Eye protection and COVID-19

By Maureen Paraventi, Editor

The role of eye protection in preventing injuries and illnesses to workers due to projectiles like flying wood or metal chips; chemical or grease splashes; ultraviolet or infrared radiation or disease-carrying pathogens is well-established, but it is that last category that is garnering new interest.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting employers with a host of unprecedented safety challenges – especially in industries where remote work is not an option. In addition to requiring that masks be worn, some facilities have installed plexiglass partitions or moved work stations to physically separate employees. Many are screening workers for symptoms of the virus.

Can eye protection, a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) already in use for potential hazards that existed previously, help to safeguard workers from the danger of COVID-19?

The fact is, although COVID-19 is a relatively recent arrival in the infectious disease sphere – albeit one which has had a dramatic global impact – safety eyewear has long played a role in protecting workers from infectious disease. This is especially true in the healthcare industry, where workers are often exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and C virus, avian influenza and herpes.

Healthcare workers’ use of safety eyewear can provide useful lessons for those in other types of workplaces.

Disease transmission via the eyes

The mucous membranes of the eyes, which are called conjunctivas, keep the front inner surfaces of the eye moist and lubricated, so they open and close easily, preventing the irritation that friction would create. Conjunctivas also protect the eye from debris, dust and microorganisms that can cause infections.

However, conjunctivas may also be a conduit for the transmission of disease, if they come in contact with droplets produced by coughing or sneezing or are touched with a contaminated finger or object.

Eye protection as a barrier

While eyewear alone will not serve as comprehensive protection, it could potentially reduce the risk of virus-laden airborne droplets coming into contact with the eyes, according to a Chinese study  published in Jama Ophthalmology, September 16, 2020. The study’s authors observed that among a group of patients hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19, the proportion of those who reported routinely wearing eyeglasses more than 8 hours per day was lower than in the general population.

While acknowledging the limits and observational nature of their study, the authors noted that because the virus can be transmitted by way of viral particles introduced into the eyes or mucous membranes, “it is plausible that eyeglasses might serve as a barrier against such transmission from droplets or contaminated hands.”

Of course, eye protection alone cannot prevent a wearer from contracting COVID-19, and should be used in conjunction with other PPE in environments where the exposure risk is high. For instance, healthcare workers rely on an arsenal of PPE that includes gloves, gowns, masks or respirators.

Assessing the hazards

The pandemic notwithstanding, the guidelines for choosing eye protection for specific work situations remain the same. The selection should be based primarily on the nature and extent of the hazard, both of which can be determined by conducting an eye hazard assessment of the workplace. The hazard assessment should include potential routes of exposure and the opportunities for exposure in the task or operation being assessed. It may be helpful to review exposure incident reports in order to identify occurrences that could have been prevented by the proper use of protective eyewear.

Armed with that information, eye hazards should be removed or reduced when possible. And finally, appropriate safety eyewear should either be provided by or required by the employer. The relevant regulatory requirements will provide useful selection criteria.

  • Safety glasses with side protection (side shields) must be worn in an area that has particles, flying objects, or dust.
  • Goggles must be worn by those working with chemicals.
  • Special-purpose safety glasses, goggles, face shields or helmets must be worn by those who may be exposed to hazardous radiation (welding, lasers or fiber optics).

Beyond that, eye protection must be comfortable. It should also be adjustable, in order ensure a secure fit. Lastly, it must allow for sufficient peripheral vision on the part of the wearer.

Dealing with contaminated eye protection

Workers who use eye protection can further minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19 by following healthcare industry best practices and using specific procedures when removing and disinfecting their safety glasses, goggles and face shields. Because the front and sides of the devices are the most likely to become contaminated by splashes or droplets, they should not be touched during the removal process. Workers should only handle the parts of the eye protection that secure it to the head, such as plastic temples, elasticized bands, ties. These are considered relatively “clean.”1

Eye protection should then be cleaned and disinfected following the manufacturer’s instructions, rinsed and allowed to air dry.

Ideally, each individual worker should be assigned his or her own eye protection to ensure appropriate fit and to minimize the chance of exposing the next wearer.

Although the data on its efficacy in protecting wearers specifically against COVID-19 is still evolving, safety eyewear continues to be an important means of protecting workers from many types of injury and illness. WMHS

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/eye/eye-infectious.html