Treating and preventing workplace eye injuries

Treating and preventing workplace eye injuries

At Marshall Eye Surgeons, we cover eye emergencies, and we see our fair share of work-related eye injuries and illnesses every month. Each day, about 2,000 U.S. workers sustain a job-related eye injury that requires medical treatment. More than 100 of these injuries result in one or more days away from work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How can eye injuries and diseases happen at work?

  • Striking or scraping: The majority of eye injuries result from small particles such as dust, cement chips, metal slivers and wood chips. These materials are often ejected by tools, windblown or fall from above a worker. The resulting eye injury varies from mild eye irritation to embedded foreign bodies in the cornea that can lead to infection and permanent scarring.
  • Blunt trauma to the eyeball or eye socket: A large object falling on a worker or the worker falling and hitting his/her eyes can cause varying degrees of contusion and fracture of the eye socket.
  • Penetration: Objects like nails, staples or slivers of wood or metal can go through the eyeball and result in a permanent loss of vision.
  • Chemical and thermal burns: Industrial chemicals or cleaning products are common causes of chemical burns. Thermal burns to the eye also occur, often among welders. Severe burns can lead to scarring and permanent visual loss
  • Exposure to contaminated fluids: Blood splashes and droplets from coughing or sneezing or from touching the eyes with a contaminated finger or object can cause eye infections but also transmit life-threatening disease such as HIV, hepatitis B virus or avian influenza (bird flu).
  • Eye strain: Staring at screens for long hours especially in a dry office environment can cause eye strain and dry eyes.

What can you do to prevent eye injury and disease at your workplace?

Specific eye protection should be chosen based on your work environment and include personal protective eyewear, such as goggles, face shields, safety glasses or full-face respirators. It is important to wear appropriate protection all the time in your work place. I see many construction workers following injuries they acquired after taking their goggles off for just a minute to wipe their faces or take a break. Small particles can also find their way around ill-fitted goggles or the side of the goggles so make sure that your safety goggles seal around all side of your face.

If you use the computer for long hours, first make sure you are wearing the appropriate glasses prescription, if needed, to decrease eye strain. You should also take frequent breaks to rest your eyes and use artificial tears to keep your eyes lubricated. Staring at a screen decreases your blink rate, which exacerbates dry eyes. Another thing to consider is the use of anti-glare screens.

If you are dealing with sick customers or colleagues, make sure you sanitize your hands before and after each encounter and avoid touching your eyes. If you get pink eye, it can easily spread to co-workers, so you would need to take a medical leave if confirmed.

What to do if you get an eye injury or eye disease at your workplace?

  1. Eyewash: If you are exposed to chemicals or particles, the most important and urgent thing to do is a copious eye rinsing. Most workplaces dealing with hazardous materials have eyewash stations readily available, per OSHA regulations. Otherwise, head to the closest emergency room, where they will be able to rinse your eyes for you.
  2. Notify your employer: Some workplaces have specific protocols to follow in case of injuries and exposure.
  3. Eye examination: The next step after rinsing your eyes is to get examined by an eye care professional. If there is a particle lodged in your cornea, an ophthalmologist will need to remove it and start you on specific drops to prevent infections and scarring. Chemical burns can be difficult to treat and may require long-term follow-up with an ophthalmologist.

If you still experience eye strain at work despite preventive measures, you may have an underlying eye problem, such as dry eye disease, that can worsen over time. There are multiple treatments available for dry eyes and ophthalmologists specialized in dry eye treatment are also available to help, so do not hesitate to seek care.

What NOT do in case of eye injury

  • If there is a penetrating injury to your eye, don’t try to remove the foreign body yourself as you could cause further damage.
  • Avoid rubbing or applying any pressure to the eye and head immediately to an emergency room.
  • Don’t use astringent eye drops to hide the redness as it would just mask the problem and delay you getting appropriate care.

A work-related injury or illness could cause long-term damage. With our different specialists at Marshall Eye Surgeons we offer comprehensive medical and surgical care to ensure smooth recovery from injuries and illnesses so you can resume your work the soonest possible.

For more information or to speak with an eye care professional, contact Marshall Eye Surgeons at 304-691-8800 in Huntington or 304-746-8990 in Charleston.


Maya Bitar, MD

Dr. Bitar is a board-certified, fellowship-trained cornea and refractive surgeon at Marshall Health and an assistant professor at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.