By providing safety eyewear specially designed to perform in cold temperatures, wind, bright light, and glare, you can significantly decrease the change of eye injuries. (Honeywell Safety Products photo)

Four Considerations for Cold Weather Eye Safety

By providing safety eyewear specially designed to perform in cold temperatures, wind, bright light, and glare, you can significantly decrease the chance of eye injuries.

As winter approaches and temperatures drop, workers in outdoor environments face additional challenges to staying warm and safe on the job. Basic precautions to working in extreme cold include wearing protective and insulating layers of clothing on the body, including the head and hands, to block wind and keep the body warm. With the proper adjustments in outerwear, workers can endure cold and harsh climates much longer. As the mercury dips, special attention should be paid to eye safety, as well.

Exposure of the eyes to winter conditions such as cold temperatures, wind, and intense glare caused by snow poses a variety of hazards. Injuries incurred from exposure to extreme cold range from eye pain and blurred, decreased, or double vision to severe sensitivity to light and even vision loss. Overexposure to glare can cause snowblindness, a corneal injury that leads to redness, swelling, or a dry, scratchy feeling in the eyes. Wind not only blows debris and snow into the eyes, but also can cause temperatures to feel far colder than they actually are, exacerbating dryness, discomfort, and injury.

Protecting workers' eyes from wintry conditions is an important, yet easily overlooked, part of an overall eye safety program. Without the proper cold weather eyewear, workers are vulnerable to an array of hazards, and the chances for injury increase significantly. If an accident involving the eyes does occur, it is imperative that the proper first aid be immediately available to support the best possible outcome. This article looks at the special precautions employers should take to protect workers' eyes and treat injuries in harsh winter work environments.

Maximize Face Protection
OSHA calls for employers to provide employees with proper eye protection wherever hazards to the eyes exist. Such eye protection must meet the ANSI Z87.1-2010 standard for impact protection and must be marked with "Z87" on every major component. The various styles of safety spectacles available today meet the basic protection requirements for the majority of indoor applications.

Individuals working in wintry outdoor conditions, however, benefit substantially from the increased level of protection and coverage that goggles offer. Because safety goggles form a seal on the face, they are effective at keeping freezing wind, snow, and airborne debris out of the eyes. They also cover more surface area on the face, including the forehead and upper cheek area, which can be hard to keep warm or covered otherwise.

When exposed to extreme cold, the plastic or rubber parts on traditional safety goggles may become rigid and too uncomfortable for a worker to wear throughout his or her shift. Therefore, when selecting goggles for winter wear, look for styles specifically designed for use in cold applications. Winter safety eyewear should feature soft, dense foam around the face, similar to that found on ski goggles, to ensure both warmth and comfort.

However, avoid the temptation to utilize ski goggles as eye protection in cold work environments. Because they are not ANSI certified, ski goggles are not rated for impact protection and do not meet industrial safety standards. As with all safety eyewear, be sure that the cold application goggles you choose are ANSI Z87 certified.

Wide headbands are another key feature of cold application goggles. The added surface area helps grip the back of the head when worn in conjunction with hats, hoods or other forms of protection on the head. The snug and comfortable fit provided by a wide headband also ensures that the goggle stays in place comfortably and securely on the face. Safety eyewear styles that provide better comfort and fit also result in greater compliance and safety. Therefore, pay special attention so that cold-weather eyewear delivers an adjustable, comfortable, gap-free fit.

Avoid Fogging
Because of the temperature variance between a worker’s heated body and the cold outside air, as well as perspiration caused from exertion, fogging is a common problem for those wearing goggles. When safety lenses fog, workers' vision is blurred and they are vulnerable to injury. To combat fogging, a worker may remove safety eyewear to wipe it dry or, worse yet, leave it off to avoid obscured vision altogether.

Anti-fog coatings can be very effective at reducing fog and promoting a clear view. When selecting eyewear with anti-fog coating, look for advanced coatings that are permanently bonded to the lens for the longest-lasting anti-fog properties that won't wash off even after repeated washings. Anti-fog wipes are another good solution that can be used as needed to prolong safe visibility.

In addition to lens coatings, safety goggle lens design can play a valuable role in combating fog. Dual-pane lenses are well suited for cold weather applications because they feature two lenses that are separated by an insulating air chamber. While the external lens faces the cold, the air in between acts as an insulator, allowing the interior lens to stay warmer. Dual-pane lenses should be treated with anti-fog coating to deliver the longest lasting anti-fog performance. Similarly, air vents designed into the frame of some cold application safety goggles increase airflow and also help to promote anti-fog properties.

Choose Tinted Lenses
Overexposure to bright light, either natural or artificial, takes a direct toll on the eyes. Prolonged or repeated exposure to bright light or glare can result in discomfort, eye fatigue, and headaches. Likewise, prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can lead to macular degeneration--a leading cause of vision loss for older Americans--as well as cataracts, skin cancer around the eyelids, corneal sunburn, and other temporary and permanent vision problems.

Outfitting workers with tinted lenses is the best defense against exposure to harmful light. In fact, nearly all safety lenses today--both tinted and clear--provide approximately 99 percent UV protection. Safety eyewear with tinted lenses offers suitable protection against most other common light hazards, as well. Most lens tints, such as standard gray, brown, or mirrored, are suitable for a variety of outdoor applications and may be selected based on user preference.

While tinted lenses reduce brightness, when it comes to protection from glare, such as that caused by sunlight’s reflection off snow, polarized lenses offer unparalleled benefits. Through a special manufacturing process, polarized lenses not only help to eliminate glare, but also improve visual acuity through enhanced contrast. Workers outfitted with polarized lenses benefit from reduced exposure to harmful light, which helps eliminate eye strain and prolongs healthy, comfortable vision.

For individuals who frequently transition between indoor and outdoor settings, switching out safety eyewear from dark to clear lenses is a common solution. However, this approach doubles the amount of PPE required, and during the time it takes for the eyes to adjust to extreme changes in light--up to several minutes--workers' vision is compromised, heightening their risk of injury. Furthermore, the darkly-tinted lenses worn outdoors may not be suitable for use in dimmer indoor light and may cause a dangerous reduction in visibility. For indoor/outdoor applications, photochromic lenses are a versatile solution. Through a technologically advanced chemical reaction, photochromic lenses respond to UV light and automatically transition from clear during indoor use to tinted when outdoors for maximum versatility. In addition, photochromic lenses perform best in cold temperatures.

Maintaining Tepid Eyewash is Key
Once special considerations in winter eye protection have been taken into account, it is equally important to focus on how to treat an injured eye in extreme cold applications. An estimated 2,000 occupational eye injuries occur each day in the United States, according to Prevent Blindness America.

When an injury occurs, immediate and proper treatment can make a significant difference in the outcome.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z358.1-2009 calls for a primary eyewash station to be available wherever injurious corrosive materials (harmful chemicals) are present. The standard states that eyewash stations should be located no further than a 10-second, unobstructed walk from the hazard and should provide 15 minutes of continuous irrigation to both eyes. Every second counts. If treatment is delayed, the effects can range from temporary to permanent blindness.

ANSI further calls for flushing fluid to be delivered at a tepid temperature ranging between 60 degrees F and 100 degrees F to safely treat eyes without causing further injury or discomfort. In extremely cold environments, it is important that eyewash stations be protected both to avoid freezing and to ensure tepid fluid delivery. Look for stations that are freeze-rated, which keep fluid from freezing in temperatures as low as -32 degrees F or for those with heated accessories that keep fluid from freezing in temperatures as low as -40 degrees F and maintain a tepid temperature. Finally, remember that primary eyewash units must require only one hand to activate; putting any covering on a unit that is not specifically intended for the eyewash unit will hinder activation.

Now that winter weather has arrived, be sure to take into account not only your workforce's additional protective clothing needs, but also its changing eye safety needs. By providing safety eyewear specially designed to perform in cold temperatures, wind, bright light, and glare, you can significantly decrease the chance of eye injuries. If an injury does occur, take precautions to avoid a frozen emergency eyewash by selecting self-contained, portable units that are freeze-rated or feature heated coverings. When these cold weather considerations are taken into account, work doesn't have to slow down even when the mercury dips.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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