Can contact lenses be worn in the workplace? This question is a constant in many workplaces and has been a point of contention for at least forty years since contact lens use became more widespread.

It is an urban legend that during arc welding or in the presence of IR or UV radiation that contact lenses can become "fused" to the eyes. Stories of workers having vision impaired by dust in the eye while wearing contact lenses with full face respirators under IDLH conditions created fear. Unfortunately, such sensationalized reports have contributed to the development of some inappropriate safety policies prohibiting the general use of contact lenses in industry.

So, does contact lens use create an unmanageable risk to workers? Can contact lenses be safely worn in the workplace? Let’s explore the issue.

Contact Lenses – Benefits and Potential Issues

Contact lenses may be an employee’s preference because of perceived aesthetics, an increased visual field, decreased glare, reflection and fogging associated with regular corrective eyeglasses. Contact lenses also offer the benefit of simply not being an interference in the workplace operations and with other required personal protective equipment.

To be clear, contact lenses are not a replacement for safety eyewear. Contact lenses do not provide any real protection from dust, dirt, flying debris, and other projectiles created when work operations involve cutting, hammering, crushing, and other operations that may generate particulate. Eye or face protection has 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 whether contact lenses are being worn or not.

In a moderately dusty environment small amounts of dust cause little issue and is swept out of the eye by blinking. With contact lenses this may be more of a problem if dust is getting under the lens requiring the worker to repeatedly leave the work area to remove the contact lens and flush the dust away. Even worse, if the particles get behind the lens this could impair vision putting the worker at risk of having a serious incident and suffering injury. Areas where high concentrations of particulate matter or flying particles would be problematic. This is especially true in hazardous environments such as when welding or working at heights. Gases and vapours in the workplace air can cause irritation and excessive eye watering. High anticipated exposure to chemical mists or vapours and areas where there is the potential for a chemical splash should be avoided when contact lenses are in use. Caustic is a particular concern because of the way it damages the eye on contact. Exposure to extreme levels of infrared radiation or intense dry heat may cause eye dryness making contact lens use difficult.

There can be other concerns about contact lens use, too. A contact lens wearer working alone or in a remote area may be at greater risk if they suffer an eye injury. The immediate removal of contact lenses may be important, and the injured wearer may be unable to do this. If there is no one available there is a risk of increased or further damage. Dislodgement or sudden loss of a contact lens is another problem. The dislodgement would create a sudden change in the quality of vision and may include decreased visual acuity and blurring. Obviously, if it happens at a moment when sight is essential for safety a serious incident may be the result.

For Employers

Before contact lens use is allowed in any workplace a properly completed hazard assessment will provide the best guidance. In Canada, the legislation related to contact lens use in the workplace varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some provinces prohibit contact lens use in the workplace while most suggest simply that adequate precautions be taken. In Alberta, the Occupational Health and Safety Code (as of August 15, 2020) addresses contact lens use in Section 230. It reads:

An employer must ensure that, if wearing contact lenses poses a hazard to the worker's eyes during work, the worker is advised of the hazards and the alternatives to wearing contact lenses.

This requirement is simply the confirmation that Part 2 of the Code be met requiring employers to complete a hazard assessment before work begins. This would include assessing whether in a particular circumstance contact lens use creates a hazard that can’t be otherwise controlled. There is one exception where there is an all-out prohibition on contact lens use in the workplace. The CSA Standard on welding cutting and allied processes suggests against the use of contact lenses by welders. This is because a foreign body getting in the eye can cause excessive irritation.

There are few things employers can do to ensure that if contact lenses are used that they do not pose an undue hazard to an employee’s eyes. For starters employers need to ensure that all health and safety practices and procedures are understood and being followed. Employers need to provide facilities for the regular maintenance and periodic cleaning of PPE and contact lenses and encourage use of these facilities. Education and training is needed for all employees on the hazards associated with contact lens use. Ensure this includes the proper use of eyewash stations. Employees who want to wear contact lenses should be identified and first aiders should be informed as to who is a contact lens wearer. This information needs to be kept in the employee’s medical file. Ensure first aiders know how to remove contact lenses in an emergency because removal may be critical to prevent further eye injury.

Summary

The debate may continue about the safety of the use of contact lenses years to come. The reality is that the safe use of contact lenses is possible where the workplace hazards are minimal. A proper hazard assessment is key to determining where and when safe use of contact lenses is possible. As is the case for all workplace hazards, safe work can only be achieved when the hazards are properly identified and the hierarchy of controls is properly employed.

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.