How Much Are Your Employees' Eyes Worth?

A safety eyewear program can be effective in lowering worker's compensation premiums. Rates are based on the number of accidents, not their severity.

A radiation burn from a welding torch, a puncture wound from a faulty nail gun, a blast of compressed air on the eye -- these are just a few reasons why safety eyewear is so important in the American workplace. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 2,000 Americans suffer from an occupational eye injury every day, but 90 percent of these injuries can be avoided simply by wearing the correct safety eyewear.

In November 2007, OSHA announced a final rule to clarify who is responsible for paying for specific personal protective equipment. Under the rule, almost all PPE is to be provided at no cost to the employee. However, it contains a few exceptions, including one for ordinary prescription safety eyewear. But with an average retail price of nearly $200, how can employers help defray the cost for their employees -- and prevent them from becoming part of a painful statistic?

Safety Eyewear Programs: A Win-Win Benefit
Safety eyewear programs are relatively inexpensive for companies to implement and can save thousands or even millions of dollars annually for any given industrial organization. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans miss approximately 37,000 days of work because of eye injuries, and employers incur $300 million annually in related costs, not including legal fees, productivity losses, and a multitude of indirect expenses, which edge that figure shockingly close to $1 billion.

Furthermore, a safety eyewear program can be effective in lowering worker's compensation premiums. Keep in mind that rates are based on the company's number of accidents, not the severity of the accidents. As previously stated, 2,000 eye injuries occur in the American workplace each day. If your employees aren't wearing the proper safety eyewear, consider this a warning to be prepared to pay.

In addition to protecting employers' balance sheets, safety eyewear programs protect what matters most: employees' eyes. Vision plans that include safety eyewear programs can help employers add tremendous value to their employee benefit plans by not only preventing serious injuries, but also encouraging employees to get a regular eye exam.

Eye health can be an indicator of overall health, but many people do not go to the eye doctor often enough. This means workers who have no trouble seeing simply aren't in the exam chair, where diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis could be detected. If employees are required to wear safety eyewear through a program, they may be more likely to get an eye exam more often.

Safety eyewear programs also help to ensure employees will use a quality product. Employees who must purchase their own safety eyewear often will choose the least-expensive option. But just because a product is labeled as "safety eyewear" doesn't mean it will work as such. Unfortunately, these inferior products have been known to fail in the event of a serious accident. Safety eyewear meeting or exceeding OSHA standards will carry a stamp on the lens or temple piece saying "Z87-2" or "Z87-2+" indicating basic and high-impact lenses, respectively. Companies lacking a safety eyewear program may not have tight control over the products employees are using, and employers should not assume their employees have chosen adequate protection for themselves.

Underneath and Under-Effective
Employees who can't afford prescription safety eyewear may just try to wear their "dress wear" eyeglasses underneath their non-prescription safety eyewear. There is safety eyewear that can be worn over eyeglasses, but it can create unsafe working conditions.

Wearing over-the-eyeglasses safety eyewear with glass lenses underneath can be very dangerous. Glass lenses should never be worn underneath this style of safety eyewear because they could shatter against the face on impact and cause severe injury. Furthermore, wearing eyeglasses underneath safety eyewear can irritate the bridge of the nose, cause the eyeglasses to shift around, and cause the lenses to fog. Prescription safety eyewear prevents all of the above.

Enhancing Productivity and Compliance
In addition to preventing serious injuries, a safety eyewear program can significantly impact the bottom line through enhanced productivity.

Though most employees are told to grab their safety eyewear out of a box, most will agree that one-size-fits-all safety eyewear is one-size-doesn't-fit-them. Just as latex gloves and lab coats come in several sizes, so should an employer's safety eyewear. But many workers don't have much of a choice of the types of safety eyewear provided to them. If the safety eyewear doesn't fit properly, employers can't expect their employees to work properly, either. If the safety eyewear is comfortable, workers are more likely to wear it, effectively reducing the risk of injury. Ill-fitted safety eyewear may even create a dangerous, OSHA-recordable situation.

The solution is professionally fitted safety eyewear. Safety eyewear that is too tight will pinch the ears or dig into the face. After a few hours of wearing, the imprinting will begin to hurt -- often causing a headache -- and the employee won't want to wear the eyewear. The eyewear also should sit correctly on the bridge of the nose without limiting breathing. Safety eyewear that is too loose will move around on the face or, even worse, fall off while the employee is looking down. Other than fit, it should also be noted that high-quality safety eyewear can increase productivity by reducing eye strain symptoms, including tired or burning eyes, blurry vision, headaches, and dizziness.

Even if employees have a comfortable safety eyewear option, employers can take a simple step to make sure employees actually wear their safety eyewear. One of the most common reasons employees are not in compliance is because they misplace their safety eyewear. An easy fix is an employer-provided retainer band that attaches to the earpieces and hangs around the employee's neck. Employees will be more likely to wear their safety eyewear because they are less likely to misplace it.

Bells and Whistles
Prescription safety eyewear obtained through a voluntary program can have many more functional and performance-enhancing features than ordinary, out-of-the-box safety eyewear.

Anti-scratch coatings on safety eyewear lenses can dramatically extend the life of the glasses. In fact, prescription safety eyewear programs aren't much more expensive -- perhaps more economical in the long term -- than a plano program. Lenses that are scratched or pitted must be replaced immediately, and it's no exaggeration that a worker may go through 20 pairs a year at $5 each.

The average pair of prescription safety eyewear costs $200, but it should last for close to two years and perhaps even longer, depending on prescription changes. Coupled with better impact protection and a customized fit, there's no question that prescription safety eyewear, when appropriate, should be a strongly considered option.

Safety eyewear programs often include an allowance for a special tint for certain work settings. The dyes used in tinted lenses absorb and filter different wavelengths of light to reduce hazards, such as glare, and enhance viewing for particular tasks in different lighting environments. Employees may choose the appropriate lens tint based on the type of work they'll be doing under a certain lighting condition. Leading lens manufacturers note that orange lenses, for example, are ideal for protecting against UV radiation from curing lamps used in dental medical applications. Amber works well for low-light work applications in which contrast enhancement may be needed because it blocks the blue part of the visible light spectrum and maximizes contrast. Vermilion, or pink, lenses reduce all colors in the visible light spectrum while providing excellent contrast in all colors, which is optimal for inspection and detail work. Polarized lenses can be used to eliminate glare.

Safety eyewear programs offered through employers may provide discounts on these add-on features.

Stylish Protection
Perhaps the most prevalent change in safety eyewear has been style. The big, bulky safety glasses worn in chemistry class are not the only option any more. Prescription safety eyewear has become so stylish that many styles can be worn as dress wear eyeglasses, as well.

From increasing productivity and saving money to providing preventive exams for employees and helping them avoid suffering one of the 2,000 eye injuries reported each day, the benefits of implementing a prescription safety eyewear program as part of your vision benefit offering should not be overlooked.

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

About the Author

Gene Sherman, DMD, MBA, is Senior Vice President of business development and professional relations at AlwaysCare Benefits, Inc. and is actively involved with the National Association of Vision Care Plans. AlwaysCare launched an insured Safety Eyewear program as an add-on for group vision plan clients with 500 employees or more beginning in January 2011. Members whose employers opt to participate in this new program will be able to obtain safety eyewear in addition to either their contact lenses or normal vision-correction "dress wear" eyeglasses. For more information, contact Sherman at genes@alwayscarebenefits.com or 888-729-5433, ext. 208.

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