Properly fitted safety eyewear will protect the wearer from dusts and particles while being comfortable and free of fogging. (Uvex by Honeywell photo)

Improving Safety Eyewear Fit for Better Protection and Compliance

Employers should beware of the one-size-fits-all approach that has plagued the workforce for decades.

America's workforce is becoming increasingly diverse in both gender and ethnicity. In 2010, women represented 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and they are expected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the share of Hispanics in the U.S. workforce will more than double from 11 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2050, as will the share of Asians, from 5 percent to 11 percent in the same period.

As the trend in workforce diversification continues, attention should be paid to providing the personal protective equipment that fits individuals properly for the best protection and performance. For most types of PPE, including gloves, clothes, or boots, selecting from traditional sizing is sufficient. However, due to the significant variances in facial structure among men and women across various ethnicities, safety eyewear is one of the hardest types of PPE to fit--and few safety managers are trained in fitting it properly.

The risks of providing workers with ill-fitting eyewear are significant. Gaps in coverage allow debris to enter the eyes, while slipping, fogging, and soreness contribute to worker distraction, loss of productivity, and even the removal of eyewear. Considering that approximately 90 percent of eye injuries are preventable through the use of proper protective eyewear, it is important not to underestimate the value of achieving the best possible fit for each individual worker. This article looks at new ways safety eyewear is delivering improved fit to support safety eyewear compliance and reduce the more than 700,000 recordable eye injuries that occur in our nation annually.

One Size Does Not Necessarily Fit All
While advances in both national safety standards and the manufacture of safety eyewear have had a positive impact on accident rates, much room for improvement remains. Awareness about the impact of ill-fitting eyewear is growing, and in recent years special attention has been given to addressing the fitting requirements of today’s diverse workforce. In-depth research and development have led to refined eyewear designs that take into account differences in the height, width, or location of cheekbones, nose bridges, and ears, as well as overall head size and shape.

Especially in high-hazard workplaces, safety managers recognize the importance of providing gap-free eye protection. But, remember, a style that provides a snug, gap-free fit for one worker may be an ill-fitting and hazardous choice for another. If your workforce includes a mix of men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, one size or style of eyewear may not keep everyone safe. New designs in eyewear based on in-depth research of facial profiles have led to cutting-edge styles that fit up to 85 percent of workers right out of the box, with no adjustments required. For the rest of the workforce, follow the tips below to find the style and size that are right for each individual.

Finding the Proper Fit
Sizable gaps between an individual’s face and eyewear, which allow debris to enter the eye area, are a leading cause of eye injuries. Many employers wait until eye injuries reach an unacceptable level before making changes to their safety eyewear policy. Progressive employers, however, recognize the value of ensuring the best-fitting eyewear for each individual from the start. Personal fit testing across the workforce is an effective way to ensure that the maximum allowable gap is not exceeded.

Once fit testing has been conducted, a good place to start is by considering eyewear with adjustability features. Adjustments at the temples can help to close facial gaps and provide a customizable fit. Some ratcheting temples also can adjust the lens angle for optimal coverage and air circulation. New hybrid eyewear designs offer interchangeable temples, headbands, and sealed options for increased, gap-free performance similar to that of a goggle.

Other alternatives for improved fit include styles with advanced materials or designs. For instance, eyewear with a flexible or fingered nosepiece can conform to various nasal profiles to help fit an array of nose bridge sizes. To eliminate sore spots and slipping, look for padded temples that provide ideal tension and flex, as well as cushioning delicate areas around the ears. If eyewear is to be worn in combination with other forms of PPE, a thin temple profile will cut down on bulk and sore spots underneath hard hats. Another design option to consider is a flexible brow bar atop floating lenses, which can ensure an accurate, gap-free fit without compromising peripheral optics.

Despite the fact that women comprise nearly half of the labor force, they remain an underserved segment of the protective eyewear market. To meet the unique fit requirements of female workers, whose heads tend to be smaller and narrower than men's, look for styles that are available in slim or small sizes. Adjustability and flexibility features also will help women achieve a more secure, gap-free fit for all-day protection and comfort.

Ventilation and Coatings Contribute to Fog-Free Vision
While a secure, gap-free fit is optimal for keeping debris out, it can lead to fogging. Fogging commonly occurs when an individual's body generates heat from exertion, when transitioning between extreme temperatures, or simply from working in humid environments. When a worker's vision is blurred by fog, he or she is vulnerable to injury. Furthermore, to combat fogging, a worker may temporarily remove eyewear to wipe it dry or, worse yet, choose to leave it off to avoid obscured vision.

In hot and humid conditions, look for safety eyewear with built-in ventilation to combat condensation. Some styles incorporate air vents as an integral part of the frame; this can help to promote air flow and reduce fogging while still maintaining a secure fit. Advanced anti-fog coatings are also effective at promoting clear vision even in extreme environments, while anti-fog wipes are a good option for on-the-spot fog removal. Remember, the less often workers are distracted by their PPE, the more productive they can be.

Less is Not More
Skimping on the cost of safety eyewear may appear to save money up front. When it comes to eye safety, however, paying a little extra for high-quality preventive measures can save a company from substantial, unplanned, and usually preventable costs. Statistics from injury and illness reports filed with OSHA show that companies that establish safety and health management systems can expect reductions in injury and illness costs by 20 to 40 percent and see a return of $4 to $6 for every dollar invested. That small investment can go a long way toward supporting a healthy eye protection program.

Also worth considering is the hypothetical example from the International Safety Equipment Association that illustrates how an eye injury that cost a company nearly $1 million could have been prevented with a $5 pair of safety spectacles or a $10 pair of goggles. Once an employer considers the cost of properly protecting workers’ eyes versus paying for a workplace eye injury, the decision to purchase high-performing safety eyewear becomes an easy one to make.

The Importance of Style
Style should not be overlooked as a leading factor in safety eyewear compliance. Studies show that workers who are not comfortable with the style of their eyewear are more likely to remove it, even in the presence of hazards. Furthermore, when workers are allowed to select their own safety eyewear without the proper guidance, they are likely to make their selection based on style over safety or fit, which can lead to serious performance problems.

Given the leading role style plays, look for modern, lightweight options, such as sports-inspired wraparound frames, floating lenses, or sophisticated metal frames. Many safety eyewear styles--including Rx frames--are fashioned after popular recreational sunglass designs, and some manufacturers offer licensed styles to promote adoption. The goal is to find safety eyewear that workers are willing to wear even when a safety manager isn't looking. By first offering safety eyewear that is best suited to workers' safety needs, followed closely by style, employers can support a stronger culture of acceptance and compliance.

In America's increasingly diverse workforce, it is more important than ever to outfit individuals with properly fitting safety eyewear. Employers should beware of the one-size-fits-all approach that has plagued the workforce for decades and instead should consider the advanced materials, customizable features, and modern styles that deliver the fit and protection every individual deserves. By making informed eyewear selections, employers not only improve employee comfort, productivity and safety, but they also significantly reduce the risk of costly eye injuries. That's a winning strategy that works for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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