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The Iron Triangle of Safety Eyewear Selection

June 19, 2020

Safety eyewear that is uncomfortable or damaged simply shouldn’t be worn.


Safety eyewear needs to be worn to protect the eyes.  That may sound obvious but according the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, more than 700 Canadian employees per day sustain eye injuries on the job, resulting in lost time and/or temporary or permanent vision loss.  Often these incidents also result in head and face injuries, increasing the lost-days away from work.  Canadians continue to sustain eye injuries at work and in most of these cases the employer of these injured people had a safety program in place requiring them to assess hazards and use appropriate controls, including safety eyewear.


Part of the reason for the high number of eye injuries is because employees are told to wear safety eyewear without a proper explanation of how to wear it and why they should wear it.  Another problem is employers who provide safety eyewear that employees may find uncomfortable or that doesn’t fit properly leading to low wearer compliance. Employees may also continue wearing ill-fitting or damaged safety eyewear.


How do you decide if your current safety eyewear program is working well to mitigate injuries?  The decision as to what safety eyewear employees use needs to consider the hazards of the workplace, but also wearer comfort and of course the price of the safety eyewear.  There is, in my view, a poor understanding of the relationship between performance, comfort, and price as it relates to safety eyewear.  You must look at a combination of three factors – performance, comfort, and price as a decision triangle or what some people call an iron triangle.  Let’s consider each and try to figure out the sweet spot for selecting safety eyewear.

Performance – will the safety eyewear provide the best protection for the workplace hazards?  Safety eyewear needs to perform in every condition.  A properly completed hazard assessment will help to identify these performance requirements.  Safety eyewear is worn to shield the eyes from dust, dirt, flying debris, and other projectiles created when work involves cutting, hammering, crushing, or other operations that may generate particulate. 


Eye or face protection is to be worn when workers could be exposed to flying objects or particles and debris, splashing liquids, molten metal and fume, and UV, Visible and IR radiation.  The safety eyewear selected needs to be able to perform under harsh conditions.


Comfort – does the employee find the safety eyewear comfortable to wear across the range of temperature, humidity, and work activities being completed?  Is the peripheral view as clear and undistorted as it needs to be?  If they are wearing prescription safety eyewear, ask if the prescription is correct?  Over time, our prescription will change. It is recommended that your employees have regular eye exams to evaluate their eye health to ensure their prescription is up to date. To find out if employees think their safety eyewear is comfortable, you can use an employee survey or you could simply ask.  You can also find out about wearer comfort by watching employees while they work.  Are they wearing the safety eyewear consistently?  How often do they need to make adjustments to the eyewear?  Are they having to take off the safety eyewear for some parts of the job or task? All of these factors are telling that the safety eyewear may not be all that comfortable. In many safety eyewear programs, frames come in a variety of sizes, styles and materials to ensure the comfort of the wearer. 


Price – how much they cost?  Price isn’t just about the initial purchase price.  The cost of safety eyewear has to be considered over the service life of the safety eyewear. The initial purchase price is important, but you have to know how long the equipment will last so that the annualized costs can be determined.  If the safety eyewear is easily broken or scratched they will need to be replaced.  The old saying “you get what you pay for” is true for safety eyewear.  If you buy inexpensive you will likely have to buy often.  It is the responsibility of the person buying the safety eyewear to ensure that the quality objectives of the personal protective equipment program are being met.  Manufacturers of the least expensive safety eyewear have had to make compromises to meet the price point.  This might mean they are selling equipment that is not CSA approved or they are simply selling poorly made equipment that is uncomfortable and has a poor fit.  Poor lens clarity and distortions in the periphery of the lens is another feature of the cheapest safety eyewear.  Fogging may be a big issue with the cheapest lens because they do not have the benefit of the best and latest anti-fogging technologies.  All of these limitations lead to increased eye fatigue for the wearer.  Be cautious of price point safety eyewear.  It is likely you will end up spending more in the long-term.


A fourth factor, not part of the iron triangle of safety eyewear selection, is aesthetics.  Many argue that aesthetics shouldn’t matter when it comes to safety equipment, however talk to the employees and they will tell you it’s a matter of some concern for most workers who are required to wear it. For better or worse, safety eyewear has morphed from a simple way to provide eye protection to a full-fledged fashion accessory. 


With a better understanding of the iron triangle safety professionals are increasingly moving away from seeing safety eyewear as a low-cost disposable commodity. While access to inexpensive products will remain, the need to manage performance and comfort is becoming more widely recognized.  With careful consideration and analysis, the long-term cost savings and real value of purchasing quality safety eyewear becomes readily apparent. It’s not just about dollars and cents. Workers are more likely to consistently wear comfortable, stable-fitting and aesthetically-pleasing safety eyewear.  The result, inevitably, will be significantly improved compliance, fewer lost days, less pain and suffering, and happier employees.


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. 


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