Our eyes are one of our most fragile organs. Sight is arguably the most important sensory process, critical to navigating the modern-day life. We rely on our eyesight when we walk and drive, when we read and write, when we work and play.
The increasing level of exposure to heat, light, dust and chemicals, as well as biological contaminants in the industrial and commercial work environments affects our eyes and may lead to a temporary or permanent loss of vision.
How the Eye Works
Our eyes are covered by the cornea, which is the thin clear tissue that covers the front of the eye. It acts as a natural barrier and protects our eye against foreign particles, such as dust and dirt. The cornea also plays an important role in our vision being responsible for 65–75 percent of the eye’s total focusing power, according to the UK’s National Eye Institute.
The cornea and the lens, located right behind our pupil, work in tandem to focus light on the retina, a photo-sensitive innermost tissue that surrounds the back of the eye. The retina converts light into electrical impulses that are sent along the optic nerve to the brain, where they are interpreted as images.
A layer of pigmented cells known as the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) nourishes retinal nerve tissue by forming a pair of biological sunglasses that can absorb some blue and UV light. When the RPE is exposed to high levels or long periods of blue light, their ability to repair the damage is reduced, leaving the retina unprotected.
Types of Eye Hazard
The eyes are vulnerable to a variety of hazards. Being made of soft tissue they are at risk of physical elements, especially sharp objects, and small particles. Their sensitivity to light is fundamental to sight but also makes them vulnerable to bright light and heat. In addition, their fragile moisture and pH balance mean that common chemicals found in a variety of different workplaces could cause serious harm.
Impact & Dust
Our eyes are vulnerable to physical hazards such as sharp objects that could scratch or puncture the thin layer that protects the eye. This includes tools and materials that can pierce the eye. There is also a risk of small fragments and particles flying into the eyes, as well as airborne objects such as sand and dust.
These particles can cause abrasions, punctures and contusions of the cornea. In fact, corneal abrasion is one of the most common types of eye injury, especially in dusty environments. Eye injuries vary from something minor, such as scratches that can heal in a couple of days to more severe abrasion, which could cause permanent damage.
The BLS found that almost 70 percent of the analysed accidents were caused by flying or falling objects, or sparks striking the eye. Injured workers estimated that nearly three-fifths of the objects were smaller than a pinhead. It was reported that the particles were travelling faster than a hand-thrown object when the accident occurred.
Light & Heat
Our eyes are also sensitive to radiation in the form of light and heat. Apart from flash burn which can present itself immediately, cumulative adverse effects occur when the eyes are exposed to bright light or high temperatures. These injuries come from a number of sources, including fires, furnaces, welding torches, molten metal, sparks, sun reflections off water and direct sunlight. “UV radiation in the 295-325nm range can cause photo chemically induces opacities of the lens of the eye. Radiation above 315nm also causes cataracts,” says a 2016 study by Gregg M. Stave, Peter H. Wald.
Recent research has shown that high levels of blue light exposure can affect light sensitive cells in the retina resulting in a variety of implications for health and wellbeing. While the use of artificial light at night can trigger sleep problems, as well as physical, emotional issues. "Workers can even need protection against ordinary sunlight," Jim Johnson, CSP, safety manager for Black & Veatch highlights.
The eye’s soft tissue is vulnerable to many chemicals that are common at home and in the workplace. Such chemical injuries are most likely to be caused by acids, alkalis, strong solvents and cleaning agents that are used in a variety of settings. Even a splash of bleach or a hairspray, for example, could have serious implications if it comes into contact with the eye.
A short exposure to vapours, mists or fumes of many industrial chemicals could be strong enough to cause irreversible eye damage. Contact with chemicals caused one fifth of eye injuries in the workplace, according to the BLS.
Potential eye hazards are present in nearly every industry. 300,000 people are sent to Emergency each year in the U.S. as a result of workplace eye injury, according to the CDC. Eye injuries alone cost more than $300 million per year in lost production time, medical expenses and worker compensation in the U.S., reports the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Construction sites create a significant risk for eye injuries and encompass many of the dangers listed above. Sharp tools and materials are everywhere, being used and moved in potentially unpredictable ways. Construction sites are extremely dusty environments with many forms of dangerous particulate matter. Mandatory use of hard hats helps protect workers but for the best defence against workplace hazards eye protection is essential.
“In construction, more than 10,600 eye injuries each year force workers to miss work. Construction has a much higher rate of eye injuries than any other industry,” says The Centre for Construction Research and Training. While just over 20 percent of workplace eye injuries come from the construction sector, according to the BLS. "The [construction] work site itself is a hazard," claims Johnson, safety manager for Black & Veatch and a member of ASSE's Construction Practice Specialty Group.
The manufacturing industry is broad and diverse, it generally includes the assembly, processing and finishing of physical products in the presence of human workers. Nearly half of the injured workers were employed in manufacturing in one way or another, according to the BLS. While over 30 percent of the total eye injuries were working as assemblers, sanders, and grinding machine operators.
Tools, machinery and materials present the risk of eye injury for workers employed in manufacturing industry. Factories can be full of dust and other particles that can be dangerous when in contact with the eye. There is also a risk of harmful chemicals from manufacturing or cleaning processes. While high-energy blue light from digital screen and energy-efficient lighting bombards the eyes for long hours.
According to the BLS, more than 40 percent of workplace eye injuries occurred among craft workers, such as mechanics, repairers, carpenters and plumbers. A large section of this comes from automotive repair where welding can cause an acute condition called photo keratitis if used without eye protection. Not only are these workshops dangerous environments, they also have a reputation for a relaxed approach to eye safety.
“Many automotive mechanics are never taught the basics of safety,” says George Swartz, former safety director for Midas International. “Eye injuries may be the most common mishap in the business. Garages are often full of sparks flying from cutting torches and airborne pieces of metal launched from bench grinders, but most mechanics rely on nothing more than their eyelids for protection. A lot of guys just close their eyes while they're welding," continued Swartz.
Healthcare may not be the first industry that comes to mind when you think of eye injury hazards. However, healthcare facilities present a high risk for the viral and bacterial infections that can be caught through the eyes. Healthcare workers, who work with the open wounds of patients, already wear face and eye protection as a rule but this has not spread to other healthcare workers as much as the risk demands.
Healthcare workers are also exposed to bright lights for long hours as they go about their work. As discussed, the blue light emitted by bright light and screen have serious short and long-term implications for health. Be it for the light or biological hazards, healthcare facilities like hospitals are the dynamic environments where eye protection is important at all times.
The key danger to the eye health of office workers is high levels of exposure to blue light. The amount of time spent looking at a computer screen increases significantly in many office-based professions. It has become normal for employees to spend their whole working day looking at computer screens.
Computer monitors and other electronic screens emit about 35 percent blue light, that is 10 percent more that is emitted by the sunlight. Furthermore, many people now spend time in front of a computer at work, using smartphone during lunch break, and watching television in the evening. These high levels of exposure to blue light from screens can have serious and potentially irreversible impact on eyes and general health.
Protecting Eyes in the Workplace
While eyewear is a key element of protection when it comes to your vision, there are many other things you can do to ensure you are safe from potential hazards. Reducing hazards in the workplace is essential and there are tools made to help do so.
What steps can we take to eliminate or reduce hazards in the workplace? All areas should be assessed for potential risks to eye health. Efforts should be made to reduce falling and flying debris, as well as smaller particles like chips and dust. Lighting should be adapted to better suit health and wellbeing of the workers. First-aid kits should be readily available, and eye wash stations should be carefully positioned around the facility. Eye safety policy, training and drills will help educate and reinforce best practices in eye care.
Our better understanding of eye health leads to stricter regulations and standards within occupational health and safety, particularly the use of appropriate protective eyewear. All the evidence suggests that glasses and goggles designed for specific workplaces, are the best way to protect eyes from the wide range of hazards.
An estimated 90 percent of all eye injuries can be prevented by wearing a proper safety eyewear, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. While BLS reports that about three out of every five workers injured were either not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident or wearing the wrong kind of eye protection for the job. It was also confirmed that more than 50 percent of workers injured while wearing eye protection thought the eyewear had minimized their injuries.
Some glasses may protect against debris but dust and microscopic particles also can cause serious eye problems. “Safety goggles & positive seal eyewear are both effective types of eye protection from nuisance dust because they create a protective seal around the eyes,” according to OSHA. If appearance of a dust is natural in a particular work environment, this is an indication of a continuous exposure in which case a pair of goggles with seal protection or positive seal eyewear is recommended.
Our eyes are fragile and must be treated with care. Measures should be taken to reduce hazards in the workplace. Employees must insist on wearing certified eye protection that is appropriate for different situations and work environment hazards.
"As Ben Franklin once said, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,'" quoted ophthalmologist Anne Sumers, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "It takes very little effort to protect yourself from on-the-job hazards that can cause blinding eye injuries. We strongly advise workers and their employers not to let their guard down when it comes to eye protection."