Last reviewed 17 December 2014

Protecting the eyes at work within laboratories is vital. While many substances commonly used in laboratory work may be harmful to the eyes, this is not the only issue. In some laboratories there may be a risk of material being ejected in a process and also physically damaging the eye. Nigel Bryson identifies some key points about eye protection in laboratories.

Legal requirements

Legal requirements regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) can be spread across different laws. According to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the employer is required to identify hazards to people and then “avoid the risk” in the first instance. Schedule 1 associated with the Regulations identifies a set of general principles of prevention that establish a hierarchy of control measures. Avoiding the risk altogether is seen as the most effective in terms of prevention.

PPE requirements are generally covered by the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992. These regulations require employers to:

  • provide “suitable” PPE that gives actual protection against the risk being considered and undertake an assessment to ensure the PPE is suitable

  • ensure that PPE provided is compatible where more than one risk is present — so eye protection needs to be compatible if, for example, ear protection needs to be worn

  • ensure the PPE is properly maintained “in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair”. This may include cleaning or being replaced when necessary

  • ensure there is suitable storage space available when the PPE is not in use

  • provide employees “with such information, instruction and training” to ensure that employees understand the risks, how the PPE is used and maintained in effective working order

  • ensure that the PPE is worn by employees in the appropriate areas.

In additions, employees have a specific duty to report any loss or obvious defect that may occur to the PPE.

However, there are specific requirements about PPE in certain legislation covering the control of lead, ionising radiation, asbestos, noise and hazardous substances. In these cases, the specific requirements need to be considered first. In most cases, this will apply to noise and respiratory protection. In these cases, the HSE states that, “The PPE at Work Regulations will not apply but that the associated guidance can be used to identify the PPE control measures”.

Employers also should only use PPE that is CE marked. This means that it is manufactured to certain European Standards. During the assessment to identify what eye protection will be needed and the related standard of performance to be achieved, the employer should identify the appropriate European Standard needed in the safety spectacles, googles or face shield.

As most risks to eyes in laboratories will be associated from handling of hazardous substances, the provisions of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 will apply. Regulation 7(3)(c) and (e) require employers to provide suitable PPE where other control measures cannot adequately reduce the risk. With regard to eye protection the HSE indicates that this may occur in the following situations.

  • When controls through good practice and applying engineering or operational controls themselves are insufficient to adequately protect the operatives’ eyes. Eye protection may be an additional control measure. For example, it may be known that heating hazardous substances in glass vessels could give rise to a potential reaction that may break the vessel. In such circumstances, eye protection may be an appropriate additional control measure.

  • When a new or revised assessment shows that eye protection “is necessary until adequate control is achieved by other measures”.

  • Where a failure occurs which could cause a risk to the eyes of operatives, eg when cleaning up the spillage of a hazardous substance, eye protection may need to be worn as a temporary protective measure.

So considering eye protection in the laboratory the legal requirements may be a bit complicated depending on the risk that is being considered. However, the general position should be clear. The risk should be avoided in the first place; where this is not possible control measures need to be applied that adequately control the risks and, if these are not sufficient, PPE should be used as an additional measure and only as a “last resort”. The employer has to ensure that the PPE used will actually protect the person against the risk for which it is being applied.

Types of eye protection

The HSE has generally identified three types of eye protection.

  1. Safety spectacles: these are similar to prescription glasses and the lenses are usually in a plastic or metal frame. For those people who wear glasses normally, they may have the lenses in the safety spectacles made to their prescription. Some manufacturers make a one-piece lens within a frame moulding that is designed to fit over prescription glasses. These are usually referred to as eyeshields. Most safety spectacles or eyeshields will have side shields to protect the corner of the eye.

  2. Safety goggles: these are designed to give complete protection to the eyes. As such they are made from one or two lenses that are surrounded by a plastic frame and secured in position with an elastic headband. The rim of the goggles usually has a softer surround so that it is in direct contact with the skin. Hence the eyes are completely sealed within the goggles. Some goggles are ventilated and may be not offer suitable protection against gases or fine dust.

  3. Faceshields: as the name suggests, the type of protection is designed to shield the whole of the face but do not fully enclose the eyes. They will normally have a large one-piece lens that comes below the chin and shaped around the sides to cover the ears. The faceshield is normally attached to an adjustable head band or mounted on a helmet.

Inside the laboratory

The work done in many laboratories will be varied and eye protection may be needed as an additional control measure. The more obvious risks will be where hazardous materials may be handled or undergoing some kind of reaction. A failure in the process or vessel may be rare but could be foreseen. In these circumstances, the eyes may need to be protected from substances — eg acids or alkaline solutions — that could splash into the eyes. The risks assessment should identify the type of eye or face protection that should apply. Substances may be fairly inert but could be hot. The heat could damage the eye and so appropriate eye protection may be necessary.

Where substances are involved, a range of factors may need to be considered in the assessment. How much substance is being used; what the process is in which the substances are being used; how often the materials are being handled; what the properties of the substances are; and who may be at risk and when, etc. Also it may be necessary to have eye protection in the emergency response when control measures fail, for example, when cleaning up spillages. There will also be work done where the eyes need to be protected from dust or particles.

Employers will need to ensure that eye protection is fully considered and not just assume that because the eyes may be covered, they are protected from the risks from the actual work being done.