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Report

Safeguarding Australia's Workforce

03/12/2018By Myles Hume
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Australia’s ageing population and an increased emphasis on health and safety has intensified the spotlight on the protective prescription eyewear market. MYLES HUME examines the current need for this niche category, as well as the importance of certification and the hi-tech direction of the segment.

More than 50,000 Australians suffer an eye injury each year and while nearly 90% of people claim sight is their most valued sense – the majority saying blindness would be worse than a heart attack – an alarming one in three rarely protect their eyes in high-risk situations.

They are concerning numbers, particularly in Australia where the ageing workforce has lead to an increased prevalence of eye conditions such as presbyopia. Compounded with an unprecedented emphasis on occupational health and safety (OH&S), it’s important for optometrists to be aware of what the protective prescription eyewear market offers and understand the stringent safety standards in order to appropriately dispense products.

International research suggests 90% of eye injuries could have been prevented in the workplace, on the sports field or in the backyard if the person was wearing protective eyewear.

Sports account for almost a quarter of total eye injuries, while gardening (13%) and home DIY (9%), are also substantial contributors, according to Vision 2020 Australia.

However, the majority of eye injuries happen in workplaces, with flying metal fragments, sparks, welding flash and hazardous chemicals proving to be the most common causes.

At work

A report by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) states eye injuries remain “an important problem in the Australian workforce”. It’s not just employees who are affected either, as one slip up could cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and compensation.

Image top: Zeiss | middle: Zeiss | bottom: Aviva Mann
Image top: Zeiss | middle: Zeiss | bottom: Aviva Mann

Interestingly, research shows eye injuries are more likely to happen on a Friday, with workers over 40 at risk due to the higher prevalence of presbyopia.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows 60% of the workforce is aged between 55–64. Almost 28% of people in or above that age bracket suffer from presbyopia, and a government survey found it was among the five most common long-term medical conditions, placing more importance on the need for prescription safety eyewear.

According to an Australian Government Comcare report, seven in 1,000 workers suffer an eye injury each year, costing the country $60 million annually while at least 60% of all eye injuries happen in the construction, mining, agriculture, forestry and fishing industries.

A Vision 2020 Australia survey found the problem is exacerbated by “an alarming number of Australians who should wear the appropriate eye protection never do”.

Notably, it discovered 54% of people should wear eye protection at work but 34% of them refused to do so.

Despite these figures, Shamir OHS national sales and operations manager Mr Peter Murphy believed there had been a positive shift in attitudes of Australian employers and optometrists.

“More and more employers are aware of prescription safety eyewear and the benefits of better vision at work to improve individual performance, safety and the reduction of visual fatigue,” he said.

“This extends to everyday activities away from work and employees are encouraged to wear appropriate personal protective equipment no matter what they are doing.”

However, the ASCC found eye injuries weren’t isolated to negligence. Instead, 1,000 Victorian incident descriptions it analysed revealed many injured workers had, in fact, taken measures to protect their eyes.

For example, 14.7% of people who suffered an eye injury mentioned eye protection was worn, while 10.3% said protection was used but may have been inadequate. For injuries involving grinders, 40% wore protection.

“This suggests the need to examine the design of the safety eyewear and/or improve the training of workers so that they know how to properly wear the eye protection,” the report stated.

It also highlights the importance of certification as opposed to compliance in the world of safety lenses.

Certification vs. Compliance

Australian law states employers have a responsibility for the full cost of appropriate protective equipment, including prescription safety glasses. It’s simply not enough to provide side shield and plastic over lenses, and it’s an offence to charge or levy the employee to cover the cost.

According to Optometry Australia, the standards most relevant to Australian optometrists are: AS/NZS 1336 (recommended practices for occupational eye protection), 1337 (occupational eye protectors), AS/NZS 2228.1 (spectacle lenses) and 1337.6 (prescription eye protectors).

Standard 1337.6 was first introduced in 2007, and updated in 2012 to allow for changes in the market, including progressive addition lens fittings.

The four critical elements in adequate prescription protective eyewear are; appropriate frame, appropriate lens material and thickness, appropriate fitting and labelling, and assuring compliance.

Australian health and safety law states prescription eyewear must be compliant with standard 1337.6.

However, several Australian suppliers warn of companies that claim their prescription safety wear is only “compliant” with the standard. This means a manufacturer is making a statement or claim their products comply with a standard when perhaps no third-party audits have confirmed this.

Industry leaders recommend the use of only “certified” products, which have been independently tested to meet the minimum standard.

Hoya
Hoya

Becoming certified

Hoya Lens Australia is one of many companies that has put its products through the rigors of certification under standard 1337.6.

Its unique proprietary Trivex-based lens, Phoenix, is used for medium impact safety purposes. The company claims this light-weight lens material makes is comfortable for the wearer, while remaining tough and chemical resistant. Hoya also carries one of the largest ranges of frames with more than 70 styles.

For its prescription safety eyewear to reach certified status (like all other certified manufacturers), its low impact products must withstand the impact of a 6.35mm ball bearing at a velocity of 12m/s (43km/h), while for medium impact lenses the speed increases to 40m/s (144km/h).

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An accredited National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA), Australia laboratory also puts the eyewear through penetration tests at both ambient and elevated temperatures, while there are thickness criteria (2.5mm is considered optimum) and also an assessment for prescription accuracy.

The results are forwarded to SAI Global for independent assessment, and certified products are identified with a SAI Global StandardsMark Certification Licence – the five-tick tower. Additionally, each certified product will carry specific markings on the lens and frames, and a certificate with the manufacturer’s licence number.

According to Hoya, SAI Global also conducts bi-annual audits to ensure that all manufacturing processes are compliant, and inspects all records and batch testing samples conducted and retained by the manufacturer. It remains the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure ongoing compliance.

Lenses

Traditionally prescription safety lenses have been made of strong, lightweight polycarbonate – a material born out of the space race in the 1960s before being used in ophthalmic lenses a decade later.

Shamir
Shamir

However, in the early 2000s US company PPG repurposed a material called Trivex – initially developed for the military as visual armour – into optic lenses.

Like polycarbonate, Trivex has inherent UV protection. Both are much more impact-resistant than regular glass and plastic lenses because they are relatively soft, meaning they can absorb energy without lens fracturing.

However, Trivex has a stronger Abbe value 45 (in lower values light dispersion will cause chromatic aberration), as opposed to polycarbonate’s 29 rating, making it optically superior, according to University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS) research.

Trivex is also lighter with a lower specific gravity. In addition, UCCS researchers discovered Trivex’s tensile strength made it resistant to cracking around drill holes for rimless or drill mounted frames.

Today Trivex is marketed under several alternative brand names, including NXT (Essilor), Trilogy (Younger Optics) and Hoya’s Phoenix product.

Prescription safety eyewear typically caters for low and medium impact activities with manufacturers producing an array of options and combinations.

Suppliers say low impact products would be suitable for professions such as dentistry and chemical-related tasks. Medium impact glasses are for industrial sectors like mining, construction and engineering.

Single vision, bifocal, progressive and indoor lenses can be built in with grey or green tinting, photochromic and UV protection.

Safety lens prescriptions typically range from +6.00 to -6.00 with a -6.00 cyl, however specialised frames can accommodate for scripts up to +/-10.00.

Due to the wraparound nature of safety eyewear, suppliers told Insight of a “fish bowling affect” in some patients with higher prescriptions. As such, more vendors are releasing flatter frames to negate this.

Lens fogging is another major factor manufacturers are addressing. Shamir is one company that has developed an anti-fog lens coating for its polycarbonate lenses, which doesn’t require additional lens sprays. The lenses are suitable for indoor and outdoor sports and strenuous work activity.

Shamir has also introduced its widest far vision zone, providing stable vision below the fitting point, with an enlarged intermediate vision zone for better view of the immediate area

Hoya
Hoya

Looking ahead

Sensors, scanners and augmented reality (AR) are already becoming everyday additions to safety glasses. Truck driver fatigue and invisible toxins in firefighting are hazards new eyewear technology hope to address.

In some cases, the technology can be incorporated alongside prescription lenses.

Companies are still exploring the best applications for AR eyewear. With an investment of US$2.3 billion (AU$3.2 b), Magic Leap released its AR goggles in August. In the same month, Apple acquired Akonia, a company that creates lenses for AR glasses.

Although neither has specified how they will target their AR eyewear technology, it’s expected to become a significant component for industrial industries.

For example, it’s likely firefighters will soon use AR to detect toxic fumes inside buildings. GPS technology could also relay an individual’s location to nearby colleagues and ground staff, while sensors would monitor heartbeat and send distress signals if in danger.

Safety glasses with AR technology are expected to become standard-issue for police, used to fight crime through facial and licence plate recognition. Meanwhile, AR is being piloted at crime scenes, so detectives can connect with experts in remote locations.

Police and firefighters may also be trained with AR, creating 3D scenes and scenarios they may encounter in reality.

Already, at Singapore’s Changi Airport, construction workers are wearing Chinese-made ‘smart glasses’ fitted with CCTV cameras and hands-free phone call technology. Managers can tap into cameras to check safety across the expansive worksite, and then make phone calls without disrupting workers, according to Channel News Asia.

Safety eyewear is also helping to combat truck driver fatigue. Manufacturer Optalert has developed drowsiness detection glasses, which can be adapted for prescription lenses.

According to its website, the technology measures the velocity of a driver’s eyelid 500 times a second using a tiny invisible LED built into the frame. There are two key measurements monitoring how fast and how far a person opens their eyelid after they close it.

These are translated into a score, which the operator sees displayed on their indicator or processor positioned in the cab.

While that technology may still be some years away from becoming mainstream in Australian industries, the increased importance and adoption of safety lenses is a current feature of the market that cannot be ignored.

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