How to prevent occupational eye risks from exposure to chemicals

Damage to the eye from chemical damage is often irreversible. Occupational eye risks include contact with chemicals, infectious diseases, visually demanding work, radiation etc.

This article is going to focus on damage to the eyes from exposure to chemicals as we all are in a way exposed to chemicals either at work or at home. Eye damage can be from aerosols, dyes, powder, hot liquids, corrosive chemicals (which can cause burns), detergents, pesticides, to mention a few. The severity of eye damage depends on the toxicity of the substance it comes in contact with, how long the substance had contact with the eye, how quickly the injury is treated, and how the injury is treated after first aid.

Chemicals usually cause either damage to the eyes or eye irritation.

Eye damage is the more serious risk as it is often permanent(if not treated early or porperly). Damage is usually to the front part of the eyes; the cornea which is the clear front surface of the eye; the conjunctiva which is the layer covering the white part of the eye and sometimes the internal parts of the eyes.

Common damage to the eyes can include cataracts and glaucoma.

  • According to NHS Choices, Cataracts are cloudy patches in the lens that can make vision blurred or misty. The lens is the transparent front part of the eyes. It is normally clear and allows light to pass through the eyes. The cloudy patch can become larger with time and less light will be able to pass through the lens making vision blurry. So the cloudier the lens, the less one is able to see. If left untreated, cataract can cause blindness.
  • Glaucoma occurs when the drainage tubes within the eyes becomes blocked, hence preventing eye fluid from draining properly. When the fluid cannot drain properly, pressure builds up and this pressure can lead to damage to the optic nerve and nerve fibres. The optic nerve connects the eyes to the brain while the nerve fibre lines the back of the eyes.  Glaucoma can be treated with surgery, laser treatments or eye drops (if diagnosed early). Early diagnosis and treatment so permanent damage to the eyes is prevented.

Eye irritation is usually caused by foreign bodies and can be easily rinsed out by water. If left in the eyes, this could lead to corneal abrasions. Corneal abrasion is a scratch on the eye which causes pain and discomfort. so if you get something in your eyes, do not scratch it. Try flushing it out or seek medical help.

How to prevent risk from chemicals: The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (2002) and the Management of Health and Safety at work Regulations 1999 require a risk assessment to be carried out before exposing your employees to hazards and hazardous substances. Steps must be taken to prevent exposure to employees and/or control the risks. For example, providing eye protection where chemical splashes are possible from carrying out a task. The kind of protection you choose should depend on extent of the hazards, other personal protective equipment being used and any personal vision needs. Some people wear prescription glasses so this must be taken into consideration when identifying preventative or control measures.

When carrying out your risk assessment you also need to consider others like visitors, not necessarily by providing eye protection but by having an eye protection area, restrict access and ensure all people accessing the area must wear eye protection. Eye protection can be goggles, face shields or safety glasses. The choice of eye protection should depend on how the eyes could become exposed to chemicals and should be determined during risk assessment.

What to do after exposure: The Health and Safety Executive guidance on Basic Advice on First Aid at Work recommends that if chemicals get into your eyes, you should flush the eye with water or sterile fluid for at least 10minutes at the same time holding the eyelids open. You need to hold a pad over the injured eye and go to the hospital. As chemical burns to the eyes is a major injury, it must be reported under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995) within 15days of the accident. For ways to report, visit the HSE

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