Eye Protection and the Extreme Hazards of a Firefighter's Workplace

Across America, eye injuries of all types occur at a rate of 1,000 per day, disabling some 100,000 people each year. These startling statistics are causing employers and industrial workplace managers to take a much closer look at the potential for eye injuries in their workplace. Eye hazards exist in many industrial workplaces, on the extreme end of the spectrum lies firefighting and rescue work. Each day firefighters and emergency rescue workers across America, encounter the potential for serious eye injuries in the line of duty. The potential for eye injuries is prevalent during routine training procedures as well as on the field. From firefighting and motor vehicle rescue, to emergency medical services, no matter what the task at hand, firefighters and rescue workers constantly run the risk of injuring or permanently damaging their eyes.

Firefighting and rescue work involves many different procedures and techniques, each having specific safety regulations for the use of personal protective equipment.

Overhauling a home or building after a fire to look for possible fire extension, sends debris falling on top of firefighters and a thick dust into the air. Thus, overhauling requires a safety helmet with a protective face shield, along with a self-contained breathing apparatus.

Emergency Medical Services
Any emergency medical services involving a patient who could cause contamination to a rescue worker, through the transmission of bodily fluids, requires them to wear specific safety goggles designed with liquid barriers to prevent the transfer of bloodborne pathogens.

Vehicle Extrication
During vehicle extrication, the "jaws of life" or air bags are used to separate a car's crushed doors, to rescue victims trapped inside. Rubber goggles are required in this case because the "jaws" and air bags work with such force that eye-debilitating glass, plastic and metal debris are sent flying into the air and often into the faces of the rescue workers. During vehicle extrication rescuers also may have to cut or break a windshields glass in order to get the victim out and to safety, this rescue technique requires safety goggles as well.

Because firefighting itself is so hazardous, it requires substantial personal protective equipment. Equipment such as; fire retardant turnout gear, protective helmet and a self contained breathing apparatus, are essential to the safety of all firefighters.

Many new products are being developed for the protection of firefighters which have evolved from the industrial workplace. An example of this integrated protective wear is best seen in the H.L. Bouton, anti-scratch, anti-fog rubber goggles, which have been modified from industrial use to be used in conjunction with a firefighting helmet, manufactured by Cairns & Brothers, Inc. These modified safety goggles with protective helmet are used to protect firefighters against many firefighting related hazards.

Dennis, Massachusetts Fire Chief Paul Tucker believes," Any item that protects firefighters from the hazards they come in contact with is vital to their safety". Chief Tucker's department has an incident management system which meets all requirements of NFPA 1561, Standard on Fire Department Incident Management System and NFPA 1500, Standard for Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Because he knows the ramifications of on-the-job injuries, Chief Tucker abides by all federal regulation standards for emergency operations, and takes proper measures to ensure the safety of his firefighters by applying these standards to all training, drills and exercises.

Chief Tucker supplies his firefighters with properly fitted safety eyewear and has made each individual responsible for their own personal protective equipment. He requires them to wear their protective eyewear during all firefighting tasks and nearly all rescue operations. "It is the Chief's responsibility to make sure the safety equipment is properly maintained and upgraded as well as to except input from union members about the equipment, after all, they're (the firefighters) the ones using it," says Tucker.

There have been instances in Dennis Firefighter/Paramedic Nancy Moyer's experiences where she has seen severe eye injuries. She recalls an accident which she remembers "vividly" where a boy in shop class neglected to wear his safety goggles, and as a result sustained a severe eye injury. For Moyer, seeing injuries first hand reminds her that, "Eye injuries can be life-altering. When you've seen an eye injury you know it's something you don't want to happen to you." From Moyer's training and the reinforcement given by Chief Tucker, she has learned that, "You can't anticipate problems, you have to plan for the unexpected by getting in the routine of wearing them (protective eyewear) all the time."

Dennis Firefighter/EMT Chuck LaCross recalls an incident where a car was accidentally driven through a garage door, trapping the victim inside the car. Firefighters had to use chain saws to cut the wooden garage door away from the car. "Chain saws kick up chips of wood, so it's important to wear safety goggles". He continues, "We also use a windshield saw in emergency situations, this can turn the glass into a powder which flies in the air. One time this powdery glass blew right in my face, if I didn't have the proper eye protection on, it could have been very painful and damaging to my eyes." LaCross goes on to describe the importance of eye safety, "When we're saving lives we don't have time to fuss around with our gear to make sure it fits. Saving people is our priority, that's why we need to be prepared before incidents occur. When we do our training for the department and even our state training we have to wear eye protection. Knowing how important it is, none of us have a problem with it."

"During vehicle extrication we are trained to always wear our goggles," says Firefighter/Paramedic Edward Riker, as he describes the hazards involved in vehicle extrication training. "There's a lot of metal and glass flying around and you need to be right in the thick of things when lives are involved. It's just not worth chancing." Riker describes how keeping his goggles on the back of his helmet keeps them out of the way, but in reach so when a situation occurs where the goggles are needed, they are easily accessible.

Eye Injury Statistics
A recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that three out of five workers who suffered an eye injury had worn no protective eyewear.

As an employer, appropriate measures must be taken to protect your workers from eye-debilitating hazards. Whether your employees are exposed to flying particles, molten metal, chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, eye safety needs to be one of your top priorities. Following are some tips on how to prevent eye injuries in your workplace.

Tips for Eye Safety in the Workplace

  • Conduct an analysis of the workplace by identifying areas that may present eye hazards.
  • Select protective eyewear designed for the specific hazard.
  • Establish a 100% mandatory program that requires the use of the protective eyewear.
  • Have the eyewear properly fitted to each worker and require that each worker is responsible for their own eyewear.
  • Reinforce the use of protective eyewear by making it part of all training procedures.

Don't let your employees become eye injury statistics, protect them from unnecessary pain and suffering like Fire Chief Paul Tucker has done, by supplying the proper eye protection and enforcing its use during all training procedures as well on the field. Taking simple steps towards prevention could be the most important decision you make for your company and more importantly for the safety of your employees.

About the Author: David Roll is the Vice President of H.L. Bouton Co. Inc., a leading manufacturer of protective eyewear: 11 Kendrick Road, Wareham, MA 02571, and currently holds the position of Fire Commissioner in Albion, RI. http://www.hlbouton.com/firefightercase.html

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