Workplaces present many hazards for the eyes. From a flying wood splinter to a splashing chemical to a dirty hand rubbing an eye — all can produce injuries or infection. An effective eye safety program, however, will not just reduce injuries but also help preserve workers’ eye health on and off the job.
Warren Spires, national director of eye safety program at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), says a good program includes a strong education element. At the institute’s workshops, CNIB safety staff present information in a dramatic, audio-visual format and provide materials, such as wall posters, as a more lasting reminder.
“So employees are reminded on a day-to-day basis to think eye safety, especially when they’re in an environment where there’s a greater risk of having an injury,” he says.
For a safety program to succeed, says Gerry Culina, manager of general health and safety services at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), companies need to start by identifying clear goals. It’s also important to conduct an audit of hazards, evaluate safety measures and then establish a mechanism to monitor changes in risks.
Managers play another crucial role, he adds, in leading by example. Many senior employees do not wear any protective equipment at all because they are not required to.
“Employees see that and say, they don’t think it’s important. They don’t think it’s valuable,” he says. “It throws your eye safety program out the window.”
Safety eyewear should be CSA approved and appropriate to the job function, Spires says. For example, a person who works outside will need UV protection in the lenses. There are many classes of protective glasses, ranging from basic goggles to heavy duty, which might include a helmet and full-facial shield.
Charlotte Kessler, vice-president of business development for Regina, Sask.-based F.O. Safety Eyewear, says the key features of good safety glasses are comfort and close fit. Many injuries stem from employees’ lack of compliance with eyewear policy —most often a result of ill-fitting eyewear.
“They think it’s more of a hazard than a help. Employers often provide a one-size-fits-all. They’ll buy a thousand of them, and you can grab them anytime you want. But if they don’t fit or they’re not comfortable, then it’s hard to convince the employees to wear them,” she says.
In addition to making glasses uncomfortable, an improper fit also makes them less effective, Kessler says. Debris, dust and particles can enter eyes through gaps between the frame and face.
Glasses should be large enough, she explains, to cover the eye area but should not extend so far above the nose or to the side that they leave large gaps. Gaps should be as small as possible and be more towards the ears than eyes. Side-shields should fit close, touching as much of the face as possible.
While safety eyewear is important, Culina says, companies should remember that eliminating hazards should be their main goal. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is really the last line of defence, used because a company is unable or unwilling to engineer out the risk. But PPE doesn’t deal with the problem.
“Rather than having something that leaks fluids, why not fix the leak? Why not substitute less hazardous materials? Maybe they could add safety features to equipment or come up with a re-designed guard,” he says.
Finally, every eye safety program should stipulate the preparations needed to deal with an injury. This includes ensuring the number of staff with first-aid training meets provincial legal requirements. Eye injuries can be horrific, Culina says, and people may panic. So it’s a good idea to designate in advance one person to call 911 and have clear, posted instructions on what steps to follow if there’s an accident.
In high risk areas, he adds, emergency showers or eye-wash stations should be available, and these should be regularly inspected.
In addition to having a good eye safety program, Spires says, employers should encourage workers to visit an optometrist annually. Hidden problems may exist, and early detection can save a person’s sight.
“We need employers to remind their staff to think eye safety at all times,” he says.