Vision Protection for the Invisible Employee

This is one type of PPE that has gone to the cutting edge for style, price, availability, and comfort--and that helps me.

A disgruntled field employee (in front of a crew of scowling, arms-crossed guys) tossed a set of dirty, beat-up safety glasses at me in disgust. "They're scratched, this no good piece of #@*!" he exclaimed. The explanation: A piece of debris or gravel had been slung while on a maintenance job, deeply scratching the lens.

Without missing a beat, I pulled out a new set of polarized safety sunglasses in one of the snazzy fashion colors and handed them to him, saying, "Here, try these." I went on to use this as a learning experience, explaining that if the vision protection was damaged, his face was saved, so the safety glasses worked as intended. I intentionally damaged the lenses to show how much force was needed to deeply mar the lenses and explained how the same force would have injured the eyes/face of the victim. (You can use a fresh orange to show skin damage/injury really well for this, too.)

My presentation then turned to how to care for the lenses, how to correctly clean and store the glasses, and why polarized lenses were better. I explained to his crew members how he can order them some of the same item. As for when to replace PPE, I followed up with providing several purchasing Web sites so they could select their own colors and lenses. Before leaving the site, I made sure everyone on the job had access to vision protection options--some of which were the finest the industry had to offer, while others were cheaper but functional.

What started out as a hostile encounter ended as a very good tailgate training session. I did not feel I was "throwing baubles to the crowd" but, rather, giving quality PPE that stood a chance of being used once I was off site.

Sowing and Empowering Success
That was two years ago. I recently showed up without warning to see these same fellows, and all were wearing safety sunglasses of all colors and styles. Perfect success? Absolutely not! But that one day, we had better success with one program and sowed the seeds for positive use of PPE.

For your invisible employees, those you do not oversee every day, positive reinforcement is crucial to your program's success. If a protective item has value to the employee, he or she will use it. This is one of the hardest issues to promote to management. Enforcement is one tool--a tool of last resort. Making the employee want the protection and understand the value of the program ensures better success than enforcement and negative action ever can achieve. You must promote the programs and compliance differently to employees you do not see regularly--those field personnel who work out of sight or weird hours--because it is tougher to enforce from afar.

PPE is not indestructible! Take your educational efforts farther than the field; bean counters have to understand the need for replacement, too. Some field workers now carry several sets of vision protection for various situations: clear lenses, tinted and sunglass, or even special-need safety glasses with hardened glass lenses for extra scratch resistance. Personally, while conducting safety audits I like having a mixed bag of different types, colors, and lens tints for quick use. Often when training, I offer a set as a "gimme" for participation or answering some question correctly. It affords me the ability to instantly solve a vision protection issue in a positive manner. (I also can better control costs this way.) This works because vision protection is one type of PPE that has gone to the cutting edge for style, price, availability, and comfort.

Injury Reminders
Eye injuries are dramatic: blindness; horrible pain; partial vision loss; disfigurement; cloudy, scratched corneas; burns from radiation, chemical splashes; glare issues. We tend to think of vision protection programs as "in plant" efforts for large groups of workers, but what about those invisible employees working on construction sites, maintenance activities, lawn and landscaping, law enforcement, tree trimming, road work, emergency and rescue personnel, marine and snow glare areas, and waste disposal?

We focus on the employees we see. Many programs wait for problems to appear . . . out of sight and out of mind. Remote locations, small work crews, and highly independent supervisors can mean chances are taken that could result in an accident.

Vision protection should be easy for every employee: He or she must have on hand the needed vision protection item in order to use it. The employee also must know when to use it, how and how not to use it, etc. in order to make it work as it should.

For those who want to refresh on the standard, it is pretty clear. You'll find a wealth of good information at www.osha.gov. In 29 CFR 1910.133, for example, is:
"Each affected employee shall use appropriate eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustics liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation."

Making Your Program Work
Vision protection is proactive--a "be prepared" standard because the employee will have to be wearing the PPE in order for it to work. Being prepared means wearing the PPE, so selection needs to be meaningful to the employees. Give them a say in the items used. They know the hazards of the job better and can determine what works best. I believe they will put the products to better use for having selected them than if management simply issued the products. (However, purchasing oversight by an educated manager is necessary so excessive purchasing doesn't happen.)

Make sure each employee understands the intent of your vision protection policy or program. Education is an all-important focus of the program. What is expected of the employee (and supervisor) for vision protection? What should they wear, in which locations, and how to clean it are critical areas to cover. An often overlooked item is replacement for damaged or lost items. Make the training non-adversarial so the employees come away from the training/education understanding their personal responsibility and that resources are available from the company.

Identify potential hazards and/or tasks in your operations that require vision protection. This may be a supervisor's call or a team meeting item. These workers know their job well, usually, and can advise you about unique hazards, too. Make sure each knows about your first aid resources and how they should report an injury.

As for replacement of broken, damaged, or missing vision protection, your best option may be having extra sets immediately available, or you may use a trade-in option. Whichever method is used, you want and need a quick turnaround. Because if the employee needs vision protection and does not have it, injury potential increases dramatically and your program backslides.

Few employees will stop the hazardous task to go get new vision protection. Hoping for the best is not a good safety management tool!

Accessory Items
What about cords, cleaners, sprays, antifog wipes, sideshields, cleaners, cases, belt clips . . . ? You name it, and there is likely to be an accessory available in some form. My best advice on accessories is to have on hand a small selection, offer them, and let those employees who want them take them. Others would only toss them unused into a truck window and forget them or give them to someone else.

Employees who use accessories do appreciate them. Such items can be a bonus for employees as a reminder the company is being proactive on their safety.

Ask yourself and your employees, "What is the goal for the eye protection choice? What are you trying to correct?" When in doubt, ask your distributor or vendor for specific recommendations (and ask for samples for review).

Final Tips
Once you have all of the elements in place--policy, selection, education, etc.--how do you make sure the program is working well?

• Ask your employees what will help.
• Audit your site. If an employee is covered head to toe with dust, dirt, etc. and there is no indication of eye protection, your program is not working and needs to be reinforced.
• Ask to see some of the items to be replaced, such as damaged safety glasses. Are they pitted? Splashed? Showing fine scratches or deeply scratched? Are the frames broken? The lenses missing? Ask how the damage occurred. What you will hear in response are indicators of problem areas you may have missed.
• Audit the paper trail of the program. Is the policy clear? Is the educational information helpful and easy to understand for all employees?
• Audit the worker's compensation data. Track for the past several years (by department or job skill when possible). What type of injuries are being reported? Are these seasonal? Is it a cross-section of all employees, or are one of two repeat offenders responsible for the lion's share?

Coping with Injuries
While there is no "good" on-the-job injury, eye injuries are some of the worst to manage, in my opinion. An eye injury usually means a lot of pain and limitation of movement, loss of driving ability, loss of the ability to read a computer screen of TV, sensitivity to light, and often a helpless despair that sets in for the injured worker.

It is tough to place someone with vision impairment on light duty. He or she may feel isolated from both work and personal life with the constant reminder of the injury-- blurred vision, medical treatment, and dependence on others. The real tragedy is that so many of these injuries are completely preventable. It takes less than three seconds to slip on a pair of safety glasses or goggles. That is about the same time it takes to dial 911 after an accident.

If you have a great vision protection program, update it to keep it working even better. If you do not have a vision protection initiative, start one today and get those protective PPE and specialty items out to the workers to use. Ask your employees what wears well and order more. Educate any way you need to, from one-on-one to training videos to posters--find out what works for your employees and use it to send them home safely with their vision intact.

As safety professionals, we have the ability to change (although slowly) the "thou shall" safety attitudes to "I want to work more safely." Yes, it's a slow process, but one that in the long-term scheme of workplace safety will reduce injuries and promote positive awareness. We have the ability to save lives from workplace injuries if we take the opportunity to take less offense and explain "why" more. And as the ultimate compassionate service, isn't helping why we chose safety in the first place? We did it to make a positive difference!

This article features a Vision Protection checklist, a pdf of which is available by clicking here.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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