Vision is our primary means of experiencing the world. Without it, our ability to enjoy life and make a living is greatly diminished. Yet we often take for granted the organs that allow us to take in the visual information we process. The eye is an intricate, delicate structure comprised of approximately 40 components and more than 100 million receptors. Eyes are vulnerable to a multitude of hazards, from dust and flying debris to chemicals and harmful vapors.

Because the value of vision is immeasurable, protecting eyes in the workplace is of utmost importance. Experts agree that by using the proper safety eyewear, 90 percent of the 800,000 workplace eye injuries that occur each year in the U.S. could be avoided. Thanks to national safety standards and improved workplace safety programs, the number of such injuries is decreasing.

However, accidents continue to happen. Treating an injured worker’s eyes with emergency eyewash is the first, critical component to ensuring a timely and healthful recovery. Injuries that are not properly treated can result in short-term or long-term, partial or complete vision loss, the effects of which can take a large toll on a person’s productivity and quality of life. The cost to employers is significant, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the cost incurred by workplace eye injuries exceeds $934 million per year in both direct and indirect costs.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has emergency eyewash guidelines in place to help ensure the best possible outcome for injured workers. ANSI Z358.1-2009 requires that a primary eyewash station be located within a ten-second walk from any caustic substance that can cause an eye injury. Plus, it calls for eyes to be flushed for a full 15 minutes with fluid maintained at a tepid temperature (for most hazards) in order to safely treat the eye without causing further injury or discomfort. Tepid is defined as between 60 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

 Why don’t companies comply?

Despite the guidelines, approximately half of all businesses required to provide eyewash are currently non-compliant. The reasons for this vary, but one often-overlooked obstacle is extreme cold. Workers are exposed to winter climates and low temperatures in industries like waste management, construction, outdoor manufacturing, transportation, food processing, pipelines, and oil and gas. Such environments pose unique challenges to compliance because few eyewash stations ensure delivery of tepid water in cold environments. Employers must be aware of the types of eyewash systems that are best suited to meet their cold temperature applications.

 Plumbed or portable

There are two types of primary emergency eyewash stations available: plumbed and portable.

The benefit of plumbed units is their ability to deliver water in plentiful amounts. However, plumbed units are expensive to install and are often difficult to locate within immediate proximity of outdoor hazards. They are impractical to move and require weekly maintenance. Furthermore, the tap water they deliver does not match the eye’s natural pH, so flushing with it can cause irritation.

In addition, tap water often contains harmful microorganisms and other contaminants that can further damage an already compromised eye. Finally, because the water temperature inside the pipes of a plumbed unit is not easily regulated, fluid may become too cold to administer the required 15 minutes of flushing. Pipes may even freeze, preventing delivery altogether.

Alternatively, portable stations come in many varieties to meet nearly any facility’s needs. Because they are freestanding and do not require plumbing, they can easily be moved within close proximity of hazards as workstations move. In addition, portable stations that contain saline solution or 100 percent sterile saline require less maintenance than plumbed stations. Those with buffered saline solutions more closely match the pH of the eye to help avoid irritation, and those delivering sterile fluid offer unmatched safety. Sterile saline is the only emergency eyewash solution prepared in an FDA-approved cleanroom to assure purity as well as pH and isotonic qualities that match those of the human eye. Because it is devoid of harmful impurities, sterile saline reduces employers’ risk of liability if further injury results. Flushing with sterile saline enables workers to get back on the job sooner than if their eyes were further harmed by flushing with tap water.

 Heating options

For emergency eyewashes in extreme cold applications, look for products with heated options that ensure sterile fluid is delivered within the ANSI-required temperature range. Portable units may offer the best solution since they are available with a variety of heating options. Depending on your site’s needs, look for products that are freeze-rated, meaning they prevent fluid from freezing in temperatures as low as -32 degrees Fahrenheit, or consider products with heated accessories that not only keep fluid from freezing in low temperatures, but also maintain a tepid temperature.

With today’s advances in portable eyewash station technology, companies can overcome the challenges presented by extreme cold temperatures, meet ANSI eyewash guidelines and protect workers in nearly any environment. By choosing the proper eyewash fluid and delivery system, employers can reduce the severity of eye injuries and their associated costs — and ultimately provide a safer, more productive workplace.