By Jeff Cottrill
Eyesight is key in guiding us through our daily activities, both in life and at work. But our eyes are also vulnerable to injury and potential vision loss if they are not shielded from harm.
For this reason, eye protection is imperative in industries in which workers deal with hazardous materials. Organic peroxides, flammable liquids, compressed gases and cryogenic or corrosive liquids are just a few of the substances that could seriously damage the eyes — even to the point of blindness. Exposure to small particles floating in the air may also put workers’ eyes at risk.
When goggles or similar personal protective equipment fail and something nasty gets in the eye, a worker has a limited window of time to flush it out before the damage gets worse. For workplaces with harmful substances, it is essential to have a designated area for an eyewash station or emergency shower.
“If you have a chemical burn to the eye and if it’s not treated within ten seconds, the chances of you losing your sight or permanent corneal damage is very significant,” says Ed Maloney, an agent with A-Med Supply in Kingston, Ontario. “As soon as you can get something in your eye to start neutralizing, diluting, washing it out, the better off you’re going to be to minimize the injury.”
Eyewashes are intended to flush out irritants like dust or wood shavings, which may not be harmful to the skin or face. If dealing with substances that can harm not just the eyes but also the skin, then a full emergency shower system is needed.
Know your dangers
Eyewash stations and showers, which can be purchased separately or in combination units, are vital to ensuring safety in industrial workplaces where airborne materials could strike the eyes. Working in a warehouse, handling chemicals and operating in dusty environments all warrant the use of eyewash stations or emergency showers. Commercial arenas, refineries and wastewater-treatment plants are also among the workplaces that require these products. On top of that, workers’ eyes are also vulnerable to dishwashing detergents in restaurants, flying wood chips and shavings in lumber shops and oils in autobody shops. Even science laboratories in schools sometimes have eyewash stations.
The range of hazards can vary depending on the industry. Employers should take note of the chemicals being used and the potential risks involved. A review of Material Safety Data Sheets and labels can also help to evaluate the hazard.
It is also important to note the number of workers in the hazardous area, because additional stations may be needed throughout the work facilities. Some companies have the misconception that only one eyewash station or shower is required even when the facility may need many more than that.
Maloney points to recent advancements in the chemical makeup of eyewash solutions. “Manufacturers of eyewash are now adding buffering agents to their eyewash to deal with the caustic material that is causing the eye injury,” he explains. For example, adding a phosphate-buffering agent to eyewash has become a trend. Maloney says it uses “better chemistry to neutralize or contain the acid or alkali, whatever it is that’s going into your eye.”
Besides improvements made to the function of eyewash stations and emergency showers, Maloney says there have also been changes in how eyewash is packaged. Non-resealable bottles prevent the sterility of the eyewash from being compromised, while Blow-Fill-Seal (BFS) technology is gradually becoming the norm in North America for creating bottles of eyewash and other products that must remain sterile.
A whitepaper by Honeywell Industrial Safety, How to Identify Safe and Effective Emergency Eyewash — and the Hidden Dangers to Avoid, warns that some eyewash fluids may be more harmful than helpful. Added chemicals like boric acid, benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride, though intended to kill bacteria, can cause allergic reactions or infections by adding harmful impurities to the eye. Honeywell recommends using buffered, sterile saline because of its purity and compatibility with tears.
Furthermore, buyers can play it safe by checking that any product manufactured in the United States has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
Like most workplace equipment, eyewash stations and emergency showers need to be checked and tested on a regular basis. One should frequently flush the system to reduce the chance of contaminants building up in the supply pipe. As well, regular visual checks should alert the buyer to any problems that need to be fixed immediately. For example, valves tend to corrode over time, depending on how hard the water is or whatever the valves are exposed to externally.
For a station that uses fluid cartridges, a monthly visual inspection to ensure that the unit has not been tampered with is a good idea. The cartridges themselves generally expire at the end of the month and, naturally, have to be checked and replaced on a regular basis. Meanwhile, tank-style stations that use potable water, either as a concentrate or an additive, will need to be drained, disinfected and refilled every four to six months.
Regular inspection will typically provide a good indication of when a system needs to be replaced. It is equally important for employers to train workers on how to use the equipment properly.
Rules of the game
In Canada, most provinces have adopted regulations similar to those stipulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Washington, D.C. Since Canada does not have a federal standard for designing or installing eyewash stations or emergency showers at present, companies generally follow the regulations set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which oversees such standards for a multitude of products and systems.
The ANSI Z358.1 standard, last revised in 2009, is the set of guidelines designed specifically for these products. It stipulates the minimum requirements for the measurements, performance and maintenance of all eyewash or shower equipment. Maloney points out that the ANSI standard does not cover the personal eyewash bottles that A-Med and other companies produce. “OSHA says an employer must provide a suitable eyewash where there is known risk. And that’s all it says. It could be water off the street.”
But in this country, eyewash fluid is classified as a drug and, as a result, the quality of eyewash is regulated by Health Canada. “That side of it is where a lot of suppliers get into trouble, because it’s a drug regulated by Health Canada, and now it’s sold for use to an employer in an entirely different marketplace, the industrial marketplace.” Maloney suggests that this may pose problems because industrial workplaces are governed by oh&s regulations rather than by the standards for food and drugs.
What distinguishes eyewash stations and emergency showers from other workplace safety products is that, while goggles, hard hats, steel boots and other equipment serve as preventive measures, eyewash stations and emergency showers are used only after an accident has occurred. That said, it is just as important to be prepared for an emergency as it is to stop it from happening in the first place — especially for a body part as important as the eyes.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.