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Donít Turn a Blind Eye

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine

Eye injuries in the workplace can have a devastating effect on the individual involved and on their family. In the worst cases, eye injuries can lead to partial or even total blindness. This article explores means of safeguarding workers’ eyes from a variety of workplace hazards.

In the United States there are more than 300,000 eye injuries per year. With such a huge number of injuries, the risk of a potential eye injury at work cannot be overlooked. A comprehensive preventative action must be taken to ensure a safe working environment. This action calls for employers to take the lead with full support from their employees.

Incident cases

Eyes saved

As the result of a private contractor’s safety glasses programme, an employee began encouraging his 18 year old son who installs siding on houses to wear safety glasses while working.

The son finally agreed when aluminium dust started getting in his eyes. About one week later, he was applying siding with an air powered staple gun when a staple hit a metal plate behind the siding and ricocheted back towards his face. One leg of the staple penetrated the safety glasses’ lens - hitting with such force that the frames cracked. The son received bruising on his eyebrow and cheekbone. Had he not been wearing eye protection, however, his injuries would have been much more serious.

Eyes not saved

My personal encounter with eye injury at work was six years ago, when transferring alkaline powder from a supply tanker into the storage tank in our facility, through a flexible hose.

The powder was pushed through the hose by compressed air, which was generated by a compressor mounted on the tanker. In this particular incident the flexible hose connection gave way, resulting in the surrounding area - and supplies driver - being showered with the powder.

To make matters worse, at the time of the incident the driver was not wearing his safety goggles, meaning the powder entered his eyes. Despite being taken to hospital he lost about 75 percent of his eyesight.

At that time I was the head of health and safety for a large multinational company and due to the nature of our operation, wearing safety glasses was mandatory. As we handled large quantities of powdery materials in our daily activities, it was necessary for anyone who came into our facility to be equipped with at least four types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), one of which was safety goggles.

On the day of the incident the driver had his safety goggles with him. So why was he not wearing them??He chose not to wear the goggles because they were uncomfortable and the lens fogged, meaning he had to keep taking them off and wiping the lens for better visibility.

That was his usual modus operandi. He had been lucky in the past, but on that day his luck ran out.

There are many people like him who, at this very moment, are taking a risk and violating the safety rules.

Causes of injury

Flying objects

Flying objects are one of the major causes of eye injuries at work, and flying particles or objects can come from various sources.

A very unlikely source will be from the tyres of a moving vehicle. I am sure many people have experienced a car windscreen being damaged by an object flying from the vehicle in front. In this instance, passengers are saved by the windscreen. The same could happen in a workplace with vehicle movement; for example, when a vehicle’s tyre runs over a small pebble, turning the pebble into a flying object.

Another source of flying objects at work is from processes which involve cutting or grinding, such as lathes and wood shearing machines. The accidental release of high pressure gases, alkaline materials or air may also lead to eye injuries. 

Chemical splashes

Contact with chemicals such as corrosive liquid or gas can burn and cause injuries to the eyes. Workers in laboratories carrying out chemical tests are a high risk group. This can also include repair and maintenance personnel who may need to handle different types of chemicals.


Exposure to hazardous rays such as lasers, ionising radiation and ultraviolet rays may lead to eye diseases and even blindness.

Preventing injuries

Eye injuries at work can be reduced with close cooperation between the employer and employee. The following provides some recommendations on reducing eye injuries at work.

Leadership driven actions

Leaders who conveniently ignore unsafe behaviours, in doing so set poor safety standards for others to follow.
You reap what you sow, and so leaders need to show the right safety leadership. There is a need to step up the focus on safety and show that employers care for their workers’ wellbeing.

Safety leadership programmes can be an effective way of showing an organisation’s commitment to the safety of their workers. One aspect of such a programme could be to make leaders visible to their staff by engaging in regular walkabouts of the facility. 

During these walkabouts, the leaders can make safety observations and engage in safety conversations with their employees. Safety conversations are a must when the established safety procedures have been breached, and these conversations must be held as soon as an unsafe act has been observed. The key here is to not compromise on the amount of time taken to address the safety issue.

How can techniques used in leadership programmes address eye related injuries? These techniques can be general in nature, where any safety behaviours are observed. Organisations are recommended to embark on specific leadership programmes that focus on ensuring that eye protection is worn at all times in the workplace.

In the safety programmes, the leaders of the company should do a walkabout with the main focus being eye protection and eye related hazards. They could have conversations on the importance of wearing safety goggles and the potential impact of eye injuries to workers and their families. The leaders need to quickly intervene when they observe someone not wearing eye protection, and when they observe the presence of hazards that may harm the eyes.

If these actions are repeated by several leaders of the company at different times, given time there will be a positive impact on the workers. Programmes should be continued for at least six months to see the desired effect.

This was tried successfully when implementing the lockout, tagout and tryout (LOTOTO) process in one particular operation I’m aware of. Each time a leader went to the shop floor they would engage in discussions with relevant employees on the LOTOTO process, asking operators to demonstrate their understanding of it. Through this action the LOTOTO process was learned and became well established in a very short period of time.

Safe working environment

OSH regulations in general state that it is the responsibility of the organisation to provide a safe working environment as far as is reasonably practicable. Provision of a safe working environment is an ongoing process as hazards will always present themselves in the working environment. This is the reason why PPE is mandatory in the working area.

Conducting a comprehensive companywide risk assessment is mandatory for an organisation. Usually, risk assessments are carried out while operations are being conducted in normal conditions; however, organisations need to move beyond the normal operating conditions and carry out risk assessments in abnormal and emergency conditions as well.

Abnormal conditions include, among others: equipment breakdown, rupture of hoses and burst hoses. Emergency conditions include fires, blasts and floods. Raising awareness of these conditions will help organisations to prepare their workers so that, if they are ever faced with these work hazards, the correct measures can be taken to minimise injuries. If, for example, a compressed air pipeline bursts, the gush of air from the pipeline will be hazardous to the eyes. The organisation being aware of this situation will enable workers to be provided with the right eye protection.

As the provision of a safe working environment is an ongoing process, the risk assessment process also needs to be an ongoing activity.

Awareness through training

One of the major contributing factors leading to workplace injury is a lack of hazard awareness. This is especially true for eye related injuries. As explained earlier, many of the hazards that may impact on the eyes come from abnormal situations. One such abnormality is the impact of an accidental release of high pressured air or other gases from a pipeline that has leaked, burst or even had a failure of couplings holding the lines.

How do we effectively communicate the presence of normal and abnormal hazards in the workplace? The current classroom instruction approach towards potential hazards to the eyes may not be sufficient. This is a very generic approach to eye safety, to which workers may not be able to relate.

Training should move beyond the classroom and into the job; a learning visit to a particular process would be a good training strategy. Usage of more audio and visual aids should be increased, rather than continuing to use powerpoint slides.

Getting trainees to assess a process is another approach to raise awareness. The suggestion here is that organisations need to move away from classroom training and consider other, more innovative ways of communicating the message of safety.

One form of training that must be given to the workers is on the handling of safety glasses. Employees have been known to wipe their goggles using either their shirt or a rough cloth, resulting in the glasses being scratched. Repeated every other day, this will eventually make the glasses unsuitable for use; however, employees are not always taught the proper way of maintaining the glasses. This has to be addressed, and must be included in the training package on using and maintaining PPE.

Suitable protection

Many organisations make the mistake of introducing eye protection equipment without conducting a proper study on the suitability of the item in relation to the working context.

One major problem is the huge array of eye protection at our disposal: they come in various shapes, types and shades. The task of selection may sound a little bit daunting. If you are clear on the specific need for eye protection, however, it will be easier to choose.

One problem that a worker may face is fogging of the glass. This may cause inconvenience to the worker, who as a result may remove their eye protection to wipe the lens. You may need to consider anti-fogging glass for some workers.

Getting the best eye protection could potentially involve some trial and error. It is recommended that safety glasses are tested and tried at the shop floor level for suitability. Several different types of glasses need to be tested and employees’ feedback should be sought.

Based on feedback, the organisation can select at least three different types that can be used at the shop floor level, allowing the employees to make their own choice for comfort purposes.

Mandatory requirements

In most organisations it is usually the case that safety shoes and helmets are a mandatory PPE requirement. It is recommended that safety goggles should be made mandatory in all working areas as well.

As workers may be subjected to abnormal hazards, this ruling would help them to avoid potential dangers to their eyes, and will also help organisations to reduce eye injuries.


Reducing eye injuries at work will need a two pronged approach. One is through continuous improvement of processes to eliminate or control hazards that may lead to eye injuries. The second approach is to work with employees in raising their awareness levels through coaching, counselling and training, in order to gain better compliance with wearing protection. 

The role of leaders is important to ensure the success of both approaches, which will ultimately lead to a much safer workplace. 

Published: 28th Nov 2012 in OSA Magazine


Gopala Krishnan

Gopala Krishnan is a Malaysian and holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a certificate in Safety and Health.

He specialises in strategic quality and safety management, particularly in the area of developing continuous improvement strategies. Gopala has more than 20 years of experience in the manufacturing and service industries, and enjoys writing on continuous quality and process improvement for better business performance.

Gopala has been exposed to all aspects of operations in his career, including sales and marketing, purchasing, inventory management, production management, quality control, quality assurance, and safety and environmental management.
Gopala has facilitated safety and leadership development programmes in India, the Philippines and Vietnam.


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