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eye protection in the laboratory

Essential Eye Protection for the Lab

If there is one thing we are certain about, it is the presence of potential eye hazards in laboratories

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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In today’s modern research and development labs, eye hazards are always present and take many forms. And like our hearing, sight is gone forever if we lose it. Therefore, we should take extra precautions to make sure that never happens.

You really have no excuses, as current safety eyewear is so lightweight and comfortable that most workers don’t even notice they are wearing it after a short while. In fact, continued advances in style, fit, and functionality of safety eyewear are great reasons for workers to want to wear modern protective eyewear.

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However, if you have a few stubborn employees or disbelievers, you might want to enlighten them about these sobering statistics. Did you know that about 2,000 eye injuries requiring medical attention occur on the job every day?1 That equates to around half a million incidents per year. And sadly, 90 percent could be avoided, as most eye injuries are due to employees not wearing eye protection at all. And eye injuries account for an estimated $300 million in medical costs, workers’ compensation, and lost time annually.2

The primary eye hazard in labs is chemical splashes, with flying dust, particulates, glass shards, and the like a close second. Other hazards include ultraviolet light (UVL), lasers, and thermal burns. So it is not a question of when eye protection is needed but rather what type of safety eyewear is correct. What type of eye protection is appropriate for your laboratory work? Keep reading to help answer that question.

Job hazard analyses

As industrial hygienists, we are trained to deal with occupational hazards in a basic three-step process: recognition, evaluation, and control. Prevention—that is, removing the hazard if possible or controlling it with engineering methods, such as putting a safety barrier between the hazard and the worker—always gets priority. Personal protective equipment, such as eye protection, in this case, is considered a last line of defense.

We start the job hazard analysis by identifying the potential eye hazards for the tasks at hand. Determine whether you can eliminate the eye hazards by substituting chemicals, changing the procedure, or utilizing engineering solutions. Evaluate engineering controls such as shielding or guards to prevent particles and splashes from being dispersed or fume hoods or local exhaust ventilation to contain dusts, particles, and vapors.

Eye protection types

Always use safety eyewear that meets American National Standards Institute standard Z87.1-2010.3 Safety eyewear that meets Z87 is tested and must pass stringent requirements for impact, distortion, light transmittance, and lens thickness, among others. Safety eyewear that passes all the tests will carry the Z87+ mark in addition to marks for lens type and use applications.

The type of eye protection must match the hazard, and there are definitely types more appropriate for certain hazards. Special hazards such as UVL, welding, or lasers require special safety eyewear.

Safety glasses with polycarbonate lenses are the most widely used type of eye protection. Polycarbonate is a type of plastic that offers extreme resistance to impact due to unique properties of strength and flexibility. Used in “bulletproof ” windows in addition to safety glasses and many other applications, it provides excellent protection from flying debris and UVL while being lightweight. However, because its impact resistance comes from being flexible, the material is prone to scratching, so look for safety glasses with hard-coated polycarbonate lenses.

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Safety glasses are available in every shape and style imaginable. Today’s well-designed products are lightweight, comfortable, and economical. Keys for a good fit are soft rubber nosepiece and adjustable, rubber-tipped temples that hold well without excessive pressure. Soft, sticky rubber in these areas provides good grip even when the wearer is sweating.

Style, while definitely not a safety feature, it is what motivates many workers to wear their safety glasses. In our experience, facilities that offer the newer stylish wraparound safety glasses find compliance issues reduced significantly, as workers actually want to wear them. Another advantage of the wraparound safety glasses is that they also provide good protection from airborne debris and meet the OSHA personal protective equipment (PPE) eye and face protection standard for side protection in the presence of flying objects.4

Specialty safety glasses

The aging of our nation’s workforce is an undeniable demographic trend. One consequence of this is that many over-40 workers need reading glasses. Manufacturers of safety eyewear have taken notice, and quite a few now offer safety reading glasses. These are offered with polycarbonate lenses that give workers the ability to see things close up as well as read prints and manuals. Safety bifocals are available at a cost much lower than that of prescription safety glasses. In fact, bifocal safety glasses have become a large market, and products now include contemporary sophisticated designs, even the newest wraparounds, in a range of bifocal powers or diopters.

Safety sunglasses are also widely available when the need to work outside is unavoidable. Good-quality safety sunglasses have natural color balance (NCB) gray lenses and provide protection from UVL as well as infrared (IR) and blue light. UV protection is even more important now, as ultraviolet levels have increased recently due to changes in the atmosphere, and UVL also increases at higher altitudes.

Glass or metal buildings and other highly polished, mirrored surfaces reflect light and pose an eye hazard when one is working near water or with intense lights. In this case, polarized safety glasses are needed. Polarized lenses selectively eliminate light reflected by surfaces by allowing only certain wavelengths to pass through, which reduces glare considerably.

Alternate light sources, lasers, and radiation pose dangerous risks to the eyes. Hazards depend on the wavelength and power of the light source, duration of exposure, and which structure of the eye absorbs the light. Reflections off surfaces are a serious potential hazard. A competent technical professional should carefully select appropriate safety glasses for lasers or other special applications.

Watch for eye hazards

Sight is one of our most precious senses. Our eyes are very susceptible to injuries that can lead to serious long-term or permanent disability. The low cost, performance, and myriad styles of today’s safety eyewear make wearing proper eye protection easier than ever.


1. Eye Safety, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Atlanta, GA. July 2013. 

2. Eye Safety At-a-Glance, Vision Council, American Society of Safety Engineers, Alexandria, VA. 

3. Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection Devices, American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Washington, D.C. 20010. 

4. Personal Protective Equipment—Eye and Face Protection, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. table=STANDARDS&p_id=9778