Sight-saving tips to prevent eye injuries

May 17, 2000
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One bone-chilling-55°F day in 1996, Mike Maher had an accident he'd never forget. Maher, working for Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railroad Co., went out in a crane to fix a derailed ore car on snow-covered railroad tracks. Coworkers trudged along ahead of him in a grader to help the crane maneuver itself in the harsh Minnesota snowstorm. Two workers then hooked a 20-foot chain from the rear of the grader to the front of the crane to make the job easier.

Snapping like a rubber band, the alloy chain crashed through the crane's windshield, striking Maher in the head. The chain hit his safety glasses-popping out the right lens and pulling the glasses off of his face-then bounced off of his head, and flew out the rear window.

Maher and his coworkers believe a defective link caused the accident, but the heavy snowfall of that winter day will keep the truth a secret forever.

"That chain would have gone in my eye socket and out the back of my head," says Maher.

If he hadn't been wearing his safety glasses. Many-but not all-employees wear their protective glasses because they've seen near-misses in action, like the one that almost killed 52-year-old Maher. But some employees are jaded by tired commands from safety supervisors-wear PPE, read warning signs, know where eyewashes are located, and so on. For some, hearing the same message over and over may not make a lasting impression. Better to try a different approach, which this article will illustrate through several examples.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveal more than half of the 62,010 1995 lost-time occupational injuries to the head were eye injuries. Maher's life could be different now-or the same as it always was-if the car he was in was chained from the rear, which has been the company policy since the accident.

Instead, Maher is left to deal with complications including a lost sense of smell, a shattered cheek bone, cracked skull, and frustrating memory lapses. Once an avid card player, he now finds games of double-deck pinochle with his wife and friends taxing. "I'm just learning to live again," says Maher. But he knows he is lucky to have a life to live, thanks to the eye protection he was wearing that day.

Maher's coworkers learned from his experience as well. If they weren't wearing PPE, they do now, says Maher. And, Maher, who still works full time, is a constant reminder of the importance of eyewear.

Unfortunately, tragic personal experiences are one way strong eye protection programs are created. Here are some examples of how safety pros turn misfortune into motivation.

Show and tell

Show-and-tell sessions go back to kindergarten, and they prove useful in the workplace. Ed Fadler of the Doe Run Company's Resource Recycling Division in Boss, Mo., explains why.

Recycling lead-bearing materials on a daily basis turns up many hazards, including molten lead, as Fadler is quick to point out to new employees. In fact, he passes molten- and machine-damaged safety glasses around so new hires can see the dangers for themselves. The human resources and safety assistant says safety hazards "hit home" when employees see them up close.

Accident histories also do a good job of illustrating dangers to employees, as well as testimony from folks who were unfortunate enough to experience them. Fadler shows footage of actual injuries (not from his plant) so employees can see how an innocent bystander can get hurt. In one scene, a piece of metal flew from one end of a room to the other and lacerated a worker's eye. Not a pretty sight.

Fadler reminds employees that molten slag can melt right through the eyelids and cause blindness.

"You've only got one pair of eyes," says Fadler. "You need them to watch grandkids grow up."

Common sense is one of the best pieces of advice Fadler gives employees. If you need to clean your glasses, he says, just make sure the area is clear of hazards. One way of knowing this is by inspecting the worksite for eye hazards. A fellow from Nebraska shows how it's done.

The survey says

After witnessing the eyes nearly flushed completely out of the head of a 25-year-man in a speedboat collision, Jim Lewandowski took up a safety cross.

He's worked in safety all of his adult life, at the scene of that accident as an EMT, and in insurance, hospital and industrial settings. Recently, Lewandowski lauched a pilot project for Prevent Blindness America in Nebraska to identify eye hazards and supply training needs in industrial settings. He developed a detailed questionnaire to simplify the process for employers.

Lewandowski's survey makes employers consider all workplace equipment and who uses it, company goals, training, first aid, eye hazards and types of protection. He says developing an eye-injury costs survey in the 1980s in cooperation with glaucoma screening programs, optometrists, food manufacturers and other sources helped him craft the questions. After a few months of testing the questionnaire in industry, Lewandowski and Prevent Blindness America hope to market the concept to companies in the private sector.

At Armour Swift-Eckrich in Omaha, Neb., where Lewandowski works full-time, the safety and first aid director he uses face-to-face reminders and some disciplinary measures to communicate the importance of eye protection. He, too, finds a near-miss story gets attention.

"One day I told a group of employees going through first-day safety orientation about an experience I had in the spring of 1997," says Lewandowski.

He was wearing safety glasses while mowing his lawn at home when a rock shot out from under the mower and hit the lenses, scratching them.

"I showed the glasses to them, and said it could have been my eyes that were damaged," says Lewandowski.

Scare tactics have their place in eye protection programs, along with hazard surveys, regular meetings, training, disciplinary measures, and posters and signs warning of dangers. But as much as anything, it takes energy and a sense of purpose by safety supervisors to motivate foremen and employees to take eye safety seriously.

Employees at Avondale Industries in New Orleans, La., for example, know safety supervisors are watching. One is present on a rotating basis throughout the five areas of the plant. They watch foremen who, in turn, watch employees. If they're not vigilant, foremen pay for injuries indirectly.

Ray Young, safety supervisor for Avondale, says his workers know what it's like to have a good man down.

"It could slow down production," says Young. "And if one person is injured, that throws off everything."

Young, as well as Fadler, are members of the Wise Owl club, a division of the Prevent Blindness America group, based in Schaumburg, Ill.

The club recognizes workers whose sight has been saved by wearing protective eye equipment. Young says his company has been a part of the group for 20 years.

Recent member and shipfitter Phillip Fontenot suffered an eye injury when a piece of metal he was working with broke loose. The area under his right eye was scratched when the right safety lens popped out and the frames broke. But the glasses certainly saved his eyes from extensive permanent damage.

At Avondale Industries, injuries can affect performance evaluations of foremen. In this case, the foreman was fortunate that Fontenot was back to work immediately.

A new prescription

These stories show the impact that near-misses, personal tragedy, and personal commitment can have on eye protection efforts. Staples of eye safety programs include identifying hazards, showing the harm they can cause, and ensuring compliance with OSHA's rules. It also helps to take eye protection to a personal level, reminding employees they never want to lose sight of their families, friends, favorite places and hobbies.

It's too bad many people only realize this after a close call. H.L. Bouton Co., Inc., for example, received a letter from a user of its glasses who said a pair saved her vision. She was in a truck accident, and a shattered windshield deeply gouged the lenses.

"I am truly grateful our warehouse foreman ordered these glasses," she says. "Thank you for making them."

Getting a thanks from someone whose eyesight you've saved makes any safety pro's job worthwhile.

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