Risk mitigation and prevention are cornerstones to managing eye safety. Even with good work processes and use of protective equipment such as safety glasses, goggles and face shields, handling hazardous goods creates an exposure risk for the eyes. Because exposure can’t be 100% prevented, emergency response planning becomes an important part of eye safety and that includes an often overlooked piece of the emergency response puzzle – the eyewash station.
Eyewash stations are essential to mitigate potential eye injury in the event of accidental exposure. If you are unsure whether a station is required, conduct a workplace risk assessment. Where a hazard exists appropriate safety equipment is required. Typically, anywhere there are paints, solvents, battery charging stations, hazardous chemical storage, parts washers or chemical pumping and mixing areas these are deemed high risk requiring access to proper eyewash facilities.
Injury statistics show that the first 10 -15 seconds after exposure to a substance are critical. Any delay in accessing an eyewash station to flush the hazardous substance, especially when corrosive, from the eye has the potential to increase the damage and resulting injury. It’s recommended that eyewash stations be available and accessible to workers for use in less than 10 seconds, so the eyes can be flushed with a sterile buffered solution to remove hazardous substances.
Eyewash Station Types & Maintenance
Before installation a formal assessment should be conducted to evaluate the best eyewash system specific to the worksite conditions. Many companies that sell and service eyewash equipment will assist with assessing your needs by completing an audit and review of the work environment before selecting the optimal system.
Stations can be portable or plumbed into the domestic water system. If they are plumbed they are often combined with an emergency shower. Portable eyewash stations contain a sterile liquid that is either water or a buffered saline solution. The composition of the solution is designed to mimic as closely as possible, the composition of human tears. The wash solution is kept at room temperature inside the unit ready for use. This equipment should be cleaned, disinfected and flushed as directed by the manufacturer. Typically, the recommendation is to do so every three to six months, because expired eyewash liquid may develop harmful bacteria and for buffered saline liquids they may not remain well mixed and homogenous. Plumbed systems use domestic water as the eye-flushing fluid. This is unbuffered and likely contains residual chlorine that can irritate the eyes. The eyewash liquid is only as clean and pure as the domestic supply sitting in the pipes, which is why these units typically require weekly flushing.
The legislation in Alberta related to eyewash stations is generic in nature and simply requires that if a worker is present at a worksite where chemicals harmful to the eyes are used the employer is to ensure the worker has immediate access to eyewash equipment. In practice to comply, an employer would ensure access to equipment as specified in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z358.1-2009 on emergency eyewash and shower equipment.
Equipment must be installed or positioned in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The location needs to be appropriate given the site layout remembering the 10-second access rule. Access needs to free and easy in the event of an exposure incident. The path to the eyewash station needs to be as short as possible and remain clear and unobstructed. In the case of a very busy work area more than one eyewash station may be required.
Temperature of the eyewash fluid is very important. If the flushing fluid is too hot is can cause the reaction of the contaminant to worsen the injury. Cooler fluid is preferred as it can help minimize the impacts of the injury, however, if the fluid is too cold employees may be reluctant to rinse the eyes for the minimum required 15 minutes. ANSI recommends the temperature of the eyewash fluid be “tepid” and suggests between 16-38 C. This range is most comfortable for employees to rinse for up to 60 minutes, if necessary.
Employees need to be provided with education and training for this emergency system to work as planned. Education should include the hazards of all chemical in use and the eye exposure hazard presented by each. It should also include a review of the manufacturer’s written instructions on use. These instructions should be posted nearby for easy reference. Employees also need to learn how to use the equipment. A hands-on practice drill should be completed by each employee, so they are sure how to access the equipment and get a clean flow of eyewash fluid into their eyes in the event of an incident.
Emergency response planning is an important part of any eye safety program, and the use of eyewash stations is an important protective measure. Employers need to assess the hazards, educate and train employees on the proper responses, and ensure eyewash is available in the event of an emergency.
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.