Emergency workers like police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel face constant hazards to their eyes while on the job. Proper eye protection helps these workers avoid lasting eye damage that could threaten their vision.
If you work as a first responder, the eye protection you use while at work must fulfill certain requirements. These depend on your role and the environment you are being dispatched to.
If you injure your eyes while working, follow first-aid protocols to minimize the risk of permanent damage.
Common Eye Hazards for Emergency Workers
Emergency workers are frequently exposed to unsafe conditions while on the job. Some of the most common eye hazards these workers face include:
- Bits of dirt, dust, concrete and metal in the air
- Falling debris or glass
- Smoke and poisonous gases (including carbon dioxide)
- Chemical irritants like gasoline, acid, lime, and cement powder
- Electrical arcing
- Cutting or welding light
- Fires and intense heat
- Bloodborne disease, including HIV and hepatitis
Not first responders will encounter these equally or sometimes even at all. For instance, a firefighter will encounter fire and smoke during most dispatches, but an emergency medical technician might be more concerned about disease transmission.
Common Eye Injuries for Emergency Workers
Some of the most common eye injuries sustained by emergency workers include:
- Corneal abrasions (scratched eyes)
- Foreign material (concrete, slivers of wood, or bits of metal) stuck in the eye
- Welder’s flash (unprotected exposure to UV radiation)
- Chemical burns
- Lacerations around the eyeball
- Facial bruises and black eyes
Eye Protection Recommendations
Eye protection used by emergency workers must comply with standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI Z87.1). To qualify, eyewear must provide protection against:
- Impact (falls, blows, and other trauma)
- Liquid splash exposure (chemicals, hot water, and other hazardous liquids)
- Ultraviolet (UV) light
Many organizations also choose to use safety equipment that meets the criteria for the US Military’s Authorized Protective Eyewear List (APEL). To make it onto this list, protective eyewear must be highly durable, temperature-resistant and thoroughly tested on a regular basis.
If an emergency worker requires face protection for a particular task, it is recommended that they use face shields or visors that are compliant with MIL-DTL-43511D.
There are a few additional considerations for emergency workers in each field.
Some police officers might need eyewear that offers additional ballistic protection. This type of eyewear is not required outside of rare instances, such as when dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or active shooter situations. However, officers who are working in high-crime areas or other high-risk places may benefit from having this additional protection on their person in the field.
Firefighters should wear goggles or safety glasses while working.
Helmet shields are not considered adequate protection against the usual eye hazards firefighters encounter on the job. They are not airtight and cannot protect the wearer’s eyes from smoke damage. If a helmet shield is worn, it must be paired with goggles or fitted safety glasses to provide the proper coverage.
If a firefighter is fighting an active blaze, they may wear a breathing apparatus with full face coverage to protect themselves from smoke inhalation. This is considered adequate eye protection if there is no direct path to the eyes from the outside of the apparatus with the respirator components removed.
If this is not the case, the firefighter must wear eye protection underneath the apparatus.
Paramedics and Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
EMS workers use personal protective equipment according to a four-step scale (A, B, C and D). In terms of eye protection:
- Levels A and B require the worker to be fitted with a full protective face piece that includes a self-contained breathing apparatus or supplied air respirator.
- Level C requires the worker to wear a full-face air purifying respirator.
- Level D is the most flexible of these four tiers. It has no stringent requirements. Workers who are dispatched to level D situations often wear safety glasses, goggles, or other protective eyewear. However, many wear no eye protection at all.
EMS workers who are dispatched to calls that require Level A, B, or C equipment standards will always have adequate eye protection. Workers should take extra care to protect their eyes when dispatched to Level D calls, even if they are not required to do so.
First Aid for Eye Injuries
If you sustain an eye injury on the job, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage. They are:
- Do not touch or rub at your eye. You may make the problem worse.
- Do not try to remove any objects that are stuck in your eye.
- Do not apply any ointment or eye drops to your eye unless they have been prescribed specifically to treat the injury.
- See a doctor as soon as you can. Use the emergency room if you do not have immediate access to one.
Additional steps are recommended for different situations.
Glass, Metal and Other Debris
If you have glass, metal or other pieces of debris stuck in your eye:
- Flush your eye out with eye wash, saline solution or clean water.
- Blink frequently. This may dislodge the foreign object and help you get it out of your eye.
- Lift your upper eyelid over the lashes of your lower eyelid. This may brush the object out of your eye.
- If none of these steps are successful, seek medical treatment immediately.
Cut Eye or Punctured Eye
If your eye has been cut or punctured:
- Cover your eye with a protective shield (for instance, the bottom of a paper cup taped to your eye socket).
- Do not rub your eye, rinse it with water, or attempt to disturb any objects that are lodged inside it.
- Seek medical treatment immediately.
Eye Burn or Chemical Splash to Eye
If your eye has been burned or splashed with chemicals:
- Wash your eye out immediately with clean water.
- If possible, note which chemicals may have had contact with your eye. This information may inform your course of treatment.
- Seek emergency medical attention.
Blow to Eye or Eye Area
If you were hit in or around the eye:
- Apply a cold compress to your eye for around 20 minutes, repeating as needed.
- Do not place any pressure on the eye.
- Do not use steaks or other food items for this purpose as they may spread bacteria into your eye.
- Seek medical treatment immediately if you experience a black eye, eye pain, or any visual disturbance. Even light contact can cause serious eye injuries like retinal detachment, and prompt treatment is critical to avoiding bad outcomes.
Where to Find Protective Products
You can purchase protective eyewear that is suitable for a variety of emergency worker roles at specialty retailers, including:
Avoid purchasing protective eyewear from big box stores like Walmart. It is unlikely that they will have many options that will provide the level of protection you need to be safe on the job.
Always be sure to check with your employer before purchasing any personal protective equipment for use in the workplace. They may have additional internal requirements or only allow the use of specific preselected equipment.
Best Practices for Protecting EMS Responders during Treatment and Transport of Victims of Hazardous Substance Releases. (2009). Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
PPE for Emergency Response and Recovery Workers. (2021). Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Emergency Response Resources: Personal Protective Equipment. (November 2018). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Personal Protective Equipment. (November 2021). United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Firefighter Guidance Notes: 4-2 Eye protection. (October 2019). Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.
Eye Safety At-a-Glance: Protecting Your Vision at Work. (2022). The Vision Council.
Protecting Your Eyes in the Workplace. (2022). Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Tactical Eyewear Market Survey Report. (May 2021). US Department of Homeland Security.
Eye Safety: Emergency Response and Disaster Recovery. (July 2013). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Guidance for Choosing Protective Eyewear. (May 2012). Environment, Health and Safety Department: University of Wisconsin-Madison.
EMS Guidelines for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Use in Response to COVID-19 Calls for Service. (2022). Emergency Health Systems Nebraska.
First Responder Guide for Improving Survivability in Improvised Explosive Device and/or Active Shooter Incidents. (June 2015). Department of Homeland Security Office of Health Affairs.
ANSI Z87.1 Eye and Face Protection Devices Standard. (2020). American National Standards Institute.
Last Updated April 4, 2022
Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.
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