March 11, 2020
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20,000 eye injuries occur in the workplace each year. They range from superficial eye injuries to severe trauma that can cause permanent damage, vision loss and blindness. Moreover, they cost an estimated $300 million a year in lost productivity, medical treatment and workers compensation.
Fasika Woreta, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Wilmer Eye Trauma Center and Johns Hopkins 2019 Physician of the Year, examined the epidemiology of eye trauma with the goal of highlighting areas that should be targeted for injury prevention. For a recently published study, she utilized data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample (NEDS) to determine trends in traumatic eye injuries. The resulting article, “Characteristics of Open Globe Injuries in the United States From 2006 to 2014,” published in the January 23, 2020 issue of JAMA Ophthalmology, revealed that common mechanisms of eye injuries included cutting or piercing, foreign bodies inside the eye, and injury by use of machinery.
“When assessing our data from the Wilmer Eye Trauma Center, we found males in the 20-39 year-old age group were at the highest risk for work injuries,” says Woreta. “The majority of injuries occurred from sharp objects, such as a nail or piece of metal. Blunt objects, such as bungee cords or power hoses, can also cause injuries in the workplace. Finally, chemical splashes are an important cause of injuries in certain work environments—even from things as seemingly benign as a misdirected squirt of hand sanitizer.”
All of this, says Woreta, points to the need to create awareness of the risks, and of the value of using protective eyewear—not only in the workplace, but anywhere people are doing this kind of work. She notes that while the number of workplace injuries over the years has slowly declined, we still would like to see a further decline. Of trends in eye injuries overall, Woreta says, “Eye injuries from falls is an important area where we are seeing a steady increase, so it is clear that is an area we need to target in terms of public health strategies for prevention.” At Wilmer, she notes there has been an increase in the number of Hispanic patients presenting with eye injuries that occurred when working in industrial environments. “After sustaining a severe eye injury with vision loss in one eye, we have to tell them it is not safe to go back to working in industrial environments. Many of them need to work to support their families, so this is often devastating for their families,” says Woreta, who is currently conducting a study to examine eye injuries specifically in that population.
And while more people are wearing protective eyewear, the vast majority of injuries occur in those who are not wearing safety glasses. Woreta stresses the importance of talking to patients who work in environments such as construction sites or autobody shops or with hazardous chemicals about the need to wear protective eyewear 100% of the time. She also reminds those working with metal or even mowing the lawn to wear protective eye wear. “I have seen mowers turn tiny rocks and sticks into high-velocity projectiles that can cause serious eye injuries,” Woreta says.
The following information, provided by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, may be helpful for advising patients:
Choose the Right Protective Eyewear
Shield your eyes in areas where there is the slightest chance of eye injury. Anyone passing through those areas should also wear protection. This is particularly true for welders, who face a high risk of on-the-job eye injury.
The eyewear you need depends on the hazards you face. Wear:
- Safety glasses with side protection (side shields) if you work around particles, flying objects or dust
- Goggles if you handle chemicals
- Specially designed safety glasses, goggles, face shields or helmets if you work near hazardous radiation, such as welding, lasers or fiber optics
All protective eyewear should comply with OSHA regulations for eye and face protection. OSHA also provides information about the types of filter lenses required for specific welding and cutting activities, and cautions about the danger of eye irritation from welding fumes as well. Your gear should also meet the eye protection standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).