According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 2000 job-related eye injuries each day in the U.S., one third of which will require a visit to the emergency room. Unfortunately, this number is staggeringly high, especially when you consider how difficult it can be to heal injuries to the eye. Since injury prevention is, without a doubt, the best way to protect your eyes, it’s important to be aware of the most common hazards in the workplace that can lead to eye damage and potential vision loss. The five most common types of occupational eye injuries include chemical damage, particulate damage, laser and light sensitivity, and injuries occurring as a result of heat exposure. Below we discuss common hazards depending on your workplace, the potential eye injury that can result from exposure, and how to best protect yourself from sustaining these types of injuries in the first place.
When small particles hit the eyeball with high velocity, they can rupture the cornea and potentially damage the lens of the eye. Even small objects that don’t have enough force to penetrate the cornea can be trapped under the eyelids and cause irritation and damage. Each blink is another opportunity for a foreign object to scratch and irritate the surface of the eye, which can cause injury with prolonged exposure.
This type of injury is most common in construction work or any activity that produces small pieces of airborne debris. These small particles can be ejected from tools used to drill, saw, or mill away at materials, or can be airborne by a strong wind. In some cases, falling particles raining down from above can be an eye hazard.
If your work exposes you to small pieces of debris, falling or flying particles, or dust, be sure you have googles that protect you from small objects that can damage the surface of your eyes. It’s also important to have side protection because not all particles come from the front, especially in the case of dust or other light materials that can remain airborne for long periods of time.
The eye can be injured from chemicals that are even considered moderately safe to handle. Most chemical laboratories will work with an array of hazardous chemicals including the common types of acids and bases, both of which can damage the eye upon exposure.
It’s important to use chemical safety cabinets when working with particularly volatile chemicals because fumes can easily damage not only vision but the respiratory pathway as well.
If you work with chemicals or in any laboratory environment, make sure you have adequate chemical protection and any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect your eyes and face from any potential vapors, fumes, and splashes. The best way to protect your eyes from chemicals is to have eyewear that seals around the edges to prevent even fumes from reaching the sensitive surface of the eyes. It’s also important to make sure you have ready access to eye wash sinks or bottled saline specifically for rinsing eyes upon accidental chemical exposure.
Excessive exposure of the eye to hot liquids can cause severe burns to the eyeballs and eyelids. This type of injury can easily cause permanent damage. Burns, blisters, and even ruptured membranes can result from eye exposure to too much heat, whether that comes in the form of sparks or splashes of molten metal, which is a hazard specific to metallurgy and welding, or exposure to hot liquids or chemicals that can occur in a chemistry laboratory. Even sparks from working with any open flame or pyrotechnics can cause burns to the eye.
To prevent heat damage, it’s crucial to wear safety goggles in the workplace. If you’re working with molten metals, it’s also worthwhile to consider a full face shield to protect your entire face. If heat is one of the hazards in your workplace, please consider contacting us for information about whether it’s better to use eye protection or full face protection for your specific needs.
Infectious disease and other contagions
While some people might not think of disease as one of the most common forms of eye injury causes in the workplace, it’s important to consider that health care workers, including lab staff are often exposed to biological hazards from patients with infectious material. Even janitors could be at risk, which is why it’s always important to monitor the safety of everyone who works in a hazardous area. Animal handlers and veterinarians can also be exposed to infectious diseases of non-human origin (e.g. avian bird flu).
Exposure to blood droplets or other biological material, including saliva that can become airborne from a sneeze, can lead to an infection through contact with the mucous membranes surrounding the eye, which provides a route for viruses and bacteria. In fact, there is even recent evidence that the Ebola virus can remain in the eyes after a virus seems dormant in the rest of the body.
Laser and optical radiation damage
Lasers and light radiation has a different path to causing eye damage. Exposure to a laser can result in a rupture of the retina, which is the structure at the back of the eye containing the nerve cells that transmit visual information to the rest of the brain. This can happen without the laser first burning through the cornea or lens. Because of the nature of lasers and how they can be difficult to detect until an injury occurs, it’s vital to employ strict guidelines in the workplace for anyone working with lasers or other forms of light radiation.
Of course, the primary protection necessary when working with lasers is to wear safety goggles that protect the user. To ensure safety, please check that your selection of eyewear prevents damage specifically at the wavelengths of radiation your lasers are set to. If you aren’t sure about which laser safety goggles are right for your needs, please contact us so we can help make sure you and your coworkers are protected from injury.
It’s also a good idea to remove all jewelry before working with laser optics. We recommend posting a sign on the door the any room with a laser reminding people to never stand with eyes at laser level and to put all rings, bracelets, and watches away (or at least in pockets) before working with any objects that could potentially be in the path of a laser beam.
Among all of our senses, vision is one of the most sensitive and delicate systems we have at our disposal. The importance of occupational safety eyewear is difficult to overstate. Because there are many types of hazards in the workplace that can cause different types of eye injuries, it’s important to be aware of which specific hazards might apply to your particular activities. We’re happy to discuss any specific needs you may have or questions about ensuring OSHA compliance. Please use good eye safety practices at work and protect your vision. For more information on how to protect your eyes in the workplace, please contact us