An eyewash for an eye

Type of unit, location and temperature are just some key considerations for emergency stations

At a British Columbia cement plant, a worker was carrying an 18-litre pail half full of Portland cement powder — a known corrosive — down a flight of stairs. The pail had no lid. When the worker accidentally dropped the pail, he was engulfed in a cloud of cement powder, which got under his loose-fitting safety glasses. His eyes were caked in the powder, but with a co-worker’s help, he reached the emergency eyewash station, which was 180 metres away. The worker flushed his eyes for 30 minutes, but by the time he got medical treatment, he had a serious injury to one eye.

Hazard alert bulletins describe other incidents that led to caustic sodium hydroxide in the eyes of a worker who was balancing pH levels for a hospital boiler; blood-containing saliva being spat in the eyes of a public service worker; and gasoline splashing into the eyes of an outdoor worker who was refuelling a tree sprayer.

It takes mere seconds to damage an eye, yet in the hierarchy of safety equipment, emergency eyewash stations are not always given their due. Matt Nichols, a salesperson with Hazmasters in Toronto, says industrial establishments could be more vigilant in maintaining these units.

“You buy them, everybody thinks they’re compliant, but five years go by and these things collect dust,” he says.

“They’re sometimes forgotten,” says Kelly Piotti, Smithfield, R.I.-based product manager for Honeywell’s eyewash line.

“When times are tough, we might wonder if we need eyewash stations, since they’re not often used,” she says, “but they are 100 per cent necessary. We only have one set of eyes.”

Anyone who is unsure of whether such a device is required needs to conduct a workplace risk assessment. Where a hazard exists, the appropriate safety equipment is required.

“It’s not optional,” says Marc Cousineau, provincial hygienist with the Ontario Ministry of Labour in Toronto.

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, Industrial Regulation 851, states that “Where a worker is exposed to a potential hazard of injury to the eye due to contact with a biological or chemical substance, an eyewash fountain shall be provided.’” 

Eyewash stations and emergency showers are available separately or as a combination unit. As a rule, the requirement applies to premises where there are paints, solvents, battery charging stations, hazardous chemical storage, parts washers or chemical pumping and mixing areas.

Even hair salons, garden centres and home goods centers require eyewash facilities due to the presence of potentially harmful chemicals.
Selecting the best unit
A garden hose or 45-gallon drum of water is no substitute for a proper emergency eyewash or shower — though there have been reports of these and other makeshift safety equipment in workplaces. Approved devices come in two main categories: plumbed and portable.

 It is good practice to select a plumbed model whenever possible, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton. But these models do have their limitations, it says.

With plumbed systems, the eye-flushing fluid is tap water, which is plentiful but may contain chlorine, which can irritate and leach salt from the eye. Also, if allowed to build up in the pipes or lines, tap water may contain harmful microorganisms or other contaminants, which is why these units require weekly flushing. Plumbed emergency eyewash stations should use water that is periodically tested and treated to remove chemical contaminants, says CCOHS.

Portable eyewash stations contain water, saline solution or 100 per cent sterile saline (which mimics, as closely as possible, the composition of human tears). The fluids are maintained at room temperature inside the unit.

To be compliant, portable models should be able to deliver the same volumes of water as plumbed models, as specified in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z358.1-2009 on emergency eyewash and shower equipment. (Currently there is no Canadian standard for the design or placement of eyewash stations or emergency showers, so the ANSI standard is generally used as a guide).

Self-contained portable devices should be cleaned, disinfected and flushed every three to six months, as directed by the manufacturer. Fluid past its expiration date can develop harmful bacteria and, for salt-based fluids, the salt starts to separate.
Location, location
When installing the unit, check the manufacturer’s instructions regarding height of the station, rate of fluid flow and required spray pattern.

As for where to install it, the 10-second access rule means the worker shouldn’t have to climb a ladder, use a stairway or go outside into the garage to reach it. Employers have been cited for placing these stations behind a partition, or even behind a closed or locked door. The path to the station must be short, clear and unobstructed.

Once the emergency eyewash is installed, all workers must learn how to use it. Training should include both written instructions and a hands-on drill. In addition, clear instructions should be posted next to the unit at all times.

If several people work in the same area with potential hazard exposure, more than one unit may be required. Conversely, if the worker is working alone, there should be an audible or visual alarm to alert others that the worker needs help.

Temperature: Just right
A single drop of something in the eye is an unwelcome sensation, so imagine if that substance were very cold or scalding hot. ANSI recommends water at eyewash stations be “tepid,” which it defines as between 16 C to 38 C. An emergency is no time for a distressed, temporarily blinded person to have to adjust temperature valves.

“Unless you have a self-contained (portable) unit capable of a 15-minute flush that hangs on the wall and becomes room temperature, you may want your plumbed unit to have tepid water and to do this, you need to have a proper mixing valve,” Cousineau says. “And if it fails, it must fail to the cold rather than to the hot.”

In the event of hazard exposure, an eyewash unit can save a person from serious or even irreparable eye damage or blindness.

 “If you have chemicals that can cause injury to the eye, you need an eyewash (unit),” Cousineau says. “You know you have to have it, but hope you will never have to use it.”

Michelle Morra-Carlisle is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].