When we talk about working outdoors and protecting ourselves from the sun, the discussion usually centres around skin protection. One aspect that often goes overlooked is the protection of our eyes from the sun’s harmful rays. And in reality, a pair of sunglasses is just as important as wearing a hat or sunscreen when heading outside.
How the sun damages our eyes
As kids, most of us remember being told not to look directly at the sun because it could damage our eyes. Whether it was a parent, grandparent, or sibling who gave you that piece of advice, they were right.
The sun produces two types of energy that can damage our eyes: visible light and UV radiation, sometimes referred to as invisible light. A rainbow shows up as a spectrum of visible light that includes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. UV light is beyond the visible spectrum of violet, so it is not visible to the human eye. Although we are not able to see invisible light, it can still cause damage.
According to Health Canada, multiple parts of the eye can be damaged from exposure to visible light and UV radiation, including the eyelid, cornea, lens, and retina. And when visible light reflects off water or snow, the impact intensifies. Don’t let the clouds fool you. Damage from UV and light exposure can happen even on overcast days.
Our eyes have some natural ability to heal themselves; however, permanent damage can occur if exposure overwhelms that natural ability.
Some eye diseases have been linked to long-term sun exposure, including macular degeneration and cataracts, both of which reduce vision. Eye cancer is also a concern according to The Canadian Cancer Society and Irene Kuo, associate professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute in the United States, who provides information about eye health on hopkinsmedicine.org. She explains that UV radiation can lead to cancer in the conjunctiva and cornea. In severe cases, treatment involves removing the entire eye.
Workplace sun safety
As an employer, you need to have safe work practices and procedures in place to help protect outdoor workers from the sun. Start by conducting a hazard assessment that considers your surroundings and remember that reflective surfaces, such as lakes, ponds, snow, and glass panels increase the risk.
Communicate the associated risks of working outdoors to all employees and make sure everyone has the personal protective equipment needed to mitigate that risk. This includes selecting the correct type of sunglasses.
How to choose the right sunglasses
A good pair of sunglasses goes beyond a fashion statement. Eyewear must be chosen with sun exposure in mind.
Health Canada offers the following tips for choosing sunglasses.
Look for dark lenses. You want lenses that allow you to see comfortably without squinting, but you don’t want lenses to be so dark that they reduce your vision.
Make sure you get UV protection. Neither cost nor brand name indicates how much UV protection a pair of sunglasses will provide. Expensive doesn’t always mean better, but cheaper glasses may use inferior materials. Check labels to ensure the product provides protection from UVA and UVB radiation.
Choose wrap-around sunglasses. This will help keep sunlight from reaching your eyes through the sides of your sunglasses.
Consider glare. When working outdoors around water or snow, you will often experience intense glare, which will intensify the amount of blue light hitting your eyes. Lenses with a grey, brown, or green tint will reduce the blue light reaching your eyes. Polarized lenses may be good in these situations because they filter out glare from reflection.
Check for distortion. When you put on sunglasses, look at a rectangular floor pattern, such as floor tiles. If the lines stay straight when you move your head around, the distortion is minimal.
Look for tinted safety glasses. Safety glasses can come with tinted lenses and offer both CSA rated impact protection and UV protection from the sun.
Speak to your physician if you are taking prescription medications. Some medications make you prone to UV light exposure, for both your eyes and skin.
How WSPS can help
There are guidelines for exposure to UV from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, for both exterior and interior sources of UV exposure in the workplace. Speak to an occupational hygiene specialist at WSPS to learn more.
Hazard Identification, Assessment, and Control (eCourse, 3 hours)
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.