Keep eyes and face protected from accidents

As with any safety program, the first step in establishing an eye and face protection program is to conduct a hazard assessment. Doing so can spare your maintenance team from preventable accidents.

By Victor J. D'Amato, CIH, CSP

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Eye injuries occur at an estimated rate of 1,000 per day in the American workplace. Aside from the regularity with which these types of accidents occur, there are several other reasons why face and eye protection in the workplace are so important. One reason is compliance. Eye and face protection must be provided whenever necessary to protect against chemical, environmental, radiological or mechanical irritants and hazards. OSHA can fine an employer for not providing an eyewash station, for instance, or for not complying with the general duty clause to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

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***Cost is another strong incentive to prevent eye injuries. The financial price of these injuries is enormous and can range from $300 to $3,000 per case. More than $300 million per year is lost in production time, medical expenses and worker's compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But no dollar figure can adequately reflect the personal toll these accidents take on injured workers.

The return on investment for creating and implementing an eye and face safety program is huge. Eye and face personal protective equipment (PPE) is inexpensive, with a good pair of safety glasses costing less than $20. Compare that to the expense of eye injuries, including emergency medical expenses, worker’s compensation, the possibility of a worker permanently losing sight in one or both eyes, bad PR for the company and the effect on worker morale. 

What causes eye injuries?

The goal of face protection is to shield the eyes from injury. Most injuries to the face come from flying objects, usually particulates. When a particulate hits the face, it might cause a cut or scratch and the skin, which will repair itself over time when given proper medical attention. If the particulate hits the eye, it causes direct damage, and it is far more difficult for the eye to repair itself. BLS found that almost 70% of eye accidents resulted from flying or falling objects, or sparks striking the eye. Injured workers estimated that nearly three-fifths of these objects were smaller than the head of a pin. Most of the particles were said to be traveling faster than a hand-thrown object when the accidents occurred.

Contact with chemicals is responsible for one-fifth of occupational eye injuries. Other accidents are caused by objects swinging from a fixed or attached position, such as tree limbs, ropes, chains or tools, which were then pulled into the eye while the worker was using them.

Eye and face protection programs

As with any safety program, the first step in establishing an eye and face protection program is to conduct a hazard assessment. After determining the hazards, the written program should document which PPE will be used to protect against these hazards, how the PPE will be selected, how workers will be trained to properly use the PPE assigned to them and how prompt emergency care will be provided in the event of an accident. 

Hazards are assessed by occupation and work activity, and the hazard assessment will determine the specific type of protection required for each activity. OSHA has an Eye and Face Protection e-Tool on its Web site that provides a comprehensive hazard assessment and gives information about selecting PPE and meeting OSHA requirements.

PPE selection

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for eye and face protection is Z87.1 and the 2003 edition specifies requirements for safety glasses, safety goggles, face shields, full face and hooded respirators. 

Nearly one-fifth of workers injured while wearing eye protection wore face shields or welding helmets. Only 6% of these injured workers wore goggles. If a worker is pouring or handling chemicals, goggles must be worn because the seal around the face prevents splashes and vapors from getting into the eyes. Of the injuries to workers wearing eye protection, 94% resulted from objects or chemicals going around or under the protector.

ANSI-compliant safety glasses are appropriate and required for general hazards, such as particulates and dust. Because goggles fit tightly on the face and provide protection around the eyes, they are necessary for environments with high dust concentration, a risk of chemical or liquid splash, or significant vapor concentrations. Depending on the hazard, there are different types of goggles to choose from — direct vented, indirect vented or non-vented. If there is a splash hazard, goggles and a face shield might be appropriate. If impact is also a risk, impact-tested goggles should be worn under face shields, because not all face shields are rated for impact resistance. The selection of safety glasses is infinite, because manufacturers like Harley Davidson, Orange County Choppers, Smith and Wesson and Body Glove have stepped up to meet employee demand. If the worker wears reading glasses with basic magnification, ANSI-approved safety glasses and goggles with reading magnifiers in the lenses are an option. It also is possible to buy prescription safety glasses and goggles that are compliant with the ANSI standard. ANSI-compliant goggles and safety glasses also are available to fit over prescription glasses, but I don’t recommend these for long-term use because they are uncomfortable and are less likely to be worn. 

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