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How the right safety glasses can help prevent workplace eye injuries

woman wearing safety glasses at work

Workplace eye injuries can impact workers in all types of industries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that roughly 2,000 American employees suffer work-related eye injuries daily. These recorded eye injuries are severe enough to need medical treatment, so this figure doesn’t even include less-serious eye injuries. Wearing proper safety eyewear can help to turn this trend around.

Specifically, eye doctors and safety professionals stress that wearing proper eye protection can result in fewer and less-severe eye injuries. According to Environmental, Health and Safety Today (EHS Today), having proper eye protection can prevent an estimated 90% of eye injuries.

SEE RELATED: Eye safety basics

Common workplace eye hazards

To prevent eye injuries from happening in the first place, it’s essential to know about on-the-job eye hazards. Many different types of workplaces and occupations present numerous potential eye-injury risk factors. Besides puncture wounds, your eyes can suffer bruises and abrasions. Other types of eye injuries include:

  • Impact injuries

  • Heat-related injuries

  • Chemical eye damage

  • Hot steam burns

  • Optical radiation injuries

  • Mucous membrane exposure

Impact injuries

Most impact-related eye injuries result from some type of flying object striking a person’s eye. Examples include shavings from a metal lathe or wood dust particles from a table saw or other woodworking equipment.  

Heat-related injuries  

High-temperature heat sources in a foundry, a blacksmithing shop or similar workplaces can be hazardous. Your eyes could be damaged by flying sparks, molten metal splashes or even blasts of extremely hot air. 

Chemical eye damage

Working around hazardous chemicals puts you at risk of chemical injuries. You might accidentally splash chemicals in your eye or come into contact with chemical fumes. If you’re not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or you’ve donned the wrong kind of eyewear, the chemical can easily find its way to your eyes.

SEE RELATED: Chemical eye burns

Hot steam burns

If you frequently work around boilers or steam pipes, blasts of steam can unexpectedly burn your face and eyes. And in this case, you may not know the full extent of the burn until the next day.

Optical radiation injuries

High amounts of optical radiation, particularly from lasers, can cause damage to unprotected eyes. Optical radiation also includes visible light, ultraviolet radiation from the sun and infrared radiation. 

Mucous membrane exposure

If you’re a healthcare or lab worker, infectious disease transmission can occur through your eyes’ mucous membranes. Blood splashes and respiratory droplets from coughing are common risk factors.

Not surprisingly, workplace settings can present numerous eye injury risk factors. Many job sites may require safety glasses with side shields, safety goggles or even a full face shield. By wearing the right PPE for the situation, and understanding when to wear safety glasses, you’re in a much better position to protect yourself from expected and unexpected hazards.

How important is workplace eye protection?

Many workers experience on-the-job eye injuries because they weren’t using protective equipment, such as safety glasses. As Occupational Health & Safety reports, the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed workers with eye injuries. Almost three-fifths of them didn’t think they needed eye protection for the conditions in which they were injured. They didn’t understand when to wear safety glasses.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your employer should take responsibility for its employees’ eye safety. Your company’s workplace safety officer or industrial hygiene officer should use the OSHA eye and face safety standards to evaluate specific on-the-job hazards. They will then follow the OSHA safety glasses policy and provide appropriate protective equipment and adequate training for you and the other workers. 

As you’d expect, the right high-quality safety glasses may vary based on the specific situation. Your vision needs also factor into the types of safety glasses that are appropriate for you. For example, safety glasses with readers — which eliminate the need to wear separate reading glasses under your safety glasses — might be the right choice depending on what you do and the types of hazards you’re exposed to. Regardless, it’s essential to always follow the OSHA safety glasses policy in your workplace.

Safety glasses vs. conventional glasses

You recognize that high-quality safety glasses, especially impact safety glasses, would prevent workplace eye injuries. However, you’d rather not keep track of yet another pair of glasses, so you’d like to bring your everyday glasses to work instead.

Your company’s workplace safety officer will probably not allow you to do that because it doesn’t satisfy the OSHA safety glasses policy. All protective eye safety devices must meet higher impact resistance standards than your everyday glasses.

These stricter requirements pertain to both the frames and the lenses of all safety eyewear. In other words, your existing prescription glasses aren’t likely to qualify as impact safety glasses or prescription safety glasses.

Both the lenses and frames of safety glasses have to meet a higher standard of impact resistance than regular eyewear.  OSHA uses standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in three key areas:

  • High velocity impact – Measures how well the lens and frame resist the impact of a small object hitting the lens at high speed.

  • High mass impact – Determines whether the lens will stay in the frame when struck by a fairly heavy object.

  • Durability – Tests the frame for corrosion and fire resistance, plus other factors.

Frames that adhere to ANSI standards for basic impact are marked with “Z87,” and frames that meet requirements for high impact are marked with “Z87+.” Prescription safety glasses are marked with “Z87-2.”

Types of safety glasses

Regardless of your vision requirements, the safety eyewear you choose should fit the type of job you do and the hazards you may encounter. Some occupations put workers at an especially high risk of eye injuries. 

Hazardous professions include manufacturing, construction, carpentry and welding. Mining, plumbing work, electrical work and auto repair also present higher-than-usual eye injury risks.

Several types of safety glasses cater to users with specific needs. Some safety glasses combine multiple features to address workplace risks.

Prescription safety glasses 

Prescription safety glasses accommodate users who need vision correction. Safety glasses with single-vision lenses, bifocal lenses or progressive lenses are available for those who need help with their near, intermediate or distance vision. 

Non-prescription safety glasses

Non-prescription, or “plano” safety glasses, are available for those who don’t need corrective (prescription) lenses. You can find these in a variety of styles, designs and lens tints. Safety glasses with readers (a bifocal reading segment in the bottom half of the lens) may also be a good non-prescription choice for you if you have presbyopia.

Sometimes you may receive non-prescription custom safety glasses from your company that are designed to meet its particular needs or that feature your company’s corporate logo. 

Safety glasses with side shields

Safety glasses with side shields are especially important if there’s any risk of debris flying near your eyes. Examples include dust, metal shavings, wood particles or flying objects.

High-quality safety glasses construction

Just like any other well-constructed item, top-notch materials and good construction should result in effective safety eyewear. Regardless of the types of safety glasses, don’t compromise on lens and frame materials.

No matter what type of eye protection your job requires, insist on high quality.  It’s not a good idea to skimp on price for eye protection when your vision may be at risk. 

Make sure your glasses are comfortable, as you’ll be wearing them every day. To keep your eyewear safe, consider storing them in a wall-mounted safety glasses holder, a hard-sided case or a microfiber pouch.

Polycarbonate lenses

Creating quality safety eyewear begins with top-tier lens materials. Polycarbonate lenses are an excellent choice and are extremely popular for several reasons.

First, this lightweight material weighs considerably less than glass, so you won’t feel like the glasses are trying to slide down your nose from the weight. Polycarbonate lenses can be clear or tinted and can have anti-reflective and anti-scratch coatings applied to them. As a bonus, they offer 100% UV protection.

Polycarbonate safety glasses also have much better impact resistance than glass lenses. Polycarbonate lenses should resist moderate impacts from flying particles and other objects, making them effective for impact safety glasses.

However, this versatile material does have one notable downside. Because polycarbonate lenses are softer than glass lenses, they’ll likely scratch more easily. Scratching may occur even if a scratch-resistant coating has been applied. As a result, these very comfortable safety glasses do require careful handling.

Other lens materials 

There are several other materials that are commonly used for lenses in safety glasses. They each have benefits and drawbacks.

  • Plastic (CR-39) – Good resistance to pitting and solvent contact. Weighs half as much as glass lenses.

  • Trivex – About the same impact resistance as polycarbonate. Better optical clarity than polycarbonate, but significantly higher price.

  • Hi-Vex – Available with every coating. Better impact resistance than CR-39 lenses.

Frame construction

Plastic or metal frames are popular and will accommodate prescription or non-prescription lenses, both of which have impact resistance. When necessary, safety glasses with side shields are also available. 

To keep your glasses in place, you can choose from several different temple (earpiece) styles:

  • Hockey – Bends down behind your ear like a hockey stick.

  • Spatula – Straight temples that keep your glasses on by hugging your head.

  • Cable – Hooks around your ear.

  • Headband – An elastic band circles behind your head to ensure your glasses never come off. Most often seen with goggles.

Differently sized and configured bridges may also increase users’ comfort. Fixed and adjustable bridges and nose pads will also improve wearability.

A well-made pair of custom safety glasses should combine good wearability with effective eye protection. You can protect your investment by keeping your safety eyewear in a special-purpose safety glasses holder.

Storage and easy access

If your safety glasses are easily accessible, you’re more likely to wear them. You won’t have to think about it. Grabbing them and putting them on will become automatic.

Depending on your workplace layout, you may already have a tabletop safety glasses holder or a wall-mounted safety glasses holder. When you’re done for the day, always return your eyewear to the same location.

Other eye protection options

Other types of safety eyewear provide substantial user protection and may be required for specific work environments. In some cases, different types of protection may be worn together to further enhance eye safety.

Safety goggles

Workers who wear safety glasses with side shields while working in environments with chemical vapor and splash hazards may not get all the eye protection they need. Instead, they should wear a pair of well-fitted safety goggles. 

Your workplace eye safety hazards may include airborne shards of metal or wood along with dust particles. Liquid chemicals and fumes, as well as several types of optical radiation, also present a danger to your eyes.

Well-fitted safety goggles will offer a high degree of protection against these risks. They’re especially effective against impact injuries from particles, chips and airborne fragments. The goggles’ lenses are specially designed to withstand a moderate impact from a flying object. 

When properly adjusted, the goggles essentially create a seal around your eyes, and foreign objects won’t be able to get around or under the goggles. If the goggles don’t form a proper seal, they won’t provide sufficient protection.

However, lenses that are simply impact resistant may not protect your eyes from optical radiation. If you work in an environment where optical radiation is a hazard, make sure your goggles are specifically designed to protect against it.

If you require corrective lenses, safety goggles may offer two options. Some safety goggles feature prescription lenses directly behind the goggles’ protective lenses. Others are designed so wearers can securely place the safety goggles over glasses.

When choosing safety goggles, carefully evaluate the frame and lens choices before making your purchase. When wearing safety goggles over glasses, make sure the face seal remains intact.

Proper ventilation is also essential. Choose from three types of goggles, each with its own ventilation properties:

  • Direct ventilated – Eyewear permits air to flow directly into the goggles.

  • Indirect ventilated – A covered vent allows ventilation while furnishing splash protection.

  • Non-ventilated – No ventilation means the user receives protection from mist, dust, vapors and liquid.

SEE RELATED: COVID goggles: Do you need coronavirus eye protection?

Face shields

A quality face shield helps provide full-face protection from various types of flying debris. For example, face shields offer full-face protection against bloodborne, chemical or spraying hazards. Made from different transparent substances, face shields are available in varied thicknesses to match common workplace tasks and corresponding hazards.

A face shield isn’t designed to be worn by itself. For maximum benefit, you should wear safety glasses or safety goggles in addition to a face shield. If particles somehow make their way under the shield, the glasses or goggles will still protect your eyes. And, if you lift the shield, your eyes will still be protected from most airborne hazards. 

Specialized eye protection

If you’re a welder or you work with lasers, you may need a helmet or special filters on the lenses of your safety eyewear to protect your eyes from optical radiation and other dangers. 

Maintaining your safety eyewear

Take time to keep your safety eyewear clean and in good shape so it can protect your eyes and help enhance your performance. Here are some ways to maintain your safety glasses each day:

Rinse your glasses under lukewarm water to wash off any light debris. Dry the glasses with a clean, lint-free towel. If necessary, use compressed air (the kind you use to clean your keyboard) to rid the glasses of any remaining dust particles. Lens cleaner and even dishwashing liquid may also be useful.

Stay away from textured cloth and abrasive cleaning products. To avoid scratches on your lenses, use a microfiber cloth designed specifically for glasses. Household cleaning products are also off-limits, as they can harm the glasses’ specially applied coatings.

Inspect your safety eyewear daily. Make sure there aren’t any cracks, chips or broken components. If the eyewear is compromised in any way, it won’t protect your eyes from workplace hazards.

If your glasses are scratched, they can negatively impact your vision and cause eye strain. If the frames are damaged, they’re a safety hazard. Replace your glasses promptly so they’ll continue to deliver the on-the-job performance you need.

Choose the right eye protection for you

The best option for you will depend on your situation, whether it’s glasses with side shields, specialized eye protection for your specific needs, or safety goggles that fit over your regular glasses. Whatever you choose to wear, you’ll greatly minimize your chances of experiencing a workplace eye injury.

Eye Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 2013.

800,000 Eye Injuries Occur Annually, 90% are Preventable. Environmental, Health and Safety Today. March 2008.

Protecting your eyes at work. American Optometric Association. Accessed January 2021.

Eye and Face Protection eTool. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Accessed January 2021. 

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