Emergency Preparedness and Response

Eye Safety for Emergency Responders

Emergency workers responding to disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti are exposed to numerous safety and health hazards; among them, eye injuries.

We all watched in horror as the news footage of the devastation in Haiti played out across our TV and computer screens. Disasters like this underscore the dangers faced by emergency responders, especially those working their way through the rubble of collapsed buildings. Today, we’re going to focus on one particular danger—eye hazards.

According to NIOSH, the most common eye hazards faced by emergency workers at the structural collapse of large buildings are:

  • Dust, concrete, and metal particles

  • Falling or shifting debris, building materials, and glass

  • Smoke and noxious or poisonous gases

  • Chemicals (acids, bases, fuels, solvents, lime, and wet or dry cement powder)

  • Cutting or welding light and electrical arcing

  • Thermal hazards and fires

  • Bloodborne pathogens from blood, bodily fluids, and human remains

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Common Eye Injuries

Injuries commonly suffered by emergency workers facing these hazards include:

  • Corneal abrasions and conjunctivitis (red eyes)

  • Concrete or metal particles or slivers embedded in the eye

  • Chemical splashes or burns

  • Welder’s flash

  • Eyeball laceration

  • Facial contusions and black eyes

Recommended Eye Protection

NIOSH says that before selecting the best eye protection for emergency workers, a competent person should assess the conditions and hazards at the site.

Safety glasses with side protection would be considered minimum required protection for such conditions. When using safety glasses, workers should wear a retainer to keep the glasses tight to the face or hanging from the neck when not in use.

When more protection is needed—for example, to protect from high impacts, dusty environments, and chemical splashes—goggles should be worn. The best goggles for emergency workers dealing with collapsed buildings are designed with high air flow, minimum fogging, and maximum particle and splash protection.

Alternatively, NIOSH suggests hybrid eye safety products with the comfort of glasses, the enclosure of goggles, and better breathability. Wraparound hybrids also provide better peripheral vision than conventional goggles.

A face shield over eye protection is recommended for greater protection, especially to protect workers from high-impact hazards during chipping and grinding operations. Face shields also protect from chemical and bloodborne hazards that could be sprayed or splashed onto the face. But workers should understand that the requirement is for face shield with eye protection, never just a face shield alone, because the curve of the face shield can direct particles or chemicals from the side right into the eyes.

Workers engaged in cutting or welding activities should use a welding helmet, goggles, or welding respirator with the appropriate lens shade. Welders’ helpers, other workers, and bystanders must be protected from light and sparks as well.

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Additional Requirements

All eye protection must comply with ANSI Z87.1 requirements. New safety glasses with polycarbonate lenses should be hard coated to reduce scratching. And polycarbonate or Trivexâ lenses should be used for prescription safety glasses.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue talking about emergency response and eye safety, focusing on first aid for eye injuries.

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