Nine Things You Can Do to Ensure Wintertime Eye Safety

November 10, 2022

Winter has arrived in Alberta, but eye safety doesn’t stop just because the snow starts to fly.

While we all pull out the heavy winter coats, toques, and mitts, our eyes are often neglected.  We are blessed with cold but gloriously sunny days, and the intense glare from snow and ice poses a variety of hazards. Snow blindness is a real risk associated with outdoor work or recreation.  The air is much drier, and the wind blows snow, ice, and debris exacerbating dryness, discomfort, and risk of injury.  When our eyes are unprotected, UV rays can increase the risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye diseases, including cancer. Fortunately, protection on the worksite is easy with the correct safety eyewear.

Here are nine things you can do to improve eye safety and eye health this winter.

  1. Manage dry eye – The relative humidity is much lower in winter. Dry heat circulated by a furnace evaporates tears quicker leading to dry, itchy eyes.  If you already suffer dry eye this condition can be made much worse in winter.  If the symptoms persist book an appointment with your optometrist. They will be able to help you find the right solution specifically for you. These exams are considered medically necessary as dry eye can pose significant risks to your eye health and there is Alberta Health coverage available.
  1. Leave your contacts and try prescription safety glasses – wearing contact lenses can contribute to dry eye in lower humidity conditions. This is because the contact lens is in direct contact with your eyes and in effect will wick moisture away.  Prescription safety glasses are preferred and make it easier to apply eye drops as necessary.  If contact lenses are absolutely necessary, keep them extra moisturized and be sure be take them out and keep them in saline solution to give the lenses time  to re-hydrate.
  1. Glasses may fog, but there’s a solution – In the winter safety glasses are more likely to fog up when going from outdoors to indoors and this creates a hazard for the wearer by reducing and distorting vision.  The best defence against fogging is to use anti-fog coatings.  Keeping your lenses very clean will reduce fogging, too. If they fog when you come indoors, stop what you are doing and allow them time to warm up and de-fog.  Wiping them with a lens cloth will help.
  1. High UV is a wintertime exposure risk – In the winter UV rays come at you from all directions but they can also be reflected from snowy and icy surfaces. People may think because the total hours of daylight, and the solar intensity in the winter that the UV is a low risk.  This is simply not true. Remember also at higher elevations the air is thinner, and the UV radiation is even higher.  Even in cloudy conditions UV light will penetrate the cloud cover and can harm your eyes.  Over-exposure to UV can cause discomfort and a condition called photokeratitis or snow blindness.  Photokeratitis is effectively sunburn of your eyes and can be very painful.
  1. Take care in selecting safety eyewear – Regular sunglasses and ski googles are not proper safety eyewear. While both reduce glare, reduce UV, 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. If you need safety eyewear for winter use and protection, make sure the product selected is CSA approved.
  1. Inspect, test, and maintain eyewash stations – Access to emergency eyewash is needed year-round. This equipment needs to be in place and ready for use in the event of an emergency.  There is no time to lose when an incident occurs, and immediate and proper treatment is required to reduce damage to the eye. The Alberta legislation requires employers provide eyewash facilities wherever the 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.
  1. Watch the lighting levels in winter – Outdoor lighting levels tend to be lower in the winter. The sun is much farther south in the sky.  The shorter days mean the sun may be right in your eyes when driving to and from work. Make sure you use a good pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses and take particular care to keep your vehicle windows clean inside and out.
  1. Personal hygiene remains important – Conjunctivitis commonly known as pinkeye or red eye is much more common in the winter. It 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 medically necessary appointments have Alberta Health coverage.
  1. Visit your Optometrist for an annual eye exam – Make an appointment with your optometrist to check your vision and eye health. Many of eye diseases have no early symptoms, so an annual checkup can offer you great peace of mind.

We all need to consider the changing eye safety needs as the weather changes.   Safety eyewear is available that is specifically designed to perform in cold temperatures, high wind, bright light, and glare.  We also need to consider any changes in our work environment and whether new hazards exist that make it necessary to design controls to decrease the chance of eye injuries. If weather considerations are properly taken into account work can continue safely.

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 35 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.

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