Vision Protection: Using the Past to Change the Future

By: Robin Marth, Contributor

Wearing safety glasses isn’t rocket science. The rewards far outweigh the risks. So why are we still fighting with employees to follow a simple company policy? Maybe we need to take a step back and realize what employees have been trying to tell us for a while now.

In 2009, a study was conducted to identify and describe the array of factors that influence a worker’s decision to wear PPE and the barriers that exist in preventing their use. A series of focus groups enrolled workers and supervisors, ranging from 19-64 years old. They came from a variety of industries, including manufacturing, construction and service/retail that had potential exposure to eye injury hazards in their job tasks. Most workers (78%) were required to wear PPE on their worksite. For what it’s worth, only 55% had a dedicated safety officer. Most were highly experienced in their occupation (>10 years) and had received some safety training in the past (82%).

The results identified the decision-making factors influencing the use (or non-use) of PPE:

  • Perceptions of hazards and risks
  • Barriers to PPE usage
  • Enforcement and reinforcement

The study concluded several potentially modifiable factors that would lead to an increase in workers’ PPE use.

Fast forward to 2022, and safety professionals are still struggling to get their employees to consistently wear appropriate PPE. OSHA’s Eye and Face Protection standard (29 CFR 1926.102) has made the top 10 most frequently cited OSHA violation’s list in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. In general industry, most safety professionals have needed to address failures to wear eye protection as well. The big question is why?

Perception of Hazards and Risks

Some working conditions may include multiple eye hazards. Safety glasses may be the employer’s only means of protecting the employee whose eyes are exposed to flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation. © DragonImages – stock.adobe.com

Perception, in simple terms, means “the way you think about or understand something.” An employee’s perception of hazards and risks may not reflect the actual risk if they never experienced an eye injury or a near miss before.

Some working conditions may include multiple eye hazards. Safety glasses may be the employer’s only means of protecting the employee whose eyes are exposed to “flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation” [1910.133(a)]. When identifying hazards, think about what could be present: projectiles, chemicals, radiation, bloodborne pathogens—even digital eyestrain.

The risks of not wearing PPE are both direct and indirect. They can have a negative ripple effect on many lives and the business.

Direct costs are measurable. OSHA estimates the yearly cost of occupational eye injuries to be about $300 million. These costs include medical expenses from doctor visits, treatments and surgery; compensation for damage; and lost wages—not to mention potential legal expenses.

The indirect costs can be even more detrimental and long-lasting, yet they cannot be easily measured. Pain and suffering by the employees and their families; customer quality decline; loss of business; an increase in overtime costs; and a decreasing employee morale can all negatively impact workers’ lives, as well as your safety program and your company’s bottom line.

To illustrate the impacts, present real-life examples to your employees. You don’t need to show gruesome photos or share details that may sour someone’s stomach, but you can talk about experiences they may miss or life events that may be altered if they don’t take the hazard and risk seriously.

Barriers to PPE Usage

Benjamin Franklin once said, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Knowing in advance what excuses employees are likely to offer for not wearing required PPE helps you develop a better strategy to change behaviors.

The 2009 study didn’t uncover anything new or predict anything revolutionary. In today’s work environment, lack of comfort, poor fit, and lens fogging or scratching are still the most common barriers to PPE usage.

Addressing these barriers will make for a more compliant PPE program. While all safety glasses may look similar, all are not created equal. Having a variety of vetted options available is key.

  • Comfort and fit: A very basic pair of safety glasses may meet the regulatory requirements but may not have the features that will encourage wearing them for long periods. Look for eyewear with a rubber nosepiece, rubber on the temples and varying sizes for different head shapes— then offer a variety of options. Don’t forget about employees with prescription glasses either. Wearing safety glasses over prescription glasses is an easy fix, but it is not a long-term solution. Investing in a good prescription safety glasses program is best.
  • Lens fogging and scratching: Employees working in hot or humid environments have typically experienced issues with fogging glasses. In the age of COVID and mask-wearing, fogging safety glasses has become more of a concern. To address this, invest in PPE that offers anti-fog coating. Providing lens wipes offers a short-term solution but may require the employee to remove their PPE, which can put them at increased risk of injury. Like anti-fog coating, scratch-resistance lenses are also an option to consider.

Enforcement and Reinforcement

In trying to encourage workers to wear proper PPE, recognizing and rewarding positive behaviors is more effective than disciplining violations and is less uncomfortable for the manager delivering the feedback. © Anna Kosolapova – stock.adobe.com

Enforcing compliance with OSHA standards and regulations is one of the least-favorite parts of a safety professional’s job. Still, the employer must make certain those requirements are adopted and, more importantly, enforced.

In a forward-thinking work environment, the notion of enforcement (for example, a reprimand for insubordination) may be superseded by the idea of positive reinforcement for more desirable behaviors. Recognizing and rewarding positive behaviors is more effective than disciplining violations and less uncomfortable for the manager delivering the feedback.

While reprimand should not be disregarded, it should be carefully managed. There will, unfortunately, always be instances when blatant disregard for company policy carries personal responsibility and potential termination. But steering your safety program towards one of ongoing positive feedback can work wonders for compliance. Encouraging supervisors to provide this type of feedback for the continuous use of PPE by workers will reinforce positive behaviors, increasing compliance without enforcement.

As a safety professional, don’t dismiss past studies, but rather look to them for historical reference and a means of guidance for continual improvement. Humans are creatures of habit, and history tends to repeat itself, unless an impactful shift is made to change the narrative. You must be able to effectively portray the importance of wearing eye protection, but also explain the why behind that importance. While it’s easy to repeat OSHA standards and write policies, your PPE program will be more impactful if you address the issue at a personal level. That involves illustrating the risks and effects to ensure accurate perceptions; responding to concerns about personal fit and comfort; and giving positive reinforcement to encourage compliance.

About the Author

Robin Marth, CSP, joined J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. in 2021 as an Editor on the Environmental, Health & Safety Publishing Team. She is an experienced EHS Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the management consulting and manufacturing industry. Robin’s professional skill set includes Workplace Safety Administration, Ergonomics, Environmental Management and Motor Vehicle/Fleet Safety. Her editorial responsibilities include researching and creating content for several publications, including Employee Safety Management Today and the OSHA Compliance for California manual. Robin holds both an ASP and a CSP designation from the Board of Certified
Safety Professionals and is also an OSHA Outreach General Industry Trainer.

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