Thick-lensed frames that pinched your face. Glasses sliding down your nose. Distorted vision. And probably a headache by the end of the day.

These are all characteristics of safety eyewear from days gone by. But today’s modern protective eyewear is lightweight, fashionable and, above all, comfortable to wear. Clearly, there has been a revolutionary change in the safety eyewear industry. Let’s explore some of the major causes for these changes, the specific areas of innovation, their impact on the workplace, and the future directions for safety eyewear design.

Shifting the focus

The year 1989 marked a turning point for the eyewear industry. That year, ANSI established new safety eyewear standards that were based on the performance of the eyewear, not on the design of the eyewear. This change opened the door for manufacturers to create protective eyewear that was both attractive and comfortable, while still meeting the new, higher impact and protection standards. This shift in focus recognized that workers who could choose safety eyewear that they “wanted to wear” were more likely to be compliant.

But ANSI was not the primary driving force behind these changes; the market was. Industry surveys and focus groups showed that workers were demanding safety eyewear that was more comfortable, better fitting and more attractive than the products then available. Safety officers were demanding more choices and products to fit many different facial profiles, and purchasing departments were demanding lower costs. The revisions to the ANSI standard — both in 1989 and subsequently — provided the opportunity for the industry to respond to these demands of the market.

Design challenge

The challenge for product designers was to strike a balance between style and comfort while keeping in mind the performance and impact resistance required by the ANSI standard. In addition to a new minimum thickness, the 1989 ANSI standard required that safety eyewear meet certain impact requirements, including a high-velocity test in which the eyewear must withstand an impact from a .25-inch (6.35 mm) steel ball traveling at 150 feet per second (45.7 mps), which is just over 100 miles per hour.

While it may be easy to provide that level of impact resistance for a lens, it is not so easy to also make that lens lightweight. And while it may be easy to design an eyewear frame that fits comfortably on one face, or is elegantly stylish and fashionable, it is not so easy to make a frame that fits comfortably on a wide range of faces, or to mass-produce that style at a price point purchasers are willing to pay or that competitors can’t beat.

Polycarbonate, which is now the material of choice for safety eyewear lenses, is also the material of choice for a number of other clear plastic applications that require high optical clarity, such as CDs and DVDs. Developments in these areas, along with concurrent advances in injection molding techniques, have resulted in the production of lenses that not only meet all applicable standards, but also significantly exceed them. Today you will find safety eyewear that passes military V0 ballistic impact tests. To pass this test, the eyewear must withstand the impact of a projectile traveling at 650 feet per second. Plus, polycarbonate lenses are lightweight and have high optical clarity, which helps to eliminate eye fatigue and discomfort for wearers.

Technological advances in other plastic materials — specifically thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) and thermoplastic urethanes (TPUs) — along with advanced molding techniques have also led to new, innovative comfort technologies, such as ultra-soft flexible nose bridges, cushioned brow guards and temple guards that cushion behind the ears.

Design innovations

In-mold assembly and other advanced techniques have made eyewear more efficient to manufacture, but the real advances have come from imaginative design, providing safety officers and eyewear users more choices than ever before. These design innovations include:
  • wraparound lenses that improve peripheral vision and side protection;
  • lens designs that improve ventilation and minimize fogging;
  • soft nosepieces that adjust to provide a precise fit for almost any nose;
  • quick lens replacement systems;
  • temple arms that extend and contract or ratchet up and down;
  • Multi-Material Technology® (a patented process from Uvex) that positions cushioned comfort at all points of contact with the face and diffuses and deflects impact;
  • lenses with enhanced UV protection, improved scratch resistance and anti-fog coatings;
  • minimalist styles similar to current sunglasses;
  • magnifying lenses; tinted, mirrored and polarized lenses;
  • flip-up style lenses for workers in special environments; and
  • cool colors and design features for style-conscious wearers.

Measures of success

While products are getting better, and in many cases compliance is increasing, much more needs to be done. According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in a single year there were more than 42,000 eye injuries or illnesses that resulted in lost time. Over 70 percent resulted from flying or falling objects, 60 percent of which were smaller than the head of a pin. In addition to the pain and suffering caused by these injuries, they cost an estimated $300 million in lost productivity.

Many of these eye injuries could have been prevented if safety eyewear had been worn. In the construction industry, for example, eye injury rates are about three times higher than the national average, and compliance rates are correspondingly lower.

The safety eyewear industry has responded to the demand. Innovation in safety eyewear design and manufacturing has resulted in products that are much safer, more comfortable, more appealing and more economical than ever before. New, improved products will continue to address the safety needs of workers.