Innovation in Protective Eyewear: What it’s Accomplished & Where It’s Going

Not long ago, wearing safety glasses meant donning cumbersome, thick-lensed frames that pinched your face, slid down your nose, distorted your vision, and most likely gave you a headache by the end of the day. But today, if you take a look at what is available on the market, you’ll see that much of modern safety eyewear is lightweight, fashionable and above all, comfortable to wear.

Clearly, there has been a revolutionary change in the safety eyewear industry. Has this change improved compliance? Are workers safer on the job? Are there fewer eye injuries? In this article we’ll explore some of the major causes for these changes, the specific areas of innovation, their impact on the workplace, and the future directions for safety eyewear design.

Shifting the focus
The year 1989 marked a turning point for the eyewear industry. That year, ANSI established new safety eyewear standards that were based on the performance of the eyewear, not on the design of the eyewear. This change opened the door for manufacturers to create protective eyewear that was both attractive and comfortable, while still meeting the new, higher impact and protection standards. This shift in focus recognized that workers who could choose safety eyewear that they “wanted to wear” were more likely to be compliant.

But ANSI was not the primary driving force behind these changes, the market was. Industry surveys and focus groups showed that workers were  demanding safety eyewear that was more comfortable, better fitting, and more attractive than the products then available. Safety officers were  demanding more choice and products to fit many different facial profiles, and purchasing departments were demanding lower costs. The revisions to the ANSI standard—both in 1989 and subsequently—provided the opportunity for the industry to respond to these demands of the market.

The design challenge
The challenge for product designers was to strike a balance between style and comfort while keeping in mind the performance and impact resistance required by the ANSI standard. In addition to a new minimum thickness, the 1989 ANSI standard required that safety eyewear meet certain impact requirements, including a high velocity test in which the eyewear must withstand an impact from a .25 inch (6.35 mm) steel ball traveling at 150 feet per second (45.7 mps), which is just over 100 miles per hour.

While it may be easy to provide that level of impact resistance for a lens, it is not so easy to also make that lens lightweight. And while it may be easy to design an eyewear frame that fits comfortably on one face, or is elegantly stylish and fashionable, it is not so easy to make a frame that fits comfortably on a wide range of faces, or to mass produce that style at a price point purchasers are willing to pay or that competitors can’t beat.

The essence of good design is meeting all these important considerations, and steering a successful course among conflicting needs required imagination and the best that material science and manufacturing technology had to offer.

Material technology
Polycarbonate, which is now the material of choice for safety eyewear lenses, is also the material of choice for a number of other clear plastic applications which require high optical clarity, such as CDs and DVDs. Developments in these areas, along with concurrent advances in injection molding techniques, have resulted in the production of lenses that not only meet all applicable standards, but also significantly exceed them. Today you will find safety eyewear that passes military V0 ballistic impact tests. To pass this test, the eyewear must withstand the impact of a projectile traveling at 650 feet per second. Plus, polycarbonate lenses are light weight and have high optical clarity, which helps to eliminate eye fatigue and discomfort for wearers.

Technological advances in other plastic materials—specifically thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) and thermoplastic urethanes (TPUs)—along with advanced molding techniques have also led to new, innovative comfort technologies. For example, Uvex® utilizes a patented MMT – Multi-Material Technology® process which permanently bonds both a soft material to a hard plastic material. The bonding of the soft elastomer on the inside of the frame provides a superior level of comfort by cushioning all points of contact to the face. Benefits of this process include an ultra-soft flexible nose bridge, brow guards that cushion the wearer’s face in the event of an impact, and firm yet pliant temple guards that cushion behind the ears to improve comfort for all-day wear.

Design Innovations
In-mold assembly and other advanced techniques have made eyewear more efficient to manufacture, but the real advances have come from imaginative design. Eyewear designers have devised a wealth of features and style options to give safety officers and eyewear users more choices than ever before. All aimed at improving performance and comfort, these design innovations include:

  • Wraparound lenses that provide improved peripheral vision and side protection;
  • Lens designs that improve ventilation and minimize fogging;
  • Soft nosepieces that adjust to provide a precise fit for almost any nose;
  • Quick lens replacement systems;
  • Temple arms that extend and contract or ratchet up and down;
  • Multi-Material Technology that positions cushioned comfort at all points of contact with the face and diffuses and deflects impact;
  • Lenses with enhanced UV protection, improved scratch resistance and anti-fog coatings;
  • Minimalist styles similar to current sunglasses;
  • Magnifying lenses; tinted, mirrored and polarized safety glass lenses;
  • Flip-up style lenses for workers in special environments; and
  • Cool colors and design features for style-conscious wearers.

Future Trends
In just the past two years, the market has seen the first use of silicone in a goggle as well as the first use of inmold assembly technology—a new molding process—to manufacture safety eyewear. Both of these recent introductions illustrate how the industry is utilizing technologies and materials in new ways to provide safety eyewear users with an unparalleled sense of comfort and adjustability. These types of innovations are the way of the future, and safety eyewear designers predict a continued trend towards making refinements that maximize comfort, fit and performance. And, in response to the ongoing research, designers are focusing on niche applications where products can be tailored to address specific user needs, as well as increase compliance among safety eyewear users. These developments include technology based  improvements, style driven designs, lens and coatings improvement, and innovative new means to protect the eyes.

Measures of Success
While products are getting better, and in many cases compliance is increasing, much more needs to be done. According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in a single year there were more than 42,000 eye injuries or illnesses that resulted in lost time. Over 70% resulted from flying or falling objects, 60% of which were smaller than the head of a pin. In addition to the pain and suffering caused by these injuries, they cost an estimated $300 million in lost productivity. And many of these eye injuries could have been prevented if safety eyewear had been worn.

In certain industries, and especially within certain companies, great successes have been achieved in improving compliance; however, there are other industries that need more improvement. Construction, for example, has eye injury rates about three times higher than the national average, and compliance rates correspondingly lower. In building construction, estimates are that only 24% of workers wear safety eyewear. Heavy construction is
worse, with only an estimated 16% of workers protected.

The bottom line is that the safety eyewear industry has responded to the demand. Innovation in safety eyewear design and manufacturing has resulted in products that are much safer, more comfortable, more appealing, and more economical than ever before. New Products will continue to improve to address the safety needs of workers everywhere.

As Published in ISHN, Dec. 2005