Bringing workplace eye injuries into focus

Interactive workshops aim to improve workplace safety

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) might be the first organization to try to improve workplace safety by blindfolding employees.

But it is through interactive 90-minute workshops — which at times require workers to don blindfolds and experience vision loss first hand — that the CNIB is reducing workplace eye injuries throughout Atlantic Canada.

"We get participants in the workshop to experience vision loss and we talk to them about the importance of eye safety," said Clarissa Harris LeBreton, CNIB’s co-ordinator for vision health promotion and marketing.

Since its launch in Nova Scotia two years ago, CNIB’s program has held 129 workshops throughout the province and provided education to almost 5,000 employers and employees. The program is branching out throughout Atlantic Canada with more workshops in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The workshops include a presentation illustrating actual eye injuries — everything from embedded metal fragments to chemical splashes — as well as a video of a CNIB client that walks participants through the day he lost his sight in a workplace accident. Employees are then blindfolded and tasked with everyday activities like brushing their teeth and writing a cheque.

With their eyes now opened to the realities of vision loss, workers are taken through a custom workplace safety plan.

"We do a lot of workshops right in the work site," Harris LeBreton said. "We really work with each individual workplace to create the best plan for them. We talk to the employees about what affects them and what hazards they face on a daily basis. We really tailor it to each workplace we go to."

There are about 1,400 eye injuries in Nova Scotia annually. In neighbouring New Brunswick, as many as 860 workers suffer vision loss due to workplace accidents every year. These numbers are slowly decreasing, Harris LeBreton said, thanks in part to educational programs like the CNIB’s.

"Everyone deserves to come home safely from work," said Nova Scotia’s labour and advanced education minister Kelly Regan in a statement. "These eye-safety workshops have been making a significant difference and the province’s participation is just one more way to encourage everyone to start thinking and caring more about workplace safety."

Both managers and front-line workers participate in the workshops to determine what precautions need to be taken for each specific task employees undertake.

"Our workshop really focuses on wearing eye protection but also wearing the right eye protection for the task that’s being performed," Harris LeBreton said. "It’s not about just grabbing a pair of safety glasses… it’s about identifying what type of eye protection is warranted for the job you’re doing."

The workshop was a revelation for Heritage Gas Limited, the Nova Scotia-based natural gas distributor.

"We have folks working at the pointy end of the stick," said Steve Clouthier, the company’s director of health, safety, environment and operations.

Employees face a multitude of hazards, he said, from heat radiation to welding-related hazards and flying materials from construction-related activity. Many employees work on customer premises where they may encounter an entirely new set of hazards.

"The workshop resonated for me right away because they do a really good job of bringing the message about eye safety home and making it personal," Clouthier said.

Since collaborating with CNIB the company has updated its personal protective equipment program. It is now mandatory for all employees to wear eye protection at all times when work is in progress.

"It creates this habit," Clouthier said. "People feel undressed if they don’t have their safety glasses on."

This change in perception is a result of both management commitment and worker engagement, he said. The program encourages collaboration amongst the entire workforce and creates a supportive environment that produced lasting results on the Heritage Gas worksite.

So while employees may be wearing blindfolds during the workshop, at the end of their collaboration with the CNIB they’re no longer in the dark about workplace eye injuries.

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