From industrial cleaning products to plaster and cement, your eyes can be put at risk by a wide range of corrosive workplace substances. Here’s an outline of some of the most common causes of chemical eye trauma, and how these types of injuries can be avoided.

Is it dangerous to get chemicals in the eye?

The answer is most definitely yes.

In certain roles, the dangers of exposure to chemicals are usually obvious. For instance, lab technicians or chemical processing operatives.

In other environments, it’s much easier to overlook the risks. For example, in construction, vehicle repair, manufacturing, agriculture or catering to name just a few. The risk might not be as clear-cut but employees still come into contact with potentially harmful chemical materials on a daily basis.

Chemical eye trauma most commonly happens when liquids splash over the worker’s face. It can also arise from chemical fumes, as well as from rubbing your eyes, or sometimes just touching your face after handling chemical products. 

The potential eye injuries chemicals can cause varies widely, depending on the nature of the product and level of exposure. Minor cases typically lead to pain, redness and swelling which are resolved after rinsing the eye. In more serious cases, complications can sometimes include: 

  • A perforated or ulcerated cornea (the clear front part of the eye)
  • Clouding of the eye’s lens (cataracts)
  • Damage to the optic nerve, including glaucoma
  • Retinal damage 
  • Eye loss    

This is why — whatever your industry sector — it’s vital to carry out a risk assessment to establish precisely what substances and associated risks your employees are exposed to. 

Cement in the eye 

High pH (alkali) substances are especially prone to penetrating the eye, leading to potential damage not just to the outer surface of the eye, but also the inner parts such as the optical nerve and lens. 

Cement, whether in dust or liquid form, is one such high alkali material. Typical situations where this risk occurs are when mixing up a batch of mortar or drilling into concrete. Drilling into materials can also increase the risk of a foreign object penetrating the eye. You can read more about eye safety on construction sites here.

Plaster in the eye 

Splash injuries to the eye can easily occur when preparing or applying wet plaster or render. Working on surfaces above the head can also increase the risk of droplets falling down into your eyes.

Obviously, many plastering jobs involve the removal of existing wall surfaces at the outset. The dust generated from old plaster removal can also increase the risk of eye trauma. 

Dust from older, traditional non-hydraulic plaster can be particularly caustic (and of course, the older the product in situ, the more likely it is to predate modern safety standards). This is when eye protection is even more essential, find out more about why safety eyewear is so important in the workplace here.

Battery acid in the eye 

This type of injury most often occurs in vehicle repair settings. The typical scenario is where a mechanic handles a car battery without realising it’s leaking acid and soon after, rubs their eyes.

To prevent lasting eye damage from battery acid, immediate treatment is a must. Do not rub the area. Rinse the eye with clean flowing water for 20 to 30 minutes. Follow up with emergency medical treatment. 

Ammonia burns at work 

In liquid form, ammonia is the active element in many industrial cleaning solutions. It is also widely used in fertilisers. 

Exposure to harmful levels of airborne ammonia most often occurs through mistakes in product usage (e.g. failing to dilute a cleaning agent before applying it). Poor ventilation can also give rise to hazards, such as the gradual buildup of ammonia gas in enclosed farm buildings.  

Exposure to airborne ammonia can lead to rapid eye irritation and redness. The higher the dosage and more prolonged the exposure, the greater the scope for more serious injury. Splash trauma — especially from undiluted ammonia products — has the potential to cause severe corrosive eye damage. 

How to clean your eye if you’ve experienced contamination

With most forms of eye trauma from chemical burns, the quicker you can rinse your eye, the lower the chances of long-term damage. 

To clean, follow these steps: 

  • Remove any gloves and make sure there are no chemical traces on your fingers. Remove any contact lenses.
  • Hold your eye(s) under a running cold water tap for 20 to 30 minutes. Allow the stream of water to flood your eyes.
  • If you are working on a site with no access to running water, douse your eye with a saline solution from the first aid kit. 
  • After this initial cleaning, seek immediate medical treatment. The eye might “seem fine” after an initial rinse, but be aware that residual chemical traces still have the potential to cause damage. A doctor or ophthalmologist will likely irrigate your eyes further and carry out a full eye examination to look for further damage.   

How to protect your eyes from chemicals

Your workplace risk assessment should help to ascertain what type of eye protection is needed, depending on the specific risks you or your employees are exposed to. The user instructions for the product you are using may also include recommendations on the right kind of eye protection that you should make sure to follow.

If you need protection not just against splashes but also chemical vapours, unvented safety goggles may be necessary. These are designed to prevent both gases and liquids from coming into contact with the eyes. 

For certain activities, it may be necessary to combine goggle usage with a respirator and/or wider facial protection. If this is the case, make sure your eyewear is compatible to be used in conjunction with those other items. 

For an illustration of how protective eyewear can be successfully integrated into existing working practices, take a look at our guide to eye safety in construction.