A wide range of chemical-based products and processes increase the risk of eye injury in the workplace. Discover more about different types of chemical eye burn, the damage they cause, and how appropriate safety eyewear can keep you and your employees safe.

Types of chemical eye burns

Manufacturing, lab work, construction, automotive repair, agriculture and catering are some of the workplace environments where workers are particularly at risk from chemical eye burns.

In areas such as specialist fabrication, hazards come in the form of unprocessed (‘raw’) chemical substances. More often, the risk of eye injury comes from handling the type of processed products that your employees use routinely: e.g. cleaning agents, lubricants and building materials. 

Hazardous materials can be divided into three broad categories, based on their pH values: 

  • Alkali (high pH values)
  • Acids (low pH values)
  • Irritants (neutral pH, but still with the potential to cause injury)

Eye burn can arise from exposure to chemicals in liquid, powder or gas form. Depending on the severity of exposure, virtually all chemicals — regardless of pH value — have the potential to cause harm. However, crucially they tend to damage the eye in different ways. Here’s how… 

Burns from alkaline chemicals 

As well as being a strong alkali, lime (calcium hydroxide) is an effective binding agent and is often used in mortar, plaster and cement. Ammonia is another alkali found in many workplace environments. Examples of ammonia-based products include fertilizers, industrial cleaning agents and soldering flux. 

Other alkali products found in the workplace include potassium-based compounds used in electroplating, food preservation, dye-stuffs and paints, as well as caustic potash (potassium hydroxide) and lye (sodium hydroxide) — both of which can often be found in drain treatments.

Between alkali and acids, alkali burns are responsible for the most chemical eye injuries at work. This is unfortunate because the potential consequences of alkali chemical burns tend to be more severe, too. This is because alkali is particularly effective at penetrating the eye cells, causing potential damage to vital inner eye structures, including the lens, optical nerve and retina. 

Burns from acid chemicals 

Broken vehicle batteries are one of the most common causes of acid chemical eye burn. The typical scenario is where a mechanic removes a battery without noticing a leak, before rubbing their face, resulting in a sulphuric acid eye burn. 

Hydrochloric acid is a particularly strong and corrosive acid used in applications such as metal cleaning, treatment of steel joists and removal of rust and impurities. Products for removing mortar and plaster deposits from brickwork often have hydrochloric acid as their active ingredient. 

When acids make contact with the eye, the tissue proteins on the eye’s surface bind to the acid molecules and coagulate. This coagulation is actually a very good thing, as it forms a kind of barrier that goes some way to prevent damage deeper in the eye. 

This is the reason why acid injuries tend to be less severe than alkali ones. That said, they can still be very dangerous. Most notably, an acid burn can easily cause significant harm to the cornea (the front, clear part of the eye), with the potential for long-term vision damage.

Chemical eye burn symptoms

In some cases, you might not be immediately aware that your eyes have been injured. Examples include exposure to chemical gases or instances of hand to eye contact. Therefore it’s important to be aware of the telltale symptoms of chemical contamination so you can act quickly. 

Typical symptoms are: 

  • Eye pain and irritation 
  • Redness 
  • Swelling of the eyelid, and an inability to keep the eye open 
  • Blurred vision and/or light sensitivity 
  • The sensation of having a foreign object in the eye 

How to wash your eye if you’ve experienced a chemical burn 

Remove any gloves. If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them if you can.  

Hold your eye under gently running cold water for at least 20 minutes. Make sure all areas of the eye, including the outside and inside of the eyelid, are washed.

If the eye is shut due to pain or swelling, gently and firmly open it so it can be properly washed out. 

After washing, hold a clean, non-fluffy pad over the injured eye until your eye can be examined by a healthcare professional.

Find out what substance caused the eye burn and what chemical ingredients it contained. You will need to pass this information on to the medical professionals. While you are washing your eye, get a colleague to call 999 or 112. You will be given advice on how to obtain further treatment. 

Can chemical eye burns cause permanent damage?

Yes, which is why it’s so important to always wear suitable safety eyewear when exposed to chemical materials. 

Eyewear forms a necessary physical barrier between toxic chemicals and fragile eyes.

Some of the most serious complications of chemical burns include corneal perforation and ulceration, cataracts, glaucoma, retina damage and possibly even loss of the eye. 

The quicker you wash the eye and seek treatment, the lower the chances of permanent damage. 

Preventing chemical burns at work

Chemical eye burn is among the most serious risks to health and safety in the workplace. The good news is that so long as employees use protective eyewear, it’s also one of the easiest risks to eliminate. 

Protective eyewear includes three main categories: safety spectacles, goggles and visors. In many (but not all) cases, protection will need to take the form of unvented goggles that effectively seal off the eyes from exposure to chemical liquids, dust and gas. 

However, choosing the right option for your workers involves assessing the specific risks they are exposed to; something you can read more about in our Guide to Eye Protection in the Workplace. 

Want to know more?

Specsavers do not currently provide goggles that protect against chemical burns, however, we do stock a wide range of BS EN 166 compliant safety glasses and eyewear. To see how compliant protective eyewear can be integrated into your workplace, explore our construction information page.