Eyes on the Prize

In your vision protection audits, keep the emphasis crystal clear for all supervisors and managers.

It was a model job site, each employee wearing spotlessly clean safety glasses or goggles at every workstation. (Here is where experience comes in, however. The trash cans and floors held the evidence: newly deposited wrappers from someone walking through and handing out new equipment just before the inspection!)

It was a dimly lit, grimy, dusty woodworking operation with layers of gunk everywhere, yet I never could find any dusty PPE. When your employees are dirty and dusty from the work at hand, their vision protection should be, too, or it is not being used correctly. When I requested to see five sets of used/damaged safety glasses or faceshields, none could be found. While this audit was some years ago, it always reminds me how far some managers will go to “seem” safety conscious for the visitors or auditors, forgetting day-to-day care of the employees. No one was fooled that day.

In the world of safety programs, basic vision protection is one of the oldest recognized needs in industry. Every employer needs the workers to be on the job and able to get the work done; no matter what the activity may be, an eye/face injury will interrupt work and shake up all activities. Even the knee-jerk reaction to such an injury is fast and not too well thought out. All too often, the “program” starts with an eye injury, and then harried management bulk-purchases one type of safety glasses, goggles, etc. and hands them out with the instruction, “Here, wear these.” Within a week, old habits have returned and no one is using the PPE. Where is the supervisor held accountable?

Inspecting on Site
Look closely at your employees as they leave each day—are they covered in oil mist, dust, or chemical splashes? More importantly, are there clean places on those dirty faces where the safety glasses/goggles or shields were being worn during the shift? I like inspecting for vision protection use on any job site. For a safety professional, it is one of the easiest programs to monitor and audit. Walking through any site, you can listen and watch for the jobs that would require vision protection: those that have potential impact hazards, sparks, high dust, chips or particles, chemical exposure, heat, and unique hazards, such as radiation. I also like to audit closely for glare hazards, which are more prevalent than many realize. Glare from water, lighting on shiny surfaces in the workplace, or glare off snow/ice can seriously impair a worker’s performance and cause mistakes through fatigue.

Also, be sure to request reorder numbers for targeted areas you are auditing. You are trying to figure out how often the PPE is being reordered and distributed. If the numbers are very low in a work environment that will damage PPE, such one where flying chips are common, slow down and look closer! I have seen employees struggle to adjust a new set of safety glasses, which indicates they have never been worn previously.

Review the paper trail, too, on any vision protection program. Admittedly, many companies do not have a specific policy, so ask lots of questions of employees out of the supervisor’s earshot.

Great auditing questions during your walk-through include:

• Interview the supervisor/area manager first. (He/she will be thrilled!) Ask these questions: What is your opinion of PPE? What PPE is required in this department? Who did the audit to determine this? Who orders the PPE? What is your yearly budget for PPE? (Any good manager knows the dollars.) How is training accomplished for new hires or transfers? How do you accommodate those who are non English speaking?

• What if a PPE item does not fit correctly? What can the employee do?

• Is there an exchange program for damaged PPE or lost PPE items? Do the employees have to pay for replacements or lost items? (OSHA’s new “employer pays” PPE rule should settle this question, so acquaint yourself with its terms.)

• Do you as supervisor always wear your PPE in the area? What about visitors? What do you do as the supervisor when you see an employee not wearing PPE who needs it?

The trick is to ask these questions in a non-threatening or accusing manner! This conversation will provide you the baseline to talk with employees. I always request the supervisor or department manager to step away and allow me to speak with employees out of earshot. Make sure you speak to a wide variety of employees in order to have an accurate view of the situation. One “sour grapes” employee can offer a wealth of incorrect information for spite alone. Interviewing many will provide a true picture of work conditions in addition to your observations.

Interviewing Employees
Informal interviewing of employees may include the following questions:

• How long have you worn this set of glasses/goggles?

• Are they comfortable?

• Do you wear prescription safety glasses?

• How often are they changed out?

• Do you know what to do if you break or lose your vision protection? Do you think you will be charged personally for this?

• Have you as an employee ever had any training on when to wear vision protection? What do you think will happen if you do not?

• Have you been denied any PPE you requested?

While asking the seemingly endless safety questions of an audit, pay particular attention to the physical condition of each set.

Interviewing Managers
Ask the worker’s compensation person about your company’s history of eye/face injuries. These folks are a wealth of information and can offer much helpful background, including who the supervisor was for each injury. If trends are watched, certain supervisors’ attitude (or lack of it) may become visible so additional training can be provided to them. Changes may begin from the top, but your line supervisors have the power to make/break any safety program.

Is there a process to effect change from supervisors and upper management? For example, if your company purchases only one type of basic safety glasses and has used it for years with few reorders, you may want to investigate farther. Your employees may not be wearing the selected vision protection at all or may choose to bring their own. If they are bringing their own personally purchased eye protection to your job site, who is overseeing to make sure it is effective and ANSI-approved? How about adding this responsibility onto management bonuses and job performance reviews?

Any safety program has to have upper management and supervisor support or it will not work, plain and simple. Most employees take their attitudes from management and will wear PPE if it is provided, required by management, and supported by their direct supervisors. In your audits for vision protection, keep the emphasis crystal clear for all supervisors and managers. It is their responsibility to protect the employees by requiring that each use appropriate PPE while on the job.

Safety enhances production. If they need additional explanation, have them consider how much productivity is lost during an accident investigation!

This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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