Laboratories are hazardous places. It's easy to forget that when you work in one, day after day, and it's easy to get complacent about eyewear. But eye injuries are painful and sometimes permanent, and all it takes is a momentary lapse. Consider this example from an upper-division organic chemistry course at a small private college. A student arrived with no lab coat and didn't put on his safety goggles. He took a place at a shared fume hood with two other students, one of whom was in the process of heating solvent in a flask. Suspicious that something wasn't right, the student heating the solvent raised the sash of the fume hood to adjust the setup.

At that moment the glass shattered, spraying solvent on all three students. Two of them were wearing eye protection. The new arrival, working next to the student whose flask had shattered, took solvent directly in both eyes. "He was there less than 2 minutes, and he ended up with permanent reduction in his vision," says Denis Sapiro, manager of the Occupational Health and Safety Office at the University of Washington, Seattle, recalling the incident from his undergraduate days. "It was hazy from then on."

Or consider this example: One Friday afternoon, in her early days as a research technician at a major cancer research center, a researcher in a relatively new lab had just completed a gel run and was cutting out the band of purified DNA on an ultraviolet (UV) light box tray. None of the other researchers in the lab wore goggles or any other specialized eye protection. Following their example, she cut out the band and continued with the day's work. As the day wore on, her eyes began to itch. She and her boyfriend went out to listen to a band after work, and her eyes became progressively worse, which she attributed at first to the smoky atmosphere in the bar. By the end of the night, "it felt as though there were 100 eyelashes in my eye," she recalls. The discomfort became so severe that she couldn't open her eyes, prompting her boyfriend to take her to the emergency room, where an ophthalmologist pronounced her eyes to have been burned by UV light exposure.

She was lucky: By Monday, she had recovered fully. Only after returning to the lab did she recognize the significance of an apparently mundane fact: The other researchers in the lab all happened to wear eyeglasses, which partially shielded them when they used the UV light box. The lab immediately purchased two face shields.

According to safety experts, standard eyeglasses may not offer sufficient protection; experts recommend protective equipment specific to the task at hand--including protected eyewear rated for protection from the range (A, B, or C) and intensity of the UV light source. "I would quiz the manufacturer as to what eyewear they recommend to reduce the UV hazard or any visible glare that might be present," says Phil Johnson, director of technology at Bacou-Dalloz in Paris, which designs and manufactures personal protective equipment.

"The wearing of safety glasses is always one of the biggest challenges in many facilities where safety is not truly part of the culture," says Linda Tapp, president of Crown Safety, an occupational safety, health, and ergonomics consulting firm in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. "Many times, the problem seems to go back to a supervisor who doesn't enforce the policy, and often it takes some kind of pressure or discipline of the supervisor to get them to comply."

Television can be a bad influence. "You see this on the television news. They'll report a new research discovery and bring TV cameras into the lab, and you'll see some people with eyewear and some who don't wear it," says Lawrence Gibbs, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Fashion risks

One common fallacy is that you only need eye protection when you are doing something dangerous. But laboratories are shared environments. Individuals with varying levels of competence are performing experiments and procedures with hazardous chemicals and agents, often under pressure or in a vacuum. "You might be working on something totally innocuous, but the person working behind you might have set up a reaction that isn't. [The lab] is a multiple-use environment," says Edward Gillan, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

One reason for forgoing eye protection is blurred vision from fogged-up eyewear. Tapp admits that this problem can itself cause accidents, but she points out that solutions are available, including wipes that protect against fogging and fog-resistant specialty eyewear.

Style--or lack of it--is a common complaint among those who don't wear eye protection--and many who do. This is a myth, says Gibbs, a holdover from the days when eye protection consisted solely of uncomfortable, oversized goggles that looked like they should have a snorkel attached to them. Safety-glass manufacturers have taken pains to design eye protection that is comfortable and even stylish, so much so that they sometimes get put to unconventional uses. "People take them out on their bike rides to keep foreign bodies out of their eyes," says Gibbs.

"I allow my students to go to the local hardware story to buy high-impact safety glasses. Some of them are quite stylish. You're not restricted to science goggles," says Gillan.

Eyewear manufacturers are taking these complaints to heart. In the design of its Genesis line of safety glasses, protective-eyewear manufacturer Uvex adopted a molding technology that allows different materials to be bonded together, much like the soft, pliable tip of a pen or handle of a toothbrush. "We bonded a soft, comfortable material to the parts that touch the nose, behind the ears, and the temple. We've found that these types of products increase compliance and lead to a decrease in injuries," says Alex Berti, the company's national product sales manager.

In the end, the most important factor is leadership by example. "In more times than I can count, it is the manager or supervisor who starts this removing eyewear 'just for a second' practice, and employees soon follow suit," says Tapp. Gibbs agrees that leadership is a crucial factor. "I do think a lot comes from peer pressure, from what the norm is. That's often set by the principal investigator in the lab. If it's not emphasized there, it becomes 'Why should I wear them if nobody else does?'"

Getting into the habit

Despite the importance of eye protection, safety officers appreciate that lab environments vary widely in the threats they pose. In microbiological and medical research labs with specialized microscopes and other imaging instruments, researchers often remove eyewear to take a reading. Gibbs stresses risk awareness. The risk of an exposure at a microscope is low, but as soon as a researcher finishes that task and moves to another, the risk can change dramatically. "We've handed out free neck straps for safety glasses, with the hope that the researchers put them back on once they get up from their desk again," says Gibbs.

It's important to keep tabs on eye hazards, even in environments in which skin contact is deemed a higher risk. Consider the immunology graduate student who one morning felt her left eye began to swell and itch. Four days later, the eye had become swollen and painful, and she suffered malaise, fatigue, and a fever. When she was examined at an eye hospital, she mentioned that she had been working with Vaccinia, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine, and she was admitted to the hospital and started on broad-spectrum antibiotics and pain medication. Polymerase chain reaction tests confirmed Vaccinia infection. Treatment with vaccinia immune globulin led to rapid improvement, and she was released, fully recovered, after a 9-day hospital stay.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigation of the lab she worked in revealed that staff often failed to wear eye protection while working with Vaccinia. The DNA sequence of the virus that infected her corresponded to that of the specimen she had been using in an experiment performed 5 days before her symptoms began. The exposure probably occurred when she carried a 96-well plate containing Vaccinia-infected mammalian cells to another room, where she removed the lid of the plate and examined the cells for fluorescence. CDC investigators concluded that exposure occurred either from hand-eye contact or from the aerosolization of the virus.

Labs that handle viruses usually emphasize the prevention of skin contact, but even though "the probability of skin contact is higher, the outcome of eye contact is [of] higher severity," says Gibbs. This, he emphasizes, is the sort of risk-management thinking that researchers ought to do. "Your overall risk is related to the probability of exposure and the severity of the outcome. You only have one set of eyes, and the goal is to protect yourself. You have to be cognizant at all times of what the appropriate equipment is."

Peer pressure

Safety officers say that some academic researchers are hesitant to report accidents for fear of repercussions. They're afraid that "someone will think they're not doing good science," says Sapiro. It's a cultural problem that, like all such problems, can be attributed to a lab's leadership. Gillan is working on countering that attitude in his University of Iowa lab. "Whenever accidents ... happen, we discuss that in group meeting, so that everyone gets to be privy to the cause of the accident and means of prevention and the importance of eyewear."

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Jim Kling is a freelance science and medical writer based in Bellingham, Washington.