How Much Eye Protection is Enough?

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Occupational Hazards Magazine

Summary Statement

Provides information on various types of eye protection and what type is needed depending on the hazards encountered. Provides statistics on eye injuries and recommends that a hazard assessment always be done before selecting protection
Feb. 2002

Reprinted from the February 2002 issue of Occupational Hazards Magazine. Copyright 2002 by Penton Media Inc. All rights reserved.

Too many workers who wear eye protection still suffer injuries. Here's help on how to determine when more protection is needed.

Most safety professionals agree that workplace eye injuries are preventable. Yet, OSHA estimates that 1,000 eye injuries occur every day in U.S. workplaces, at an annual cost of $300 million in lost production time, medical expenses and workers' compensation.

OSHA lists two major reasons for eye injuries at work: not wearing eye protection or wearing the wrong kind of protection for the job.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey of workers who suffered eye injuries revealed that nearly three out of five were not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident. These workers most often reported that they believed protection was not required for the situation.

About 40 percent of the injured workers surveyed by BLS were wearing some form of protective eyewear when the accident occurred. More than 90 percent of the injuries to workers wearing protection resulted from objects or chemicals going around or under the protector.

Hazard Assessment

Because workers who wear protective eyewear still suffer injuries, how much protection is enough? To answer that question, begin with a hazard assessment to determine which of several eye hazards exist for each job:

  • Dust, concrete, metal and other particles;
  • Chemicals such as acids, bases, fuels, solvents, lime and wet or dry cement powder;
  • Falling or shifting debris, building materials and glass;
  • Smoke and noxious or poisonous gases;
  • Welding light and electrical arcs;
  • Thermal hazards and fires; and
  • Bloodborne pathogens (hepatitis or HIV) from blood, body fluids and human remains.
Phil Johnson, vice president of research, development and quality assurance for Bacou-Dalloz's Uvex, advises against relying on a call to a manufacturer to determine what type of protective eyewear will work for a specific situation. An onsite hazard assessment is necessary, Johnson says.

When Metal Seal & Products in Willoughby, Ohio, did a hazard assessment in 1999, it noted eye hazards for every job and the type of protection needed. The company's 200 workers now have a better understanding of when eye protection is required and what type of protector to wear, says Dale Diemer, the precision machining company's purchasing manager who also is in charge of safety.

For example, in the machining area, workers know to wear safety glasses for impact protection. In the plating area, however, exposure to chemicals and liquids calls for more side protection with goggles and, in some cases, face shields.

A hazard assessment at Oberfield's, a Delaware, Ohio, a maker of concrete structural and architectural blocks, parking blocks, precast steps, lintels and landscape products, turned up varying degrees of eye hazards. Dan Hodge, OHST, the human resources/safety specialist, determined that the most hazardous job was cleaning mixers, hoppers and mold parts. The workers are exposed to flying particles when they use air chisels to chip off hardened concrete.

The assessment took 1 1/2 years, during which time Oberfield's used trial and error and employee input to come up with the best eye protection for each situation, says Hodge, industrial eye safety chairman for Prevent Blindness Ohio and a national member of the eye safety advisory committee for Prevent Blindness America. Now, even less hazardous jobs require eye protection. An example is fleet maintenance, especially when working under vehicles.

Types of Protection

To ensure that workers wear the proper type of protective eyewear, the following list from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides a starting point:

Safety glasses. Safety glasses with side protection provide minimum protection and are for general working conditions where there may be minor dust, chips or flying particles. Side protection includes side shields and wraparound-style safety glasses.

Safety glasses should have an anti-fog treatment. Polycarbonate lenses are lightweight and provide the best impact protection, but generally are not as scratch-resistant as glass unless treated with a hard coating.

OSHA's eye and face protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.133, requires that eye and face protection be American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z87.1-certified. Look for the ANSI Z87.1 mark on the lens or frame.

Goggles. Goggles provide higher impact, dust and chemical splash protection than safety glasses. Goggles for splash or fine dust protection should have indirect venting. Use direct-vented goggles for less fogging when working with large particles. Safety goggles designed after ski-type goggles with high air flow minimize fogging while providing better particle and splash protection than glasses.

Uvex's Johnson says safety glass users should graduate to goggles when there is more than occasional particle hazards, such as when cutting wood. The assessment, in many cases, comes down to the severity of the hazard.

At Oberfield's, which has 135 employees in six locations, Hodge determined safety glasses were not enough protection for workers who clean mixers and hoppers. They tried goggles, but even anti-fog products occasionally fogged up. With face shields, chips still would get under the shield. The solution was chipper's goggles, which look like large swimmer's goggles and cup around the eye to seal out particles and dust.

Hybrid safety glasses or goggles. Safety glasses with foam or rubber around the lenses provide better protection from dust and flying particles than conventional safety glasses. Wraparound safety glasses that convert to goggles with a soft plastic or rubber face seal may offer better peripheral vision than conventional goggles. Johnson cautions, however, to avoid hybrids or wraparounds when more impact protection is needed than safety glasses provide. In those cases, use goggles.

Prescription safety glasses. Workers who wear nonsafety prescription glasses should wear tight-fitting goggles over the glasses. Because contact lenses may present a significant corneal abrasion risk when working in dusty areas, contact lens wearers should wear unvented goggles.

Wear goggles over prescription safety glasses in high-dust environments. If worn alone, prescription safety glasses should have side protection.

Prescription safety lenses with tempered glass or acrylic plastic lenses are not suitable for high impact. Do not use these types of safety glasses when working in debris areas unless covered by goggles or a face shield. Use polycarbonate lenses when working in high-impact areas.

Face shields. When protecting the eyes, don't forget to guard against injuries to the face. For highest impact protection, face shields protect the full face from spraying, chipping, grinding and critical chemicals or bloodborne hazards.

Never wear face shields, which provide secondary protection, without primary eye protection (safety glasses or goggles). Wear safety glasses or goggles under face shields to provide protection when the shield is lifted, Johnson says. Primary protection helps prevent particles that get under the shield from lodging in the eyes.

Specialty protection. Use other types of protection, such as filtered helmets or goggles, for tasks such as welding or working with lasers. Lenses for welding light protection must be marked with an appropriate "shade number" for the task. Remember to protect the eyes even when the helmet is lifted. Welder's helpers, other workers and bystanders should have welding light protection when near torch cutting or welding. Use ANSI Z136-certified eye protection for laser light hazards.

While full-face respirators provide the best general dust, chemical and smoke protection, they will not necessarily be Z87.1-compliant for impact protection, nor seal properly over glasses. Use prescription inserts compatible with a respirator. Respirators should be professionally fitted.

Ensure a Proper Fit

One way to make sure that safety glasses provide adequate protection is for them to fit properly, according to Winston Wolfe, president of Olympic Optical.

Safety glasses should rest firmly on top of the nose and close to, but not against, the face, Wolfe says. The nose piece should not slide down the face due to sweat or moisture. "If the glass slides down even a small amount, the user will lose some protection," he adds.

Wolfe suggests that safety glasses have a three-point fit, meaning the frame should touch the face in three places - at the nose bridge and behind each ear. Temples should wrap around the head, with slight pressure behind the ear, not above the ear.

Protective eyewear works best when employees know how to use it properly. Employers should ensure proper training for employees. Combined with machine guards, screened or divided work stations, and other engineering controls, using the correct protective eyewear can help keep workers safe from any type of eye hazard.

Eye Injury Statistics

  • Of 72,268 facial injuries resulting in lost workdays in the United States in 1999, 53,096 were eye injuries.
  • Of the 53,096 eye injuries, the two most common types of injuries were chemical burns (5,659) and cuts or punctures (4,303).
  • The top three eye injury sources were chemicals and chemical products (7,907), hand tools (4,215) and parts and materials (4,097).
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Don't Forget To:

  • Brush, shake or vacuum dust and debris from hard hats, hair, the forehead or the top of the eye protection before removing the protector.
  • Avoid rubbing eyes with dirty hands or clothing.
  • Clean eyewear regularly and ensure the protector is in good condition.
  • Ensure eye protection fits properly and will stay in place.

Source: NIOSH