ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Many people take their vision for granted, but most also recognize the increased likeliness of declining vision and vision loss as they age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the leading causes of vision loss as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.
While routine eye exams and healthy habits can help reduce the risks or severity of age-related vision loss, the possibility of injury or trauma to the eye can happen at any age. Eye injuries can range from scratches to more permanent vision loss.
Each year thousands of active-duty military personnel injure their eyes. Eye injuries can result in both short- and potential long-term effects on vision, and have mission impacts.
The Tri-Service Vision Conservation and Readiness Branch, or TSVCRB, encourages service members to wear eye protection while at work and at home to prevent eye injuries.
“It’s important for service members to recognize that any eye injury can adversely impact their performance and operational readiness, so it is essential to continuously enforce eye protection and workplace safety,” says Cmdr. Hong Gao, a Navy optometrist working with the Army Public Health Center TSVCRB.
In field training and combat activities, eye hazards range from fragmenting munitions and other airborne debris, to invisible hazards such as ultraviolet radiation.
The most common work-related eye injury, according to TSVCRB experts, is from small foreign body metal pieces that come from cutting, grinding or explosions. These and other eye injuries can be prevented with workplace inspections and wearing proper safety eyewear.
Military commanders and safety officers are required to assess local work and training conditions to determine if and what types of eye protection are needed. Local vision conservation and readiness teams, which ideally should include safety, industrial hygiene, occupational health and optometry members, can inspect a work environment for ocular hazards or risks and give recommendations.
To ensure proper safety eyewear, service members are to use Military Combat Eye Protection. The MCEP, which includes the Army Protective Eyewear List, actually includes a list of various safety eyewear that have been approved by military eye experts for workplace and combat uses. Safety eyewear in the MCEP not only meet national criteria specified by the American National Standards Institute, but additional requirements to ensure maximum protection for military service members.
It’s important to note that just ensuring the best eye protection is used in military activities and the workplace isn’t enough.
During the pandemic, many service members have been working from home or working on more home projects where eye protection is advised (e.g. mowing lawn, weed trimming, working under sinks and painting). While prescriptive glasses or sunglasses offer some level of eye protection (e.g. falling debris), it is best to use specific certified safety glasses to ensure the highest level of eye protection. According to the TSVCRB, the best safety glasses should have an ANSI z87.1 label on them.
Certain sports, such as basketball, paintball, lacrosse and boxing, are also high risk activities for eye injuries among service members.
“I have found most acute eye injuries are from finger strikes to the eye,” says Lt. Col. Terryl Aitken, one of the Army optometrists at TSVCRB. “Many of these occurred during basketball, and could have been prevented if the individual was wearing eye protection.”
Aitken says the other very common cause of finger strike eye injuries is when a baby or child’s finger or toy hits a parent’s eye. Though these may be less feasible to prevent with eye protection, just being alert to these common hazards can help with avoiding them.
Organizations and programs such as MCEP and local vision conservation teams help to protect the vision and ensure the mission readiness of soldiers. But a service member should maximize the Department of Defense’s efforts to reduce associated eye-injuries by assessing their personal activities for eye hazards and choosing suitable eye protection. The International Safety Equipment Association provides a selection guide to assist.
General eye protection tips are provided below:
- If it’s a chemical environment, wear proper chemical safety googles rated for the chemical hazard (e.g., working on your car battery)
- If it’s an impact environment, wear proper safety eyewear or goggles rated ANSI z87.1 or greater (MCEP/APEL approved eye protection), examples include grinding metal or working underneath a car
- Be a role model for safety glasses or goggle use
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.