Tired eyes one reason why workers not donning eye protection
More than 700 Canadian workers per day sustain eye injuries on the job. Flying or falling particles or sparks striking the eye account for 70 per cent of eye injuries. Nearly three-fifths of the objects are smaller than a pin head. Contact with chemicals causes one-fifth of the injuries, according to data compiled by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Prevention Services.
Of particular interest to safety professionals is that nearly three in five workers injured were not wearing eye protection and an estimated 90 per cent of eye injuries are preventable with the proper eyewear.
There are many reasons why workers don’t want to wear their safety glasses. Some common complaints include: they’re uncomfortable, they fog up, they’re too hot, I can’t see properly and they give me headaches.
Many comments are related to eye strain, or eye fatigue, occurring when the eyes become tired and are hurting from intense use. The signs of eye fatigue include: dry or watery eyes, eye soreness, red eyes, difficulty focusing, blurred vision, light sensitivity and headaches.
If workers are experiencing these symptoms, their safety could be compromised.
“The eyes are a muscle. If they’re tired, you’re at risk,” says Trent Allred, optometrist and owner of Doctors EyeCare in Red Deer, Alta. “If you’re going to climb a ladder and your legs are tired, well, you have a risk of a fall, right? Tired eyes can cause issues.”
Experiencing symptoms of eye strain can cause workers to remove their safety eyewear, opening them up to a host of potential eye injuries, such as a scratched cornea, direct impact or chemical splash, says Scott Florek, eyewear program manager at HexArmor in Grand Rapids, Mich. They could also be at risk for long-term effects, such as macular degeneration.
Additionally, if someone rolls an ankle or pinches a finger, that could have been correlated to eye fatigue, says Florek.
“That’s going to make them more likely to make a mistake,” he notes.
There are various ways that safety eyewear can cause eye fatigue. The first is wrong fit. Many employers attempt to have a one-size-fits-all approach, which simply doesn’t work, says Florek.
“That would be the same as just ordering a size-large glove for everyone and just keeping your fingers crossed that it works. It’s not that simple,” he says.
A person’s face shape, nose and cheekbones can all inform the type of eyewear they require. If eyewear does not fit properly, it might sit lower on a worker’s nose or leave gaps on the side, for example.
“So, any dust or debris can get in, causing someone to rub their eyes, leading to eye strain or leave them exposed to sunlight or UV light that’s getting in and can cause some damage to the eye over the long term,” Florek says.
Susan Stokes, an optometric assistant at Doctors EyeCare, would like to see safety eyewear manufacturers offering glasses in a wider range of sizes.
“We have some big heads here, so there’s nothing that fits them. You put them on and they are barely holding on because they are squishing on the sides and pushing forward. Usually the workers are more muscular, so they are a little bit larger,” she says. “And then on the other hand, if a woman’s working and if they’re really small, they don’t have anything to fit her either because [the glasses] are way too big.”
In these situations, it’s important to try to find the best fit possible for the workers while explaining the limitations they will face.
“Usually, they know because they have already tried it for years and it’s not working, so they know they will have to go with, ‘This is the best they can get,’” says Stokes. “They’re kind of settling.”
Various eyewear manufactures, including 3M and Honeywell, have fit systems available to their clients. The system checks hundreds of points on the face when conducting the fit test, says Amanda MacDuffee, president of All Safety Consulting in Kingston, Ont. The validation system will check for gaps, coverage and secure fit, as well as ensuring the wearer can see in different directions and that there are no blind spots.
In general, it’s a good idea to have workers attempt to mimic their work activities to see if the glasses fit properly.
“Make sure they move the head around… to make sure they stay on and stay in place,” MacDuffee says. “Look up, look down because I want to know if they are going to fit them properly. If you just stand and put some on someone’s face and they say they feel good, they might be when they’re standing there, but then they start working and they’re gone.”
Workers who require prescription safety lenses can experience eye fatigue if they do not have the proper frame for their prescription. For example, some workers may not be able to wear larger safety glasses with wraparound frames as it may distort their vision. The prescription, the material and the shape all have to work well together, Allred says.
“Sometimes, the employer requires a certain frame size but [the worker’s] prescription doesn’t match it, so you would have to find something else,” he says. “You have to match it to the prescription.”
Not all employers will pay for the total cost of prescription eye protection for their workers. To offset the employee’s cost, employers can offer coverage in their benefits plans or offer a health-care spending account, which can be used for eyewear.
As a side note, some workers might not realize when it is time to transition to prescription safety eyewear, so reminders from employers about regular eye exams can go a long way.
“A lot of workers don’t realize they are getting older and their eyesight is getting poorer,” says MacDuffee. “They are outside and they are working away and it kind of creeps up slowly — they don’t realize they need prescription safety glasses — so they will continue to use the same glasses they have always used for the last 20 years.”
Wrong tint can also lead to eye fatigue. Some safety eyewear manufacturers offer more than 25 different colours and shades of lenses, and it’s crucial to choose the right one. If workers are working inside and have a darker tinted lens, their eyes will have to work harder to see, says MacDuffee. Or, if they are in the sun with a tint that’s not dark enough, they are not protected from the glare and the UV rays.
“If it is the wrong tint and it’s not giving them the protection that they require, then that’s going to cause some problems. It will cause some strain, dry eyes, headaches, all those things,” she says.
Any time a worker is exposed to changes in lighting conditions — whether it be indoors or outdoors — the pupils have to dilate and contract rapidly. Wearing glasses with lenses that are the wrong tint can cause the eyes to overwork if they are forced to make multiple adjustments throughout the day. Wrong tint is the most common cause of eye strain that Florek sees.
“I think of examples with construction customers where they might be building a commercial building and they are moving from shaded to lighted areas and their pupils have to dilate every time they do that and their eyes get strained fairly quickly,” he says. “It’s the same as going and exercising and doing 20 curls and all of a sudden your bicep becomes tired.”
For the construction workers in this example, a silver mirrored tint (or indoor-outdoor tint) can help with the transition between lighting conditions, so the pupil doesn’t have to overexert itself to adjust.
Scratched lenses can also lead to eye fatigue because any time the lens is scratched, the eye has to work on overdrive.
“Even if you can’t see that your lens is scratched, your eye is still overworking, because your muscles are overreacting to filter out the scratches to make sure your vision is clear,” says Anne Hester, product management specialist at HexArmor. “And then you’re going to get eye strain, fatigue and headaches, even if you don’t necessarily know why until you take off your glasses and see the scratch. It could be in the corner, too.”
Workers need to be educated on how to properly care for their safety eyewear — just like their other personal protective equipment (PPE) — to avoid scratching the lenses. Unfortunately, the “care” part of PPE is often overlooked, says MacDuffee.
“They take their safety glasses and throw them in their truck on the floor,” she says.
Yet another eyewear trait that can cause eye strain is poor optical clarity, which is one of the hardest for safety professionals and workers to recognize. This may include aberrations (distortions) or colour changes.
“If you put on a pair of glasses and you feel funky, there may be induced astigmatism — a feeling of fishbowl vision,” says Allred.
While it might be fine when looking through the middle of the lens, there can be issues when the workers are looking up, down or to the sides, also known as peripheral distortion. For example, if you look off in the distance at a row of trees, they might look like they are swaying side to side or becoming disformed, says Florek, noting the eye has to correct for this.
LOW QUALITY SAFETY GLASSES
A lot of these issues stem from poor-quality lenses. Many employers opt to purchase boxes of cheap safety glasses so they are technically in compliance with the legislation — but these $1- or $2-per-pair glasses are not the best.
“They don’t last very long, they are flimsy, if they are left out in the sun… it can affect their shape, the lenses, the coatings,” says MacDuffee. “The quality of safety eyewear is like anything else. If you’re going to buy the cheapest harness or lifeline for someone to work at heights, is that what you’re going for? The cheapest? Or are you looking for something that’s going to last a long time and is going to save a life?”
When explaining the importance of quality eyewear to her clients, MacDuffee breaks down the costs of an eye injury for the employer, which she estimates to be upwards of $200,000. She takes into consideration how long the worker is off work (six months in this calculation), medical costs, hiring a replacement worker and surcharges from the workers’ compensation board.
“The better quality they are, the more comfortable they are, the workers are more likely to wear them, they are more likely to care for them because often they look a lot cooler than the cheaper ones and then they are more likely to comply,” says MacDuffee.
Yet another issue with poor quality eyewear is that it can have a negative effect on employee productivity. At an aggregate mining company, workers were coming back to the trailer to replace their eyewear once or twice a day because their disposable glasses were getting all scratched up and dirt and debris was getting into their eyes, recalls Florek.
“That’s an inefficient process in and of itself,” he says. “Then, over the course of the day, that starts to wear on you and even long-term effects of having to do this day in and day out, the workplace productivity goes down.”
CHOOSING SAFETY EYEWEAR
Before employers embark on selecting the right eye protection for their workers that will not lead to eye fatigue, they first need to conduct a hazard assessment. They need to confirm what safety eyewear is needed for specific tasks and related risks.
A good eyewear manufacturer will ask the employer a variety of questions. They should be trying to learn about the problems faced at the company and explore options for solving them.
Choose a manufacturer with a good reputation and that has knowledge of relevant CSA standards and optics in general.
Listen to your employees to find out what is bothering them about their current eyewear. This will not only help with the proper selection, but it can boost morale, says Florek.
“They might have been complaining for years, ‘They only provide us the cheapest stuff and it’s not the right PPE for our applications,’” he says.
It’s also crucial to select a manufacturer that will do a trial run of the eyewear with your employees.
“If you don’t engage workers in any type of safety, from any aspect, whether it’s writing a procedure or selecting PPE, they’re less likely to comply,” says MacDuffee. “If workers are engaged, they feel involved in the solution and they are more likely to be invested and comply — and who better to talk to than the workers who are actually doing the task and wearing the PPE?”
Employees need training on the signs and symptoms of eye strain and eye fatigue, as well as on how the glasses should fit and feel. They also need to be encouraged to speak up if they are having issues with their safety eyewear and not be afraid to tell their employer they need to try a different style, MacDuffee says.
But the most important thing very well might be educating employees on eye injuries in general and truly helping them understand the importance of wearing their safety eyewear. Explain how if something happens to their vision at work it would impact their personal lives, Florek says. Some employers are allowing workers to take a pair of safety glasses home to reinforce this point.
“They can use them when doing woodworking or something as simple as weed whacking the lawn,” he says. “Because if they get hurt at home, that affects them being able to come into work and do their job as well.”
When MacDuffee is talking to workers about PPE, she tries to get them to “look a bit further than themselves.” Ultimately, she wants them to wear the safety glasses because they want to, not because they have to.
“How will that affect your family if you don’t wear [safety glasses] and you get injured?” she asks. “I want them to see their children and grandchildren grow clearly. If you take them out of the workplace and look at how it’s going to affect everybody else if something happens, you kind of see a light go on.”
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of COS.