Of all the hazards faced in research laboratories, the one ubiquitous danger is hazard to the eyes. Here is a typical scenario from down under:
A research worker was performing a routine procedure in the laboratory. The technique involved heating a glass Pasteur pipette, stretching it out and then quickly breaking off the tip to obtain a sharp end. Some fragments of glass hit the worker and became lodged in his eye, causing some scratching of the cornea and resulting in a corneal ulcer. The worker was not wearing eye protection at the time of the incident. Several other people in the area who performed the same operation also did not wear safety spectacles or work behind safety screens.1
We know that most research laboratory professionals are familiar with basic eye protection, but did you know that about 2,000 eye injuries occur on the job EVERY DAY, resulting in lost time away from work?2,3 And here is a shocker: three out of five eye injuries are due to employees not wearing any eye protection at all. There is no excuse for this. Do either you or your workers realize that even “minor” eye injuries can cause long-term vision problems and suffering? That corneal scratch mentioned above, for example, can lead to corneal erosion and a lifetime of recurring pain.
Research laboratories have their own unique eye hazards, and eye protection should be worn all the time, even by visitors. It is also not a question of when eye protection is needed, but the correct type of safety eyewear; many of the 2,000 injuries per day that require medical attention are caused by wearing the wrong type of eyewear. So—what type of eye protection is appropriate for your laboratory? Let’s see if I can help answer that question.
Step one – Perform hazard analyses
Industrial hygienists are trained to deal with occupational hazards in a basic three-step process: Recognition, Evaluation and Control. We are strong believers in prevention, and this means either removing the hazard if possible or controlling it with engineering methods. Personal protective equipment, such as eye protection in this case, should be a first step toward putting a safety barrier between the hazard and the worker.
After identifying the potential eye hazards in your lab, see if you can reduce the hazards by either substituting chemicals, changing the procedure or installing engineering solutions. Engineering controls include shielding or guards to prevent particles and splashes being dispersed, and fume hoods or local exhaust ventilation to contain dust, particles and vapors.
Step two – What type of eye protection is best?
No matter the type or style of eye protection, workers should always wear equipment that meets American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z87.1-2010.4 Safety eyewear that meets Z87 is tested and must pass stringent requirements for basic mass impact (a 1-inch steel ball dropped from 50 inches), high mass impact (a 500-gram pointed projectile dropped from 50 inches), high velocity impact (a quarter-inch BB shot at 150-300 feet per second), distortion, light transmittance, and lens thickness (not for impact rated protectors), among others. Safety eyewear that passes all the tests will carry the Z87+ mark in addition to marks for the lens type and application usage. After this, the next rule is the old cliché—the right tool for the job. The type of eye protection must match the hazard, and there are definitely more appropriate types for certain hazards.
Polycarbonate lens safety glasses are the most prevalent type of eye protection. Polycarbonate is a type of plastic that offers extreme resistance to impact because of its unique properties of strength and flexibility. Used in “bulletproof ” windows, in addition to safety glasses and many other applications, polycarbonate provides excellent protection from flying debris and UV light while being lightweight. However, because its impact resistance comes from being flexible, the material is prone to becoming easily scratched. Therefore, look for safety glasses with hard-coated polycarbonate lenses.
Safety glasses come in every shape and style imaginable. Well-designed products are lightweight, comfortable and economical; also important is a good fit. Things to look for are soft rubber nosepieces and adjustable, rubber-tipped temples that hold well without excessive pressure. Soft, sticky rubber in these areas provides a good grip even when the wearer is sweating.
Style may be even more important than comfort and fit, at least in some cases. Although style does not rank high as a safety feature or score points with management or your purchasing agent, style is what motivates many workers to wear their safety glasses. In our experience, facilities that offer the newer, stylish wraparound safety glasses find compliance problems reduced significantly as workers actually want to wear the glasses. Another advantage of the wraparound safety glasses is that they also provide good protection from airborne debris and meet the OSHA personal protective equipment eye and face protection standards for side protection in the presence of flying objects.5
Note: Specialty safety glasses
An undeniable demographic trend is the aging of our nation’s workforce. One result of this is that many workers are people over the age of 40 who need reading glasses. Manufacturers of safety eyewear have taken notice of this trend, and quite a few now offer safety reading glasses with polycarbonate lenses that give workers the ability to see close up as well as the ability to read print and manuals. These safety bifocals are available for much less than prescription safety glasses. In fact, bifocal safety glasses have become a large market and offerings now include contemporary stylish designs—even the newest wraparounds—in a range of bifocal powers or diopters.
Sometimes the need to work either outdoors or under intense light is unavoidable. Safety sunglasses are the answer when these situations arise. Good quality safety sunglasses will have natural color balance gray lenses and provide protection from UV light as well as infrared and blue light. UV protection is even more important now, as ultraviolet levels have increased recently due to changes in the atmosphere. UV also increases at higher altitudes, so take your location into consideration, too.
When working near water, glass or metal buildings, or other highly polished, shiny surfaces, reflected light could become an eye hazard. In this case, polarized safety glasses are needed. Polarized lenses selectively eliminate the reflected light off surfaces by only allowing certain wavelengths to pass through, thus considerably reducing glare.
Lasers and radiation impart dangerous risks to the eyes. The hazards present depend on the wavelength and power of the light source, the duration of the exposure and which structure of the eye absorbs the light. Reflections off surfaces are a serious potential hazard. A competent technical person should carefully select appropriate safety glasses for the wavelengths encountered.
Step three – Keep a lookout for eye hazards
One of our most precious senses is vision. Our eyes are very susceptible to injuries that can lead to either long-term problems or a permanent disability. Given the economical cost, performance and myriad styles of today’s safety eyewear, there is no excuse for not wearing proper eye protection. Ensure that your employees are keeping a lookout for eye hazards.
- Occupational Health and Safety Hazard Alert - Eye Injury from a Shattering Pasteur Pipette, Monash University, Victoria, Australia. May 2008. http://www.adm.monash.edu/ohse/documents/hazard-alerts/eye-injurypipette. html
- Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities, Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. http://www.bls.gov/iif/home.htm
- National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Eye Safety, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/eye/default.html
- Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection Devices, American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Washington, D.C. 2010. http://webstore.ansi.org/
- Personal Protective Equipment – Eye and Face Protection, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Labor. Washington, D.C. http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9778