Eye safety, a forgotten fundamental in the workplace

Driving to work, reading a newspaper and watching a video on the internet—many of us take these tasks for granted. But despite the importance of vision for most work and leisure activities, eye safety is neglected by a large number of Australian workers.

A recent report released by the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) showed that a surprising number of work-related eye injuries caused by metal fragments occurred while the victim was not wearing protective glasses or goggles.

The study’s authors found that only 45% of the patients reported wearing safety glasses at the time of the accident. Twenty-five patients had also suffered a previous eye injury caused by metal fragments, yet more than half of those were not wearing eye protection at the time of their most recent injury, the report found.

The data cited in the report was gathered in a 2009 study that examined 100 patients of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital Emergency Department over two months.

Eye injuries are a significant problem throughout Australia for a variety of occupations, not just those working with mobile metal fragments. While welding and grinding are at the top of the list of  occupations posing the greatest risks to eye health, workers in construction, manufacturing, mining and agriculture also encounter these hazards, according to a Safe Work Australia report.

The problem is not as simple as workers not wearing the appropriate gear. Sometimes it is not supplied to them by their employer, and some serious injuries occur even when the operator has the right safety equipment on. In fact, nearly half of the patients examined in the CERA study were injured even though they had safety glasses on.

"Eye injuries in Australia cost around $60 million per year. Up to 50,000 eye injuries occur per year — approximately seven in 1000 workers sustains this kind of injury," according to a publication by Government safety agency, Comcare.

Of all recorded eye injuries in Australia, 60% occur in construction, mining, agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, according to the Comcare document, "Eye Health in the Workplace".

The findings of the CERA study have brought to light a significant problem in the Australian workplace. Despite progress in work safety legislation and the development of more advanced equipment for workers, going back to the basics of eye safety may be necessary for reducing the number of eye injuries at work.

[About the author: Quentin Coleman is a freelance journalist, with articles published in Australia and the US.]