy had been in that plant in that job for over four years and said in the past two years, no one had purchased a pair of safety glasses.

I said to him, "Whose fault is that? Are you not forcing the folks into compliance?" He said, "I'll tell you what happened. They moved our finance department off site. It is now done through a central finance division somewhere else. We no longer have payroll deduction available at this facility."

I don't know, 80 percent of the eyewear purchased probably has some [financial] participation by the employee. There's only probably 20 percent of the companies, mostly major corporations, that pay 100 percent of the program. Where it is all employee-funded, what we are finding is the employees opt not to get a pair of glasses every year that they may be applicable. They may stretch it out to five or six years, which means they're wearing a prescription that might be outdated, which leads to quality issues and vision issues--

--and safety issues.

Parsons: A lot of that is because they can't stretch out their payments for a pair of glasses over three or four paychecks or something. It all comes back, I think, to finance. From the company's standpoint, they've eliminated the safety person or they've eliminated some part of the program itself.

That's a sobering thought. What do you think can be done?

Parsons: Somewhere, obviously, this education process has to get back to the industry. I don't think we have that answer. Mike and I talked about it; there's not a simple answer to the thing.

Franz: Everybody that knows us knows we're a safety company. But one of the things we do is, we're trying really hard to show our glasses are really cool and good looking and great to wear. And, oh, by the way, they also happen to be safety glasses. Kind of de-emphasize the safety and emphasize, you want these because they look good and they make you compliant at the same time. We're trying to go at it a little bit differently than we've gone at it in the past. The jury's out as to whether that's an effective approach or not. We just don't know yet.

It has to be a tougher sell. Because, as you said, you're trying to get to the end user, the employee, with that message. Yet when it's left largely or entirely to employees to make the purchase, they're not doing it.

Parsons: We have a new collection that we've just hit the street with . . . . What we tried to do was go to the marketplace with something that was really cool to wear but is also probably as safe a protectant as we've developed in a number of years. It wraps; it gives snug, close fitting to the face; it protects from dust and particles at the top; and all that.

The other thing is we're really trying to go to industry . . . to detail our product and to present these programs. Because we know that a prescription program really isn't any more expensive than a plano program, based on the fact that a guy may get six or eight pair of planos a year at a cost of $5 or $6 a pair--and that's being moderate; some of them get 20 or 30 pair a year at $5 a pair--when the average pair of prescription safety glasses costs $100, and they may get those every two years.

We're trying to take that message to industry: We have a product that gives the best protection we've ever made, between the lenses and the way the frame is designed. And also that it's cost effective based on your purchases.

Sounds good. I guess you're right, you'll have to deliver it direct to end users.

Parsons: Nobody else is going to ride that horse for us, and we know that. We've really tried to do our own homework of identifying who the players are. We know certain industries are much more susceptible and have the need for prescription eyewear. We're trying to work those venues as best we can.

I think the whole industry has changed a lot. I can remember years ago, a lot of companies wouldn't call on smaller plants that didn't employ 500 people. There probably hasn't been a plant opened in the last two or three years that employed more than 500 people.

We've had to take a look at who we're calling on. Unfortunately, we're one company with six salespeople in the field in the United States. It's just a slow process.

Slow, yes, but each success would be significant.

Parsons: I'm not saying we aren't having successes, either. Almost on a weekly or monthly basis we'll start a new program. But if it's a plant of a hundred people, it may be 50 pair of glasses for the whole year.

Franz: We're trying to partner up with some of our better customers to help us sell this whole idea. . . . We can leverage assistance from them, and double, triple, hopefully quadruple our size in terms of our ability to penetrate the marketplace and the places we need to go.

This Q&A appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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