Around two million people in the UK live with sight loss according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). This sight loss may be affected by a number of factors including age, lifestyle (e.g. excessive smoking, poor diet or too little exercise) or due to disease or trauma. Experts believe half of sight loss could be avoided by routine sight testing and examination, and simple preventative measures. (Accidents at work are only a very small percentage of sight loss.)
For many, eye sight is arguably the most valuable of our five senses, but it is also one of the most vulnerable to disease, degeneration, accidents or infection. Our eyes can also be the windows into our wider health, where experts can see early signs of high blood pressure or diabetes.
Causes of sight loss
The most common causes of sight loss are:
- age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which affects a small part of the retina at the back of the eye called the macula, which makes your central vision blurry or distorted and can lead to a blank spot in the centre of your vision;
- cataracts – a common condition in which the lens in the eye changes and becomes progressively misty;
- glaucoma – a group of eye conditions which damage the optic nerve and affect sight, affecting peripheral and then central vision;
- diabetic retinopathy – the tiny blood vessels in the eye may become blocked or leak, which affects the retina and results in loss of vision.
Eye care at home
Caring for your eyes isn’t all about avoiding injury at work – there are plenty of ways to improve the health of your eyes and avoid losing your sight in older age.
Regular eye tests: Regular eye tests can pick up problems early on and ensure that treatment will stop any condition getting worse. Many common eye diseases, like diabetic eye disease and glaucoma, have no symptoms in the early stages and can only be picked up by a professional at a screening appointment or sight test. Experts recommend that everyone has an eye test every two years. The optician will also ask about family history to uncover whether there is a hereditary eye condition among close relatives.
Smoking: Smoking is very bad for your eyes. Smokers are at twice the risk of contracting AMD, the leading cause of sight loss in the UK, and smoking can also increase the chance of getting cataracts and makes diabetes related sight problems even worse.
Diet: Carrots may not, after all, help us to see in the dark but anti-oxidants in some foods are thought to prevent retinal damage. These foods include:
- broad leaf greens like kale and spinach;
- brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, like peppers and oranges;
Omega 3 fish oils are thought to maintain healthy blood vessels in the eye and researchers believe that eating one portion of fish a week, like salmon or tuna, could reduce the risk of developing AMD by 40 percent.
Exercise: Fitness and exercise are thought to improve the flow of blood to the vessels in the eye, and at the same time reduce the risk of high blood pressure and narrowing of the arteries. Maintaining a healthy weight will also reduce our chances of getting diabetes, which is one of the main causes of blindness, particularly in adults of working age.
Sunglasses: Long-term exposure to ultra-violet rays from the sun can damage eye sight too, by increasing your risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration. Experts recommend wearing sunglasses which filter out 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.
Eye care in the workplace
Under health and safety legislation employers are responsible for ensuring that workers operate in a safe environment and that workers have proper safety protection such as adequate goggles or safety glasses, face masks and overalls. One small study at a busy Scottish accident and emergency department found that among people reporting eye injuries, 30 percent were the result of an accident at work and half of these people said they had not been wearing safety eyewear at the time. However, it is not enough for workers to be supplied with the necessary equipment – they must also be trained in the correct use of safety protection.
Workplace hazards include chemicals in various forms (liquid, solid, powder or aerosol) which may splash or be rubbed into the eye. Eye washes can help to clear the irritant but lasting damage can result depending on the type of the chemical and amount involved. Dust particles and splinters from metal or wood are physical dangers to eyes in industries like toolmaking or carpentry.
Infections spread by eye exposure can also be a danger to care workers, laboratory staff and animal handlers. Infectious diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye either by direct contact, such as blood splashes, or from touching the eye with contaminated fingers. Such infections can be minor (e.g. conjunctivitis), or more serious (e.g. hepatitis).
While the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states clearly that there is no evidence that working on display screen equipment (DSE) such as computers, tablets and smartphones can cause permanent damage to eyes, staring at a computer screen can cause dry irritated eyes, blurred vision and headaches. Taking regular breaks is widely recommended.
The 20:20:20 rule suggests taking a 20 second break every 20 minutes in order to focus on an object at least 20 metres away. This process rests your eyes and stops them getting over tired. Ensuring you have a supportive chair and the screen at the right height in a well-lit environment will also make computer-based work more comfortable.
If you are an employer and you would like more information on looking after the health of employees in the workplace, you can visit the Fit for Work advice hub or phone the advice line on 0800 032 6235 (0800 019 2211 for those in Scotland and 0800 032 6233 for those speaking Welsh). Employed people who have been off work for four weeks or more can be referred to Fit for Work to help them return to work, and anyone can seek online advice and guidance about work-related health issues from fitforwork.org.