By: Thomas H. Welby Published: July 2009

Safety Policy: Eye Safety Fundamentals

The construction industry leads all occupations in the incidence of time-lost eye injuries.  Construction accounts for more than one-fifth of all significant eye injuries suffered in the U.S. workforce each year.  Workers in the various trades are at risk from exposure to nearly every known threat to the eyes:  impact, ultraviolet radiation, liquid splash and infrared radiation.  From overexposure to the sun, flying wood, paint chips, cut wire ends and nails, toxic cleaning chemicals and paint to infrared exposure from torch welding and cutting, vision hazards can be found nearly everywhere on the jobsite.  While fall hazards, trench cave-ins, crane accidents and electrocutions due to contact with live wires rightly deserve attention as principal causes of construction fatalities, the loss of vision is devastating.  Eye safety, given the ubiquity of the hazards, requires constant attention.

Perhaps the most startling thing about eye safety in construction is that, despite the occurrence of nearly a thousand injuries per day, barely half of the workers in building construction and special trades, and barely a quarter in heavy construction, regularly wear non-prescription safety glasses or goggles while working.  Since safety glasses with “ANSI Z87” certification can be bought for as little as $10 a pair, clearly this is a source of injuries and lost time that could be drastically reduced, at very modest expense.

The observance of five simple rules can greatly reduce the frequency and severity of construction site eye injuries.

Rule #1, obviously, is that protective eyewear should always be worn while workers are performing tasks, or in locations where potential eye hazards are present.  Although, to be sure, protective eyewear is not a 100% guarantee against injury to the eyes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that approximately 60% of lost-time eye injuries occur when the affected employee is not wearing any eye protection. 

Rule #2 is that eyewear should be of the right kind, and must fit properly and comfortably.  Although contact with chemicals is a major source of eye injuries (accounting for roughly a fifth of those experienced in construction) by far the greatest source is flying of falling objects or sparks.  Nearly 70% of all eye injuries result from such causes and, in nearly three-fifths of those cases, the objects striking the worker’s eye are smaller than a pinhead.

Goggles should always be worn, if dust, liquids, or gases will be present.  Goggles must fit over any prescription glasses (or prescription goggles may be worn).  Eye protective devices should allow air to circulate between the eye and the lens (although unvented goggles are indicated for use with contact lenses).  A clear, plastic face shield is required for work with corrosive chemicals, grinding, chipping, the use of a wire brush on welds, flying particles and, of course, sandblasting.

Even where an enhanced degree of protection is not indicated, workers on construction sites should always wear goggles or, at least, safety glasses having side shields.  Special care is required, of course, for workers engaged in welding and flame cutting.  Several variables (the intensity of radiant energy, background lighting — mainly, whether one is working indoors or outdoors — and the difference between standard or reflective lenses) will affect the minimum shade number of lens that must be used.

While most welders are well-trained in the use of appropriate protection against UV rays, “welder’s flash” may affect the vision of others working close by.  Workers should be trained not to look at the welding arc, or reflections of the arc, unless they are wearing a welding hood with the same lens as the welder’s.  OSHA further requires the use of a flameproof screen around a welder, to protect others from UV rays.

Not only must protective eyewear be matched to the job to be performed, it must also be properly maintained.  Most eyewear will not withstand repeated impact or abuse, so regular inspection, and the replacement of badly scratched or broken eyewear, are required.

Rule #3 is that engineering controls and industrial hygiene must be employed where practicable.  Notably, the use of local-exhaust ventilation or fans will often be indicated to blow away fumes or dust.  OSHA requires, also, that eyewash stations be available if there are materials that could injure employees’ eyes.   

Rule #4 is that both rank-and-file workers and supervisors should be instructed concerning what to do when eye injuries occur.

Where an irritating or dangerous chemical comes into contact with the eye, the workers should immediately commence to rinse it out for at least 15 to 20 minutes.  Flowing tap water, if available onsite, should be used (and contact lenses, if worn, should first be removed).  This first-aid measure should be followed up at once with professional medical attention.

If an employee is struck in the eye area, a cold compress (ice cubes in a plastic bag or clean cloth) may be used to reduce swelling, but pressure should not be applied to the eye.  If pain persists or blurred vision occurs, the employee should be seen by a doctor.

If a worker is struck in the eye by flying metal, wood, or material from a power tool, if the eye is cut or punctured or the worker experiences eye pain from any impact-type injury to the eye, he or she should be taken to an emergency room or doctor at once.  Immediate medical attention is often critical in preventing or limiting permanent damage to the worker’s eyesight.

Workers should be instructed that, if the eye is cut or punctured, they should not push on it, wash it out, or try to pull out anything that has become lodged in the eyeball.  Instead, get that worker to a doctor!

Rule #5 is that you must be persistent —you’ve got to be willing to nag.  Nearly all construction workers know, generally, that eye hazards are all around them on the jobsite, but half or more neglect to use protective eyewear.  Just as no one should be able to get into a lift bucket without a harness and lanyard, workers exposed to eye hazards must be required to don protective eyewear before beginning work.  A sizeable minority of workers, unfortunately, will not religiously use eye protection unless made to do so — and, if workers see that eye protection is not insisted on by management, many will not use it consistently.  Quite simply, the minor discomfort or inconvenience associated with the regular use of protective eyewear must be perceived by workers as a lesser irritant than being nagged, told to return to the changing area to retrieve eyewear, or being disciplined for failing to use proper eyewear.

 Studies show, in fact, that although most employers furnish eye protection at no cost to employees, most workers suffering eye injuries do so while performing their regular jobs and claim not to have been aware that eye protection was needed.  About 40% of construction workers claim a lack of instruction regarding where and what kind of eyewear should be used.   The nationwide cost of eye injuries on construction sites is estimated to exceed $300 million annually in lost production time, medical expenses and workers’ compensation.  The impact on individual workers suffering partial or total loss of vision from such incidents is incalculable.

It’s in your employees’ interest, and your own, to make the modest efforts necessary to prevent and reduce the severity of eye injuries in construction activities.

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