It’s November and that means winter is not too far off, and with it comes a few seasonal situations requiring special care to keep your eyes safe. Workers face additional challenges in winter, but with a few adjustments in our approach to work we can endure the often cold and harsh climate.
Eye exposure to winter conditions such as cold temperatures, wind, and intense glare from snow and ice pose a variety of hazards and can lead to snow blindness. The air is much drier, and the wind blows snow, ice, and debris exacerbating dryness, discomfort, and risk of injury. We need to increase our focus on proper hazard assessment to prevent injuries incurred from work in the extreme cold.
Increase Personal Hygiene
Conjunctivitis commonly known as pinkeye is much more common in the winter. Pinkeye is a contagious condition that can be bacterial or viral and can spread from person to person. It is spread by contact and so you need to protect yourself from the increased risk of pinkeye in the winter by frequent hand washing. Avoid touching your eyes and if you think you have pinkeye see your optometrist right away. These urgent care/medically necessary appointments are covered by Alberta Health.
Manage Dry Eye
The relative humidity falls dramatically in very cold climates. Heat from your furnace circulating indoors can evaporate your tears quickly leading to dry, itchy eyes. If you already suffer dry eye this condition can be made much worse in winter. Consider using a humidifier in your home and stay hydrated. Use eye drops or artificial tears if necessary, to keep your eyes moist.
Wear Eye Glasses instead of Contact Lenses
Contact lens are in direct contact with your eyes and can contribute to dry eye in lower humidity conditions. Wearing eye glasses is preferred in winter and make it easier to apply eye drops as necessary. If you must wear contact lenses in the winter keep them extra moisturized and if you need be take them out from time to time, put them in saline solution to allow them to re-hydrate.
Watch for Increase Fogging
In the winter eye glasses are subject to increased fogging when going from outdoors to indoors. Fogged lenses distort the wearer’s vision, and this creates an unusual hazard. To combat this when your lenses fog stop and allow them time to warm up and de-fog. If need be, wipe them with a lens cloth. Keeping your lens very clean and the use of anti-fog coatings can be very effective at reducing fog and promoting a clear view.
Watch for the Increased Danger of UV Exposure
In the winter UV rays are reflected from snowy and icy surfaces. Although the total solar radiation is lower in winter dangerously high UV exposure is still a risk. At higher elevations, such as on ski hills, the air is thinner and UV radiation is higher. Even in overcast conditions the UV light can still penetrate cloud cover and affect your eyes. In addition to simple discomfort, over- exposure can cause photokeratitis or snow blindness. This condition is basically a sunburn of your eyes and can be painful and reduce your ability to perceive other risks in the workplace.
Select Safety Eyewear with Care
Make sure you do not confuse sunglasses or ski googles with proper safety eyewear. Although sunglasses and ski googles may reduce glare, UV rays, and provide protection from wind-blown snow and ice they are not CSA approved and will not provide protection against flying debris, splashing liquids, molten metal and fume, and other projectiles associated with work operations involving cutting, hammering, crushing, painting and welding.
Manage your Eyewash Stations
Even in winter access to an eyewash station needs to be in place and ready for use in the event of an emergency. When an incident occurs immediate and proper treatment is required to reduce damage to the eye. Provincial legislation requires that employers provide eyewash facilities wherever a risk of exposure to corrosive chemicals is possible. Typically the ANSI Standard Z358.1-2014 "Emergency Eyewash and Shower Equipment" provides guidance on how best to meet the legislation. The requirement is that the equipment is nearby and is available for use. The wash solution must be tepid, which by the Standard means between 16- 38°C. Frozen eyewash fluids will not be helpful, and a cold wash may create other risks to the eye.
Low Lighting in Winter
In winter outdoor lighting levels tend to be lower. This can make detailed tasks more difficult to complete especially for people with existing vision problems. Increased task lighting is required and needs to be provided. Shorter daylight hours also mean greater glare during morning and afternoon rush hour and more driving hours with headlights on. Make sure you use a good pair of sunglasses with polarized lens and take particular care to keep your vehicle windows clean inside and out.
Visit your Optometrist
Winter conditions create special problems. Protect yourself by making an appointment with your optometrist to check your vision, diagnose any existing vision problems, and provide any necessary treatment. An optometrist can help by diagnosing any winter-related eye problems such as dry eye and conjunctivitis and they can also perform comprehensive eye exams to detect any vision problems early.
Winter is just around the corner and we all need to be sure to take into account not only our additional workplace protective clothing needs, but also its changing eye safety needs. Safety eyewear is available that is specifically designed to perform in cold temperatures, high wind, bright light, and glare. By properly completing hazard assessments, a program of control can be designed and implemented to significantly decrease the chance of eye injuries.
Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He is a regular safety conference speaker in Canada, and he provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs.