In Appreciation of Workplace Eye Wellness Month, I wanted to talk about chemical injuries at work. One of the common misconceptions that floats about out there is that acids in the eye are worse than alkaline burns. Don't get me wrong, acid in the eye is an emergency and needs to be addressed right away, but alkaline burns tend to be more devastating to vision , and more likely to cause permanent blindness.
Accidents with chemicals can happen to anyone, but if you make sure you stay aware of the dangers of the chemicals you are working around, you can prevent a lot of incidents. Think of it this way, a strange dog may look as friendly as can be, but you are still going to take precautions that minimize the chance that you get bitten. Treat chemicals with that same level of respect.
You don't have to be a chemist to be exposed to chemicals. Almost any workplace environment has access to powerfully destructive chemical agents in the form of cleaning solutions. Using proper protective devices, such as cleaning gloves and goggles is the surest way of preventing a burn, but even the most careful of us can have an accident.
If an accident does occur, it is instinctive to start flushing your eyes with water. That's a good thing, follow that instinct! That being said, one of the most common mistakes made in these incidents is that a person does not flush their eyes out long enough. That standard is to flush your eyes after a chemical incident for a full 15-20 minutes. It's best to flush with a sterile saline solution, but if that's not something you have on hand, running tap water is much better than nothing. At a hospital your eyes would be flushed and tested with litmus paper until they are at neutral. If you happen to have litmus paper in your first aid kit, that is what it is for.
After flushing the eyes, go to an Emergency Room. Make sure to bring them the following information if you have access to it:
- The time and place of the injury.
- The name of the chemical and if possible the ingredients list. Bring the bottle the chemical came in if possible. Although the doctor can look it up through poison control, this step saves valuable time.
Oddly enough, a common place to get a chemical burn is when working with food. Imagine you're working in a restaurant or for a caterer cutting chili peppers and didn't think to wear gloves. You can wash your hands repeatedly with soap and water and still be able to taste the spice on your hands. If you're one of the unlucky few that touches their eyes after cutting jalapenos, you know how painful that can be. Keep in mind that capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers that gives them their heat, is also used to give pepper spray its punch. If you cut peppers without gloves on, be sure to soak your fingers/hands in oil or milk. Even if you've already gotten the pepper in your eye, soak your hands first because it's easy to get more pepper in your eye without cleaning your hands properly. Next, soak a paper towel in milk and dab it to your eye, if some milk runs into your eye, it may help your discomfort. If there's no abrasion on your cornea, you shouldn't have to worry about causing an infection. The goal is to break down any oils on your eyelid.
Chemical burns in the eye are bad enough that I've never heard of anyone getting the same type twice. It's something you're careful not to repeat! Even better is being careful enough to not have to learn the lesson the hard way.
Good eye helath everyone!
Kendal Piatt, OD