As a firefighter or an emergency rescue professional, you are only assured of one thing: you never knowing what’s coming next. Supreme adaptability in your training is required to be prepared for the myriad situations you will be expected to deal with in the course of a single year, let alone a lifetime in these challenging but rewarding careers. There is, however, one thing that doesn’t change with regard to your plan of action in any given situation, and that is establishing a method to secure your own safety before helping others. This means seeing that you are properly outfitted and protected to guard yourself from injury. In this preparation, taking preventative measures against eye injuries should be right at the top of your list.
Firefighters need to defend themselves from heat, debris, water spray, dangerous liquids, as well as fragmentation hazards presented by saws, extraction devices, and other tools of the trade. Choosing the right eye protection to match the emergency situation is imperative to insure that a first responder can remain on scene and be effective in his or her tasks. When not using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) device in the midst of fire suppression but still in the presence of hot coals, ash, sparks or other fire hazards, the deployment of a fire rated safety goggle is preferable. Unlike protective faceshields or flipdowns, fire goggles afford firefighters an enclosed area of protection that prevents the intrusion of foreign objects. The lenses of these goggles should be rated at a minimum to industrial safety impact-standards to reduce the risk of injury from explosively-discharged shrapnel, and the goggles should furthermore be outfitted with sufficient ventilation and special lens treatments to permit airflow and restrict lens-fogging while mitigating the effect of smoke reaching the eyes. Lower-profile goggles are the latest innovation in this field, with many products meeting the requirements of NFPA 1971, which don’t interfere with any type of helmet, and can easily be doffed to stow upon the helmet or in your turnout pocket when not in use. Note that properly certified products will bear appropriate markings upon the goggle-lens, so check before you buy.
Firefighters not actively engaged in fire suppression and EMS workers in general are confronted with an even wider range of unknowns. Yet throughout the nearly infinite range of possible call scenarios, the need to wear eye protection remains universal. The eyes are easily damaged and have far less capacity to heal compared to other areas of the body, so eye injuries are almost always extremely costly and can easily end up being career ending or life-altering. The good news is that the vast majority of these hazards to the eyes can be easily mitigated by wearing a safety rated pair of eyeshields or sunglasses.
Regulations determining what eyewear is appropriate for use are limited, most referencing only the internationally recognised European or United States industrial eye safety standards, known as EN 166 or ANSI Z87.1. Establishing that a piece of eye protection you are considering using on your job meets these standards at a minimum is the first and most important step to ensuring your continuing safety. Other products are intended only for casual use and cannot be counted on to protect your eyes. As with goggles, check any spectacle or eyeshield for subtle EN or Z87 markings on the frame and lens to determine whether or not it is applicable for use. Also be sure to check that the products you choose are meeting the most recent versions of the standards, because products which only meet older versions are proliferate throughout the market as manufacturers are not yet required to comply with the most up-to-date safety criterion. Those products today which meet older versions of the standard but are still permissible for use do not provide the higher level of protection called for by the newer revisions. In the case of ANSI Z87.1 products, you can determine whether a product is rated to ANSI Z87.1-2003 (the older version of the Z87.1 standard) or ANSI Z87.1 2010 (the most recent version, which provides for better side-coverage and implements a test for high mass impact-resistance) by looking either at a product’s box/marketing material, or at product details as found on the manufacturer’s website.
You may also wish to educate yourself to the many available sunglasses and eyeshields which provide impact protection greatly exceeding that which is provided by ANSI Z78.1 products, most of which commonly reference the U.S. Military Specification Standard, MIL PRF 31013 (Clause 126.96.36.199). Providing impact protection at over six times the level called for by the ANSI standard, the increased protection afforded by these products should come with no weight, performance, or price penalty. Eyeshields in particular are commonly rated to this impact standard as they are often also intended for military use. As such, they may also utilise other advanced technologies such as anti-fog lens treatments, adaptable/interchangeable lens and frame components, or other features to provide their users with maximum performance in even the harshest of environments. Many spectacles or sunglasses now also meet the US military standard for impact, and can thus be relied on to provide the most advanced eye protection while being complimented with a wide range of additional features, so careful research into your needs and tastes is advisable to help you make the right investment into the preservation of your eyesight.
Products in the Eye Safety Systems (ESS) Cross-Series such as the anti fog CrossbowTM are representative examples of the broader coverage and many desirable features afforded by an eyeshield, whereas products like the new ESS RollbarTM reveal a sport sunglass that has been transformed to meet the dangers of public safety duties while simultaneously employing desired features like interchangeable lens tints, improved fit, and compatibility with all manners of headborne gear.
In the end, the public safety professional who is adequately self protected before taking emergency action in their job is the one who will achieve the greatest results while incurring the least chance of loss. With municipal and state budgets constrained around the world, firefighters and EMS are constantly called upon to do more with less, and the strain of this reality reveals itself in the high-level of emotional burnout and the increasing numbers of casualties occurring in the field. Naturally, the general population is unable to reduce their demand on firefighter and EMS services regardless of this strain, so the cycle continues and the public safety professional must fall back on the key axioms of self preservation in the face of the public’s unceasing need for assistance: trust in your training, and trust in your gear. Eye protection is perhaps the most key piece of safety gear that is not fully regulated for use, so be sure first of all that you are using it, and then make sure that you are wearing it faithfully throughout the course of your duties. You just might end up relying on it when it matters most, and in turn that could keep you in the fight to save lives.
Ari Drougas worked as the Communications Manager at Eye Safety Systems
For more information, go to www.esseyepro.com