Sights for Sore Eyes

If injury potential is so predictable, why are employees so surprised when they are injured? Eye injuries may be predictable, but the exposures are not always apparent.

Given the wide variety of possible eye hazards -- splashes, airborne contaminants, blasts from compressed air or detonations, vapors or gas exposure from hazardous chemicals or processes, thermal exposure, radiation exposure -- how seriously do your workers take your company's vision protection efforts? (And how seriously do you as safety leader?) Every job has a potential for eye injury exposure. Can you list your hazards?

Typically, as the safety gurus setting up and maintaining a company vision protection program, we think of basic hazards for employee eye injuries. Dust, splinters, or something that causes abrasion or penetrates, resulting in cuts, tears, or contusions to the eye. Some item being slung out of a machine as a particle is common. So are splashed chemicals and even thermal exposure from hot work. Chemical conjunctivitis, infectious diseases, blood splashes, and more.

Processes, we can anticipate. We focus on the practical, the ordinary, and the planned potential injuries for tasks. Unfortunately, our workforce is not ordinary, and planning has to think far ahead of any expected or anticipated injuries as the work environment changes. For example, many areas of the country have experienced heavy storm damage this year with huge debris fields left behind to be cleaned up. Months later, much of this debris is still waiting to be moved and disposed. The expected hazards of cleanup must be constantly evaluated as the hazards of fresh debris change to long-term, dry, brittle, and often grossly contaminated debris. Wet hazards change to dry, dusty injury exposure or even mold exposure.

Such debris can be a haven for hazardous waste or biological exposures that when moved directly expose the unaware worker or be transferred to others. The vision protection hazards will be different at each stage of any crisis, and protecting your employees will include stepping up "thinking outside the ordinary" to keep them safe. Our efforts must constantly evolve to keep up with the changing work tasks and new hazards coming in. Safety workplace surveys are only the beginning; every potential must be considered because one of the most common statements in an accident investigation is "we never thought this could happen."

Step Up Your Training
In order to truly provide vision protection for our employees in a comprehensive manner, consider adding more information on the unseen hazards of the workplace to which each may be exposed. Step up your training efforts by including more potential situations the employee can relate to; not only does this improve your training/awareness efforts, it also teaches the employee to self protect better.

Make employees aware of the following:

  • Efforts in place for vision protection at each work site, including site surveys and potential injuries. Include usual and non-routine situations and emergency operations. Explain potential exposures, such as heavy metal dusts or other high-hazard processes, why vision protection helps, and what to wear.
  • Ask your employees for their ideas and risks/exposures they know about that you may not know about. You may be surprised at some of the tasks being done.
  • Examine your company's eye injury history, including near misses that may have been overlooked. Be honest about outcomes and how each injury affected the employee's working ability and home life (such as scarred corneas, clouded vision, or long-term headaches).
  • Possible unseen hazards include radiation, laser hazards, and biological exposures or secondary infection potentials. A worker who is colorblind can be hurt if he is in a work situation dependent on color-coded wires or containers.
  • Cover sanitation issues, as well as not rubbing or touching the eyes with contaminated hands. Be honest and blunt. Include MRSA and other contact contaminations.
  • Make sure first aid treatment includes eyewash elements, safety showers, and sanitary field options for employees. Targeted cleansing such as heavy metal lead wipes for gun range employees, hand cleansing options, and other decontamination efforts count, but they work only when the employee understands why this is important. There are many options beyond soap and water!
  • Explain the role of worker's compensation and how important quick medical treatment is for the employee. Discuss possible problems caused by delayed actions.
  • Reinforce the policy and procedures you have in place, along with how employees can get answers or replacement PPE, either in the plant or on the road.
  • Ensure each employee understands what PPE to use, how to wear it correctly, how to clean it, and -- most importantly --that it works only if in use! The best PPE on the market is useless left in the box.

Availability is critical. How tough is it to get new PPE for employees? Regularly evaluate and replace or add new items to the PPE vision protection system. Many companies routinely hand out seasonal items as a "bonus," such as extra safety sunglasses in summer or extreme styled items, knowing that every moment the employee wears this item, it improves program success and employee buy-in of the program. When you get them used to wearing the PPE, your program will benefit and worker's comp costs will go down.

Make a list of the physical hazards you know about and processes or work activities that are suspect, then add in non-routine or unexpected hazards that may cause or add to eye injuries. Examples may be environmental or seasonal, such as extreme glare off surfaces, special tasks, or emergency situations. Impress on employees that every work site is different and conditions change constantly. Each employee is on the front lines of this situation and has to accept a personal responsibility for long-term vision protection efforts.

For employees who work alone, impress on them the potential for injury that would prevent driving and self rescuing and to ensure that someone knows where they are at all times and to check in regularly.

As safety, we know we must "train to second nature" every employee to understand how and when to utilize vision and face protection PPE. Our everyday challenge for a successful program is to anticipate the "what if" of the unordinary for our employees, have on hand the protection they need, and ensure the understanding of self protection every day. By getting every employee used to wearing PPE regularly, it becomes work as usual and is better accepted, and you have an improved chance of employees wearing needed PPE at all times. Emphasize to upper management that the expense is minor for the benefits -- you can purchase cases of PPE for the price of one serious eye injury and time lost!

Vision Protection Checklist
True/False Your company has a vision protection policy and employees are made aware of the policy elements early in employment. It is part of your safety program and is regularly emphasized to employees.
True/False A site evaluation has been completed for vision injury potential, including anticipated injuries and emergency operations or unanticipated events.
True/False Accident prevention efforts are a priority for all supervisors and employees, including vision protection efforts. This is reflected on performance evaluations.
True/False Your safety professionals or safety committee members have evaluated hazards associated with work at your company and have established a possible exposure list and the types of PPE necessary to protect employees.
True/False There is a documented selection method for PPE for vision protection and types of PPE and uses are constantly considered and updated as needed to maintain high levels of protection.
True/False There is a specific budget for PPE that is designated for selection and replacement including storage of extra items for emergency need.
True/False Your training efforts include vision protection awareness items, and stress using PPE before the actual need and how to wear or replace PPE items when needed.
True/False Sanitation is stressed and explained for the use and storage of all PPE and any operation where it could be a potential hazard or cause injury.
True/False You as safety wear appropriate PPE when on site, as do upper management and visitors.
True/False Your company provides first aid availability to all employees no matter where they are working, including remote locations or mobile operations. This includes communications to summon help.
True/False Constant improvement is recommended for the vision protection program by the safety committee through training efforts for employees.
True/False Vision protection PPE and related issues are considered in any accident investigation.
True/False Employees understand how to report an on-the-job injury in a timely manner and how to receive treatment.
True/False There is regular follow- up of any on-the-job injury requiring treatment, as well as long-term injuries.

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

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