The Eyes Have It: Protecting Employee Vision with PPE

The Eyes Have It: Protecting Employee Vision with PPE

Selection and wearing the right eye protection saves on pain, recovery and cost.

Employers must commit time, energy and resources to purchasing and providing PPE to their employees. Yet, an estimated 2,000 work-related eye injuries occur every day in the United States, with studies showing 90 percent of those injuries are preventable. More than 75 percent of those injuries are from employees choosing to not wear the eye protection provided for the task. 

Most employees want to work in a safe manner. So why do these preventable eye injuries keep occurring? How do we reduce the frequency and severity of these injuries? 

Consider management decisions and actions. For example, how effective is your PPE risk assessment? After all that effort, are your purchasing decisions based on price alone or securing PPE that actually offers comfort, fit and function? 

Ask your employees why they struggle wearing the provided PPE or choose not to wear it and you will likely hear: 

  • “It’s uncomfortable.” 
  • “I can’t see.” 
  • “I don’t need it.” 
  • “I don’t like the way they look.” 

You have likely conducted the risk assessment and already know your employees’ hazard exposures. The task is to help employees understand the risks and find eye protection that meets ANSI Z87+ requirements and meets your employees’ needs. 

Cost of an Injury 

Beyond the injury itself, eye incidents are expensive. There is always a risk of vision loss. Whether temporary or permanent, that loss impacts the quality of life of that person and family. An injured person will experience significant pain and discomfort during recovery. The quality-of-life impact includes changes to family routines, loss of income, inability to see or interact with loved ones in daily activities, additional stress and long-term depression, anger and changes in relationships. 

Along with the physical, emotional and quality-of-life implications, there are financial costs. Using the OSHA “Safety Pays” calculator, a vision loss injury has a direct cost of $76,000. If the eye requires surgical removal, the cost exceeds $100,000. A “simple” removal of an embedded object is $22,000.  

Indirect costs add three to five times the direct medical costs, or another $83,000 to the claim. At a 3 percent profit margin, additional sales of more than $5 million are needed to break even. These costs are not budgeted but removed from the company’s bottom line. Expensive injuries cost performance bonuses, profit-sharing and overall business reputation. 

In North America, many employees believe a work injury is covered by workers’ compensation benefits. Unfortunately, this belief can lead to confusion, frustration and lawsuits. The claim could be denied, leaving the expenses and loss of income with the injured person. If workers’ compensation accepts the claim, there is still a loss of income from a “waiting period” of up to seven days and most benefits only pay two-thirds of wages. Long-term benefits may only cover on-going medical costs related to that injury. It doesn’t pay the employee’s health insurance premiums and over the long term, claim payments can reach a maximum pay-out. 

An employee also risks job loss because of business needs—not from having the injury, but by being unable to perform essential functions of the job. Accommodation is not required for loss of essential job functions so an injured person, whether it occurs at work or outside of work, risks pain, loss of vision and loss of employment—all preventable with proper safety eyewear. 

Employer costs also include the time and people necessary to conduct the incident investigation. Indirect costs include loss of production, overtime or replacing the injured employee, follow-up physician appointments, training another person to perform the injured employee’s tasks and employees and community perceptions about the employer’s leadership and brand reputation. If an injury is reportable (vision loss), the employer can also expect an OSHA investigation. 

Choosing the Right Protection 

Evaluating eye injury risks at work will quickly identify the need for eye protection. Flying debris or particulates can cause objects to become embedded in the eye or scratch the eye’s surface. This requires safety glasses with side shields or wrap-around protection. Liquid splashing, sprays or mists require the use of indirectly vented goggles. Fine dusts or air-suspended particles require non-vented goggles. All of these hazards should include wearing a face shield in addition to the primary eyewear. 

With chemical injuries, the severity of injury may depend on the pH of the chemical. Acid burns cause immediate pain and can cloud the eye. Alkaline burns also cloud the eye, but the alkaline penetrates quickly and reacts more aggressively. When working with chemicals, a person must know the hazards and understand the need for eye protection. One should always assume there is risk and proper eyewear should be worn. 

An effective eye protection program must include a risk assessment that follows the hierarchy of controls, starting with eliminating the hazards. After elimination, substitution of a substance of a lesser hazard should be considered, followed by administrative controls and then selecting and providing effective PPE for the hazards identified in your risk assessment. Below are a few tips to having an effective eye protection program. 

Research and Sample. Be sure to sufficiently research vision protection options with your safety distributor or manufacturer representative. Many will allow you to sample the PPE choices they have. Consider the following when you are sampling vision protection: 

  • Eyewear should follow fit, feel and function (shape/size, comfortable, protects from the known hazard) 
  • Include front-line employees in the sampling/selection process 
  • Do not limit selection to price; a better-quality selection may be less expensive overall 

Education and Training. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome with an effective eye protection program is educating employees on the outcomes of unsafe work. Employees must be trained in known hazards and the need for safety eyewear. They should understand what recovery, pain and costs may be should they suffer an injury to their eye. 

Recognition and Accountability. Implement accountability programs to reinforce positive outcomes. When employees are recognized for following procedures, working safely, encouraging others and finding and correcting hazards they are more likely to be productive members of the team. Those in managerial roles can require employees, supervisors and managers to properly perform tasks through daily observations and performance reviews 

At the end of the day, you need to find PPE that works. Be careful to not chase the “flavor of the month” eyewear; instead, conduct sample trials and ensure that your PPE selection is the best for your employees.  

New and innovative solutions are right around the corner. Advanced technology has created innovation in safety eyewear design and function. PPE manufacturers remain engaged in research and development—not just for competition—to continue the push for safer, lighter and more comfortable protective measures for employees as advances in technology and materials push ahead. 

An example of innovation in technology and materials is in the ready to release line of Vision® safety eyewear from Mechanix Wear®, already known as a leading hand protection provider. Through its own internally researched and developed eyewear that sprung from automotive and aerospace processes, Vision® was born. 

Julie Trottier, Vice President of Global Commercial Marketing at Mechanix Wear, describes Vision® as “100% designed in-house and built from the ground up. This is not a one size fits all mold copied from others. The design is based on the silhouette of the lens to adapt to various eye shapes for a much better and customized fit, which customers are loving.

Selecting and wearing the right eye protection saves on pain, recovery and cost. There are trusted PPE manufacturers with eyewear that address form, fit and function. And changes in technology inspire new, innovative designs. Your manufacturer or distributor representative can help guide you through your search and provide trial samples so you can experience and select for yourself the PPE that is best suited for you and your employees. 

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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