In terms of both materials and ergonomics, frame quality is of critical importance when choosing safety eyewear. (Bollé Safety photo)

The Economics of Safety Eyewear

Eyewear that is uncomfortable or structurally compromised simply doesn't get worn.

The statistics could not be more straightforward.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,000 American workers sustain eye injuries every day. One-third of those workers require hospital treatment. Additionally, a study published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates in 37 percent of head injuries and 62 percent of face injuries involving days away from work, three out of five workers were not wearing eye protection.

The fact that safety eyewear can dramatically reduce the number of recordable injuries won't come as news to any professional safety manager. There may be, however, a lack of understanding of the important performance and comfort differences between the opening price point products on the market and the premium offerings. The familiar adage "You get what you pay for" is dramatically true for safety eyewear. Shopping the low end of the product pool reveals a multitude of truly marginal offerings. The compromises necessary to maintain the lowest possible prices are myriad, ranging from the appalling—noncompliance with ANSI Z87.1-2015—to the annoying—poor, uncomfortable fit.

Optical clarity often suffers due to cost-cutting concessions. There is no inexpensive way to manufacture optical-quality lenses that deliver superior visual acuity. Further, without close examination and understanding of the materials used, it can be temptingly easy to assume all lenses have essentially the same performance characteristics.

Without the benefit of safety eyewear with optical-quality lenses, workers are very likely to experience some level of visual distortion in their day-to-day activities. The consequences can range from minor mistakes in performing simple functions to major mishaps that can result in severe injuries and significant property losses. Of particular concern is peripheral vision as lower-quality lenses tend to become increasingly less clear as the eye moves away from the central area. Moreover, manufacturers of premium lenses often use the latest and best anti-fogging technologies, reducing annoying and debilitating moisture accumulation.

Eye Fatigue Symptoms
While the loss of precision caused by distortion and fogging should be of significant concern, there is another consequence of inferior quality lenses for safety managers to consider: eye fatigue. Symptoms of eye fatigue include:

  • Sore or irritated eyes
  • Difficulty focusing and dry or watery eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Pain in the neck, shoulders, or back

Poor optics, of course, are not the only reason it's a nearly universal truth that many workers do not like to use safety glasses or other protective eyewear. With common complaints that include "It's uncomfortable and unattractive," fit and even aesthetics are also significant factors driving antipathy toward a practice so clearly beneficial.

And while safety managers might be able to easily cite the latest statics on the frequency of preventable on-the-job eye injuries from memory, those data may not be all that compelling to an employee who has been forced to wear ill-fitting, uncomfortable eyewear for an extended period of time. And the same data will struggle to make a real difference to a worker who has first-hand experience with the indignity of having to use poorly designed, odd-looking safety glasses.

Factors in a Comfortable Fit
One of the most common factors leading to safety eyewear-related discomfort is overly thick temples (most often referred to as "arms"). Many manufacturers of lower cost products in this category simply add more material to this key component to reach a desired level of durability. This strategy leads to inflexible, oversized temples that often come in contact with the wearer's head, causing pressure points when worn for even a relatively abbreviated period of time, particularly when used in combination with a hard hat. The surest route to capturing durability and flexibility is using the best available materials.

While poorly designed temples may be the leading cause of discomfort for those using protective eyewear, a lack of adjustability might also be a significant culprit. For that reason, simple yet effective technologies, including ratcheting, multi-positional systems that create a secure, comfortable fit for an incredibly broad range of head shapes and sizes, are available but are rarely found on lower-priced products. It's important to note that improperly chosen safety eyewear might fail to meet the guidelines set by OSHA's standard for PPE (1910.132), which includes this passage: "Select PPE that properly fits each affected employee."

Although OSHA doesn't concern itself with aesthetics, it's a safe bet it's a matter of some concern for most workers who are required to safety eyewear. For better or worse, glasses have morphed from a method of correcting vision or providing eye protection to a full-fledged fashion accessory. It might seem that creating well-shaped, attractive eyewear might be an easy target. The truth is: Forced to work with inferior materials and restricted by less-than-leading-edge manufacturing capabilities, lower cost suppliers are often limited to bulky, unattractive designs.

In terms of both materials and ergonomics, frame quality is of critical importance when choosing safety eyewear. Poorly designed frames often fit too tight or too loose, the former causing uncomfortable pressure points on the wearer’s head and the latter responsible for annoying slippage that often occurs at the most inopportune moments. There are two issues associated with the use of inferior frame materials. Additional weight can make the product uncomfortable to wear in extremely short order, and compromised durability to impact could render the eyewear unusable in an unacceptably short span of time. The bottom line is this: Eyewear that is uncomfortable or structurally compromised simply doesn’t get worn.

More Than Just Dollars and Cents
With a better understanding of all the potential problems, safety managers are increasingly moving away from seeing safety eyewear as a low-cost commodity. And while the market remains saturated with cheap products of extremely questionable quality, the relationship between substandard eye protection and an increase in liability exposure as well as recordable incidents is becoming more widely recognized. With careful consideration, the value and long-term cost savings of purchasing premium safety eyewear becomes readily apparent to even the most price-sensitive organization.

And it's not, of course, just about dollars and cents. The bottom line is that workers are far more likely to wear comfortable, stable-fitting and aesthetically-pleasing eyewear at all necessary times. The result is significantly improved compliance, fewer lost days, and—this is no small consideration—happier employees.

So it would seem the rationale for choosing premium safety glasses is clear. The question now becomes: With some features that are immediately tangible (lens quality, anti-fog technology) and some harder to quantify (comfort, aesthetics), how does a busy safety manager make an informed choice? Working with a manufacturer that is a true partner, is able to provide samples for field trials, and is willing to take the time to answer all questions is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - December 2017

    December 2017

    Featuring:

    • HAZMAT
      What the Standards Require
    • PROTECTIVE APPAREL
      Four Parties Affected by NFPA 70E Updates in 2018
    • VISION PROTECTION
      The Economics of Safety Eyewear
    • FIRE & EMERGENCY
      The Value of Realistically Testing Your ERP
    View This Issue

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