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Now you see them, now you don’t

By Linda Johnson
| www.cos-mag.com

At Kawasaki Rail Car, eye injuries are among the five most common types of injuries incurred on the job. In 2008, the company decided to bring in portable, self-contained eyewash stations to improve the way it provided emergency eye injury care.

The work of the company, based in Yonkers, N.Y., requires workers to perform tasks that create eye hazards, such as metal cutting, grinding, sandblasting and painting. Until 2008, it used plumbed stations and saline eyewash bottles. By replacing these with self-contained units, the company, which extends across three buildings, was able to put stations closer to hazardous work areas and move them around according to the needs of new contracts. It was also able to place them in many different locations, including the warehouse’s forklift-charging areas, the manufacturing section’s grinding and acid-etching areas and paint booths.

After the installation of the new self-contained fixtures, both the severity of eye injuries and the number of injuries requiring visits to the emergency room declined, according to Joe Infantolino, the company’s safety and health administrator.

Wherever potential hazards for eye injuries exist, employers need to provide emergency eyewash. But in many work areas, installing plumbed eyewash stations can be difficult. Where there’s a lack of space or running water, shifting work areas or a hazard that is far from existing plumbing, employers often rely only on eyewash bottles, which allow flushing for only a few minutes.

A better alternative is often a portable, self-contained station. These stations are particularly useful where work involves materials that can damage the eyes, such as caustic or hazardous chemicals, flammable liquids, dirt and dusts, and where physical conditions make plumbed stations difficult or impossible.

Portable stations are well suited to laboratories, manufacturing and warehouse facilities, construction sites, utilities and industries that have remote field locations. They can also be placed in, or just outside, confined spaces.

The basic portable, gravity-fed station is a tank containing 7 to 20 gallons (26.5 to 76 litres) of potable water, an amount of liquid that provides a continuous flow for 15 minutes. A preservative must be added to reduce bacteria. Some units have a sealed eyewash cartridge containing about 6 gallons of purified water or sterile solution, instead of tap water.

It is important to note that, while portable, self-contained stations or bottles are sometimes called “secondary,” they are referred to as “primary” in the ANSI Z358.1-2014 Emergency Eyewash and Shower Equipment standard — the standard generally followed in Canada. Personal eyewash bottles are deemed “supplementary.”

Generally, the units are secured to a structure, such as a cot, transport cart, rack or wall to prevent tipping during use. They should be positioned so the flushing fluid stream is between 84 and 135 centimetres from the surface on which the user stands. A sign should be affixed over the unit to clearly identify the eyewash station and any obstructions to the unit must be removed.

A user automatically activates the unit and starts the flow of fluid by pulling down a lever or latch. The gravity-fed system causes the fluid to spray up into both eyes at the same rate for 15 minutes. While the water continues to spray, a tank below captures the contaminated water, preventing it from spilling onto the floor. After use, the worker should go for emergency care.

In contrast with eyewash bottles, self-contained eyewash stations meet the requirements of the ANSI standard, says John Vincent, technology leader for specialty products at Smithfield, R.I.-based Honeywell Industrial Safety. Most importantly, they provide 15 to 20 minutes’ flushing; they can be activated with one hand and in a single action; and they work hands-free, so workers can use their fingers to hold both eyes open.

Moreover, because they’re portable and typically smaller than plumbed stations, they can fit almost anywhere and be located closer to hazardous work areas.

“That’s really the number 1 advantage of a portable station: They are easily accessible,” says Vincent. “The time between an injury and the time you get some flushing going is critical. The ANSI standard requires a station be within a 10-second range of an area where a potential eye injury could occur.”

An added benefit of stations containing sealed cartridges is that the fluid inside is sterile and buffered, he says. A buffered solution is pH balanced to match the composition of human tears (about 7 pH). This makes it easier on the eyes than tap water, which can further irritate an injury, especially one caused by caustic chemicals.

Emergency eyewash stations are essential on construction sites, where eye injuries can be caused by chemicals, metal and plastic shavings, particles and splinters thrown up from rotating machines, smoke and dusts.

However, with shifting work areas and lack of running water, setting up plumbed stations can be difficult. Instead, many managers use, in combination with eyewash bottles, the large 15-minute tanks because of their portability, says Mike Jones, executive-director of the Construction Safety Association of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“The smaller bottles are for immediate use, the first-aid measure before they get to one of the longer- lasting, 15-minute, portable eyewash stations,” he says.

Although used extensively on construction sites, he adds, the portable stations present challenges. One is weather. Low outdoor temperatures can make it difficult to keep the water between 15.5 C and 38 C, which the ANSI standard requires. 

“In Winnipeg here, we have a little bit of an issue with the cold during the winter. For six months of the year, we could be in weather where the eyewash station would need to be in a warm area,” Jones says, adding that on a longer-term site, the eyewash station could be placed in a construction trailer, where it is kept warm and available for use.

One technical advance that is helping to alleviate this problem is electrical plug-in stations that are equipped with an immersion heater. Also on the market today are stations with fluid that won’t freeze in lower temperatures or specially designed electric blankets that can cover the stations to keep them within the ANSI required range.

The use of portable stations can also be challenging for contractors when a crew is coming in to do a very short-term job, Jones says. In homebuilding, for example, a tradesperson may be coming in to do an hour-long job where there is a risk of debris or chemical in the eye.

“It’s a lot of work to bring a portable eyewash station in for that short duration of time… It is a challenge when you’ve got a guy turning up in a truck to do a two-hour job to make sure that that eyewash station is available for him,” he says. “But contractors generally do that.”

Manufacturing employers can also benefit from portable stations — for example, electric forklifts run on large lead-acid batteries that need to be charged often. During charging, these batteries, which contain sulphuric acid, can be extremely hazardous. Charging generates hydrogen gas that can create an explosive atmosphere around the battery.

Exploding batteries cause serious eye injuries. Even with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), workers may get sulphuric acid in the eyes. In this case, they need to start flushing immediately. Where lack of space prevents the installation of a plumbed station, a self-contained unit can provide the initial emergency flushing.

Commercial vehicle drivers are also often exposed to eye hazards. Owen Duffy, professor of truck and coach mechanics at Centennial College in Toronto, says many transport vehicles, such as cement and fuel trucks, fuel loaders and wood-chippers, contain chemicals and other materials that can get into the eyes. However, he believes it is unlikely truck companies will move to adopt self-contained units any time soon.

“These kinds of stations — with pressurized containers that will flood and flush the eye — would probably be impractical in a vehicle. They’re large, bulky and they’re definitely quite a bit of money: you’re talking about $400 or $500 worth of equipment.”

More practical is the use of bottle stations, Duffy says. Yet, most truck companies do not equip vehicles with them either.

“Portable bottles can be used in trucks but, as yet, they haven’t been largely adopted, in this country anyway. It is something that — according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States) guidelines — trucks should have. If workers are offloading chemicals or fuel, those type of things, it should be available to them,” he says.

Vincent says some companies are working on 15-minute units for use in vehicles. The main difficulty is environmental conditions. On a summer day, a van can get up to about 71 C, well above the ANSI standard limit. Similarly, cold winter days could freeze the liquid.

“With our current units, you can put them in a van and transport them to a site. But you wouldn’t want to keep them in there, unless it was environmentally controlled.”

While one of the most common places for plumbed stations are industrial sites, especially chemical plants, self-contained stations can play an important safety role there, too, says Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists in Newmarket, Ont.

Because they must be located near the plumbing, built-in stations are often located on the perimeter of a building. Where an industrial or warehouse facility is particularly large, it can be a good idea to place a self-contained unit closer to hazards on the plant floor.

“That’s another thing companies can do to safeguard workers: place the tank in the middle of the plant. That way they can administer the individual proper water flow right at the point of contact,” says Dente.

To keep self-contained eyewash units working effectively, ANSI advises companies to flush the lines and test units by activating them weekly. It also recommends an annual inspection of the facility to assess work space modifications and new hazards and also to identify units needing repair or replacement.

Stations containing sealed cartridges, which often have a shelf life of 24 months, require little maintenance. However, they should be inspected weekly to ensure the station is functional. After use, the station should be cleaned and a new cartridge installed.

Workers who may be exposed to hazardous or corrosive materials must know where the self-contained eyewash stations are located and how to use them properly. That includes understanding the importance of keeping injured eyes in the fluid for at least 15 minutes and holding the eyelids open and rolling the eyes to ensure water flows on all surfaces and in the folds around the eyes.

Despite the regulations requiring companies to provide emergency eyewash wherever there is a potential for eye injury, many don’t, Dente says. Installing plumbed stations is expensive and may be challenging, too, depending on a facility’s layout.

“So, the gravity-fed unit is really a good solution for someone who doesn’t have access to water or doesn’t want to spend the money in plumbing. You can use it anywhere; it’s very portable. And it’s easy to operate,” he says. “Usually, the most concerning area of contact with something hazardous, like a chemical, is the eye. And you have milliseconds to protect it. You get it on the skin: It could hurt and it could leave a terrible mark. But you lose an eye… you only have two.”

Linda Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She can be reached at lindajohnson@sympatico.ca.

[em]This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of COS.

Photo: Bradley Corporation[/em]

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