If your workplace has any eye hazards, a basic eye protection policy is the easiest way to lower on-the-job injuries. These hazards do not need any history of severity. One bad eye injury will trigger a policy out of necessity, but do not wait that long. OSHA has always mandated that you will have an eye protection policy, and this has been strengthened under its more recent personnal protective equipment regulations. But the primary reason why you should have a workable program is that once it is in place, it will save unknown numbers of people from unncessary pain and suffering and will save your organization 'undocumentable' amounts of time and money.

OK to enforce

Not that it will be easy at first. If your company has never had mandatory eye protection, or more likely, a policy that has been enforced, there will be lots of resistance. But, if your workplace has true eye hazards ? machines or processes that produce flying projectiles, liquid splash, or welding arcs ? it would be foolish not to implement and enforce a strict eye protection policy.

Every group that has a successful program has a 'war story' that begins such a policy. At our plant, an individual who was using a nail gun to attach a metal clip to a wood frame, miscued and did not get the nail lined up with the hole in the clip. When he shot the nail it hit the clip and ricocheted up into his eye.

When I saw him lying on the nurse's couch with an ice pack on his eye (when the eye is traumatized, it swells), I recognized him as the individual I had given safety glasses to the week before. He told me later, the safety glasses had given him a headache, so he had not worn them.

At the time, we provided safety glasses on request but did not enforce the wearing of them. OSHA states that you will furnish eye protection and enforce it being worn. Now the term 'enforce' means just that ? you 'force' people to wear it. This individual's eye was saved, but he lost 17 percent of the vision in it. The wound left a scar on his eye and as he described it, it was like looking through a piece of window plastic that had a scratch on it. And it never went away. Workers' Compensation kicked in and even though we continued employment for him and paid all his medical bills, he still successfully sued us for a disability. Do not let this happen to you!

How to enforce

At Shelby Williams, we strictly enforce a 100 percent eye protection policy in the plants. It does not matter if the particular department has an actual hazard or not, eye protection still must be worn. This saves a lot of hassle when employees enter a part of the plant where the known hazards are located. It spares a lot of lame excuses such as, "I forgot I had to wear them," or, "I'll only be there for a minute." The policy has to be enforced fairly and equally. Initially, you will find yourself as chief enforcer and bad guy, but do not let it bother you. There is a greater good. When I notice an infraction, I usually approach the individual and ask them if they know that they should be wearing safety glasses. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons and sometimes people honestly forget to put them on. Also, you want to make sure that the individual does know and understand the policy.

Despite memos and posters on bulletin boards and meetings with supervisors and managers about the policy, there is only one way to be sure that someone has been told something, and that's when you have told them. If an individual always has an excuse, it's time for a formal reprimand. It's best to confront the individual during the act and tell him or her what you are going to do. This is the only honest way to do it. You can do it with a clear conscience because you know they have been told ? you are the one who told them. Do not show anger or give the impression that you are being vindictive. You must understand that you are not being a nice guy, or a friendly supervisor, if you let employees get by without wearing safety glasses when there are actual hazards.

The ultimate pay-off

I had an individual working in shipping who liked to wear his safety glasses on his forehead the way 'cool' people wear their sunglasses. I kept after him until I finally had him reprimanded. He did not like it. Less than six months later, he came into my office for a pair of safety glasses for a fellow employee. He also had a story to share.

Some time ago he had been removing a banding strip from a shipping crate. For whatever reason, he was wearing the glasses over his eyes rather than on his forehead. He did not deliberately pull his glasses down over his eyes for this particular job, they were already there. You can guess what happened . . . the metal band broke and snapped back against his head knocking his safety glasses off and making a minor cut on the side of his head.

The nurse told him the obvious: the safety glasses had taken the main impact force and without them he would have had his eye cut open. This was several years ago, and this individual is still very enthusiastic about wearing his safety glasses all the time. He understands that his reprimand was more than just me doing my job; I was actually looking out for his welfare. If I had let discipline slide, then when he had lost his eye I would have been "sorry about the unfortunate incident," and we would have made another attempt at reinstating an eye policy.

OSHA's regulations require you to do a hazardous assessment for all hazards that would require personal protection. That's the formal program, and believe me, it is nice to have a formal written policy! But, you also need a program that's not just on paper, and you need a policy that works. At Shelby Williams, our most widespread known eye hazard involves flying projectiles: staples in upholstery, air-powered tools in wood assembly, wood saws and other equipment. In our metal shop we have welders and brazers and they require filtered glasses and welding hoods. We also have finishing materials, so for operations that might cause a splash we require goggles or face shields. But the main thrust of the program is safety glasses with side shields. Here's how we do it:

Shelby's eye protection program

  • First of all, we provide 'give-away' or 'freebie' glasses to all employees. These are good government specification safety glasses. They are usually on the lower end of the cost spectrum. We attempt to have at least two different styles on hand. We give these away like candy.
  • Second, you must remember that people are social animals and the workplace for them is a social space. They want to look attractive and they want to be individuals. So, I keep several styles of safety glasses that are 'designer models' which I sell at cost to the employees. I try and stay away from glasses that cost more than $10 because there is a greater tendency for people to try to get them without paying for them.
  • Most of the glasses I sell have replaceable lenses so after the person has bought the glasses, I give them replaceable lenses for free. These lenses are for the most part cheaper than the glasses we give away, so there is a cost savings. These glasses are good in another way. Some of the replacement lenses are dark and some are amber. Because they resemble designer sunglasses when the dark lenses are in, I sell the colored safety lenses to them at cost and they wear them as sunglasses or shooting glasses. This way they use safety glasses off-the-job, as well.
  • We also give a $35 rebate to any employee who buys and wears prescription safety glasses with side shields. OSHA has interpreted the PPE standard to mean that payment for any PPE that is very personal in nature and is usable by workers off-the-job may be left to labor/management negotiations. This includes prescription safety glasses.

Roger Simpson, CSP, is safety and envronmental director for Shelby Williams in Morristown, TN. He can be reached at (423) 586-7000.