In the eye of the beholder

In the eye of the beholder

By the time you finish reading this article at least six workers will have suffered an eye injury requiring medical treatment. If we look at the bigger picture of human factors involved in workplace accidents, most of these accidents are preventable

In the United States (US), eye injuries happen at a rate of knots: more than 700 000 each year at a cost of around US$ 300 million (R3,92 billion). That’s an average of 2 000 every day, or an astonishing one every 43 seconds.

Here’s a list of the main causes of eye injuries in the workplace:

• Chemical burns – splashes and fumes from industrial chemicals or cleaning products are common causes of chemical burns to eyes.

• Thermal burns to the eye also occur, often among welders. Burns can routinely damage workers’ eyes and surrounding facial tissue.

• The majority of eye injuries result from small particles or objects striking or scraping the eye, such as dust and airborne particles, grit, metal swarf, glass fragments and wood chips. These materials are often ejected by tools or machinery, blown by the wind, or fall from above a worker.

• Large objects may also strike the eye or face, or a worker may run into an object causing blunt-force trauma to the eyeball or eye socket. Larger objects like staples, nails, or slivers of wood or metal can pierce the eyeball and result in a permanent loss of vision.

• Hazardous radiation caused by ultraviolet radiation, lasers, heat, infrared, and even visible light can cause damage to the eye.

Beyond the obvious safety hazards, it’s worth thinking about health issues, too. Eye diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye as a result of direct exposure to things like blood splashes, airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, or from touching the eyes with a contaminated finger or object.

Eye diseases can result in a range of symptoms from minor reddening or soreness of the eye to life-threatening infections such as HIV, hepatitis B, or avian influenza.

An ounce of prevention

If the causes of eye injuries are so easily identified, why is it that so many occur? The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says it’s because workers don’t wear safety glasses. The AAO calculates that, of the 700 000 injuries in the US each year, over 90 percent could have been avoided through the selection and use of the correct safety eyewear.

Why don’t workers wear their glasses? Well, now things get interesting … A research study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety identified the array of factors that influence workers’ decisions to wear personal protective eyewear.

In the eye of the beholderThe Institute’s conclusions in order of importance are:

1. Style, comfort and fit – our faces are different, so having a choice of styles can help improve comfort, which increase likelihood of use. If the eyewear looks cool, chances of use increase even further!

2. Fogging/misting – in warm weather or hot work environments there may be a chance that workers get hot and sweaty or humidity builds up around the glasses.

3. Accessibility/availability in workplace – 80 percent of workers in the research study said a major factor was where the personal protective equipment (PPE) was kept – no-one wants to take a long walk to access PPE.

4. Scratching – 85 percent of workers said that a barrier to wearing glasses is if they scratch easily.

5. Interference with workers’ prescription spectacles – linked to the first point, it is important that there are alternatives for those with prescription eyewear.

6. Task suitability – a large proportion of eye injuries occur when safety glasses are being worn, with particles entering the eye from around the glasses. Take care to match PPE to the task – one size won’t fit all.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowadays there’s such a great range of eye protection available that choosing the right type for specific work situations is easier than ever before.

The nature and extent of the hazard, the circumstances of exposure, other protective equipment used, and personal vision needs should be considered during the assessment. Remember that eye protection should fit an individual properly, or be adjustable to provide appropriate coverage.

Now that we’ve considered the immediate risks to our eyes, let’s broaden our thinking by considering some of the other human factors related to using our eyes at work.

Inattentional blindness

Have you ever visited one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants where there seems to be an endless array of delicious-looking food? If you’re anything like me you may begin by having a look at what’s on offer and then filling your plate with things you love or those that look especially appetising.

When you join your friends back at the table, you notice that they seem to have one of your favourite dishes on their plate. You ask where they got it, only to be told that it was at the buffet bar right in front of you, yet you missed it.

The classic example demonstrating inattentional blindness is that video clip with the gorilla. Psychologists Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris recreated the original study undertaken in 1975 by Ulric Neisser where two basketball teams pass the ball around. A person wearing a gorilla suit wanders onto the court, thumps his chest and wanders off.

In trials conducted by the team at Harvard University, typically around 60 percent of viewers do not see the gorilla. How could this be possible? Before the clip is played, the viewers are asked to count how many times the ball is passed within a certain team. They expect to see the ball moving between players and focus on this task so intently that they do not notice the gorilla.

Inattentional blindness is not a cognitive or visual defect. It’s essentially an issue of awareness – principally the failure to notice an entirely visible, though unexpected, object because our brains are otherwise engaged.

There’s a limit to what our brains can cope with. In deciding where to focus, our brain scans around 30 to 40 pieces of data (sights, sounds, smells) every second until something grabs its attention. It then filters out what it feels is important and the rest gets left behind.

The gorilla video excited so many people that Simons and Chabris produced a sequel in 2010. This time we were ready and expecting the gorilla to appear. Sure enough it did, but viewers were so intent on looking for it that they missed several other unexpected events, such as the curtain in the background changing colour.

How can it be that we continue to miss so many significant events? When choosing where to focus its energy, the brain applies four filters:

• Capacity – our capacity to pay attention is essentially down to our mental aptitude and is influenced by a range of factors including age, education, distraction, fatigue and drug or alcohol consumption.

In the eye of the beholder• Expectation – our past experiences shape our future expectations. As an example, on a recent visit to one of our client’s factories, when I asked why employees did not respond to the warning alarms on a production line, they told me that because the alarms go off with such regularity, and are usually “false alarms”, the workers have stopped noticing them.

• Mental workload – the perceptual loading of the brain increases the likelihood of inattentional blindness. Chances increase when our attention is diverted to a secondary task, for example filling in an online form while holding a conversation about an important subject.

• Conspicuity refers to the degree to which an object or information jumps out to command our attention. Our brains are drawn to sensory conspicuity – the contrast of an object against its background – like a bright red car on a sunny day on the highway. They are also drawn to cognitive conspicuity – where we are more likely to notice something particularly relevant to us, for example a car that is the same as the one we are driving on the highway.

These filters can bring benefits, such as blocking out distractions to allow us to concentrate on a task at hand, but, because most of us tend to be unaware of the limits of our attention, we take on other activities while engaged in primary tasks. It is this multi-tasking that poses the real risk when it comes to safety.

Many people are convinced that, when talking on a cellphone while driving, they would notice a sudden event occurring, but don’t notice the bright red flash of brake lights. One in every four road crashes involves a driver who is talking on a cellphone.

The next time an accident investigation shows that the individual involved was negligent, careless or “not paying attention”, take a step back. Studies have shown that even the most attentive, intelligent and vigilant people would suffer the same degree of inattentional blindness in similar situations. So consider the four brain filters carefully and see whether you notice any gorillas.

Salient points

The Salience Effect is a phenomenon that ensures that we pay more attention to certain things than they may actually deserve. As humans, we always recall the undesirable exceptions more easily: they’re particularly salient.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his pal Amos Tversky realised that we place (often unnecessarily) heavier emphasis on salient information. This explains why boards are as averse to news of a spate of lost-time injuries as they are to financial dips, and why, when a really serious accident occurs, it’s “all-hands-on-deck” as everyone scrambles to “prevent this happening again”. In summary, salient data has the ability to run rampage over what we think, how we behave and what we say.

What’s more, as the Salience Effect kicks in and switches our attention to those explicit “unsafe behaviours” in the workplace, we tend to overlook hidden, slow-to-develop, subtle factors or less-easy-to-spot behaviours as our attention is drawn sharply to what our mind tells us is most important.

In closing

Our ability to see and understand the risks we face in the workplace is subject to a range of psychological filters that can mask the information we really need.

Don’t be blind-sided by the unusual and irregular. Push back against the obvious and dig a little deeper into what’s going on around you right now; there just may be something even more worthwhile to which you could be paying attention.

Sharman on Safety is based on ideas and concepts from Andrew Sharman’s new book: From Accidents to Zero: a practical guide to improving your workplace safety culture. Andrew is an international member of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and the Chief Executive of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. More at

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