Saving face

Earlier this year, a worker at a structural steel facility in Regina was using a hand grinder to grind off a weld. In addition to using the wrong tool — he was using a zip disc instead of a grinding stone — he did not have a guard on the grinder. He was also not wearing a face shield.

The grinding disc suddenly broke apart and part of it flew off and stuck in his cheek. He suffered a deep cut, running from his mouth to the centre of his cheek.

“He’ll have a scar for the rest of his life,” says Ken Ricketts, executive director of the Regina-based Safety Association of Saskatchewan Manufacturers. “That type of injury is traumatic, but it’s not rare.”

The risk of facial injury is present in most industries and across a wide range of work tasks. And while it’s difficult to know how many workers suffer facial injuries annually — injury statistics are often merged with eye or head injuries — it is clear they happen frequently.

Facial cuts and burns caused by chemicals and flash fires can be devastating, especially when scars or disfigurement produce psychological problems, such as depression. Yet, while we take great pains to protect other parts of the body, particularly the eyes, providing — and using — the proper protective equipment for the face is often neglected.

Face shields and helmets protect against such hazards as chemical splash, airborne debris, flying objects, radiation and extreme heat. They are also commonly used against dust, woodworking and sanding.

Most face shields are made of polycarbonate, which is durable, scratch and impact resistant and protects against UV radiation. Shields are also made of propionate and acetate, which are less impact resistant than polycarbonate.

Face shields should be selected with the risk assessment in mind, Ricketts says. Companies using chemicals can consult the safety data sheet, which will specify the kind of face shield to be used. Generally, the two main criteria are fit and coverage: the shield must be of a size and shape to completely cover the area that may be affected by whatever hazard is present.

“If the worker is primarily working with the head inclined downwards, and the material you’re protecting against is flying debris, it should cover more than just the face. It should go back somewhat over the crown of the head so that pieces don’t fly in the air, go into the back of the face shield and bounce into the face,” he says. “Look at the hazard and calculate what kind of angles and what kind of material could actually get between the face shield and the worker’s face.”

Depending on the hazard, Ricketts adds, workers may need to be equipped with shields that have a greater curvature.

“For example, if you have chemicals that can splash and the chemicals are below waist height, you need to make sure the splash shield has coverage below the chin. So the shield might fit closer to the chest so that it protects the bottom of the face and the throat.”

Workers often need to wear safety glasses or goggles underneath the shield to protect their eyes from any hazardous material that could get behind the shield.

If workers are exposed to high heat, the best shield material to protect against this risk is polycarbonate, says Greg Blackhurst, marketing manager at Intertex Textiles in Oakville, Ont.  Face shields made of polycarbonate are designed for such processes as steel-making, heat-treating, forging, die casting, glass making and aluminum smelting and refining.

Some polycarbonate shields have a small amount of gold bonded onto the outer surface.

“Gold is the best reflector of UV and the infrared. So you don’t get UV and infrared damage to your face and eyes, and your face stays cooler,” says Blackhurst.

Some gold shields have a blue (didymium) tint added to the polycarbonate. These are made to protect people doing hot glass work. The blue tint blocks out different colours of the spectrum.

“In hot glass work, there’s a lot of yellow flare. If you can filter out the yellows, you can see your work much better. You can still see the red, which helps you judge the temperature of your work,” says Blackhurst. “In glassmaking and glassblowing, being able to judge the temperature is important.”

Welding helmets

Welding safety equipment must protect the face, forehead, neck and ears and be effective against radiation, hot slag, sparks, spatters and chemical burns. While welding, workers must wear a welding helmet, hand shield or goggles, says Mark O’Shaughnessy, director of the Institute of Technical Trades in Toronto. A short list of occupations that involve welding includes fabrication, automotive, airlines, food equipment and construction.

Most companies today use auto-darkening helmets, he says. The worker adjusts a setting button on the side of the helmet to the kind of work she is doing.

“If the person is grinding, that will keep it light. If they’re welding, the lens will darken depending on the type of welding they’re doing,” O’Shaughnessy says.

The auto-darkening feature eliminates the need to wear safety glasses or goggles under the helmet, he says, adding “but people often wear filters over their nose and mouth to prevent smoke going up and underneath the helmet.”

While welding regulations still refer to hand shields (a shield held up to the face for short-term use), they are not often used in workplaces today, O’Shaughnessy says.

“You don’t see it that much anymore. It’s old school. People usually use the welding helmets.”

The helmet shell should be opaque to light and resistant to impact, heat and electricity, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). The hard, outer shell of the welding helmet is usually made of polycarbonate, which protects against UV radiation, impact and scratches.

Welders may need to wear fire-resistant clothing, such as a balaclava or skull cap, under the helmet to protect from burns and UV radiation, CCOHS says.

Flash fire face protection

Technology is making new kinds of face protection possible. For example, the Flame Shield FX1, made by Victoria-based Cooler Heads Safety, is designed to provide protection against flash fires, which occur suddenly and last only a few seconds, says Edward Sawchyn, president.

The shield, which fits on like shoulder pads, has four built-in thermocouple sensors. When the sensors detect a high heat, indicating the presence of a flash fire, they instantly trigger the release of compressed CO2 gas. The gas causes the expansion of the shield, which goes up and surrounds the wearer’s head and face.

As it inflates around the person’s head, the CO2, a natural flame retardant, fills the airtight, two-layered shield, Sawchyn says. The average duration of a flash fire is three seconds, so the shield is designed to protect through those critical moments.

“If the worker is caught in an actual flash fire and hit with the flame, and not just the heat, the outer layer will fail at about 2.2 seconds. The inner layer will last for the entire three-plus seconds. So you will not have any damage to your face,” he says.

But in order for any type of face shield to be effective, the worker has to wear it. Ricketts says workers often neglect to wear face shields in part because they think it will slow their work.

“If it’s not handy or they feel it adds to the process, they’ll be reluctant to put it on. Or if the face shield is scratched, dirty or unhygienic, they may not want to wear it.”

To encourage workers to wear shields, safety professionals should train them to properly maintain the personal protective equipment. Shields should be cleaned with mild, soapy water and a clean cloth. They should also be inspected regularly for damage. Hanging them up to prevent scratching and soiling is also important.

The incident that left the Regina structural steel worker with a significant facial scar, however, demonstrates another common reason that workers shun face shields.

“‘It won’t happen to me. ‘That’s what they think,” Ricketts says. “A lot of workers haven’t received the training or maybe they haven’t seen the photos. But it’s also a mindset: It won’t happen to me.”

Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2016 issue of COS.