Treatment & Compensation for Eye Injuries at Work

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 800,000 people sustain eye injuries at work each year in the United States. Carpenters, electricians, welders, assembly line workers, mechanics, and computer data personnel consistently have the highest reported rates of on-the-job eye injuries.

Common Causes of Eye Injuries at Work

Projected particulates
Projected metal flakes, splintered wood, shards of glass, and other tiny particulates can enter an eye and cause irritation or scratch the cornea. These particulates can be no larger than a pinhead.

Commercial staples, nails, wires, cutting instruments, saws, blades, and other hazardous tools can penetrate an eye or damage the cornea.

Blunt force trauma
Blunt force trauma caused by falls onto hard surfaces, auto collisions, falling inventory, and worker assaults can cause serious injury to the eyeball, cornea and socket.

Hazardous chemicals are used in a variety of workplaces. Splashed chemicals can cause serious burns and blindness. In some cases the damage can be irreversible.

Overexposure to ultraviolet rays
Lasers, sun lamps, fluorescent lights, and natural sunlight can produce extremely bright light, often many times brighter than is necessary for accurate vision. Consistent, lengthy exposure can cause eye strain and lead to migraine headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea.

Computer usage
Office computers provide a backlight which can be two to five times brighter than the eye needs to function properly. Constant exposure to computer screens may cause migraine headaches, nausea, fatigue and dizziness.

Workers’ Compensation and Eye Injuries

Employees who sustain an eye injury at work have a right to workers’ compensation benefits. Those benefits include payment of medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, bandages, etc.), and two-thirds of lost wages. Workers’ comp doesn’t cover pain and suffering or emotional distress.

Federal, state, and local laws require employers to provide protective eye gear to workers whose job duties include exposure to hazardous materials. Failure to comply with these laws subjects an employer to substantial fines and penalties. Flagrant violations can constitute gross negligence.

In cases of gross negligence, an injured worker can file a private lawsuit against his employer outside of the workers’ comp system. Private lawsuits can include full payment of medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, all lost wages, and a separate amount for pain and suffering. In severe cases, the court can also award punitive damages.

To receive workers’ comp benefits, you must follow administrative guidelines. First, you have to report your injury to your employer as soon as possible. Second, you must complete a “first report of injury” form. (If your injury is serious enough to require emergency medical treatment, you can complete the form once your condition has stabilized.) On the form, you fill in the date, time, nature and cause of your eye injury.

If your injury requires further treatment, contact the workers’ comp representative and ask to see a list of approved physicians. These are physicians employed by the insurance company specifically to treat injured workers. The physician you choose is your primary treating physician.

Your primary physician is normally the first and last doctor you see. In most cases, an eye injury requires the medical expertise of an ophthalmologist. If the approved list of physicians doesn’t include an ophthalmologist, ask the workers’ comp representative if you can choose one independently.

The ophthalmologist may be able to diagnose your eye injury in her office by performing a “slit-lamp” test. A slit lamp is a low-power microscope which helps the ophthalmologist examine your eyelids, cornea, conjunctiva, sclera and iris. Depending upon the seriousness of your injury, treatment can include wearing an eye patch, taking eye drops, or even surgery.

Recovery periods for eye injuries at work vary according to the type and severity of the damage. You may be able to return to work after a couple of days, weeks, or even longer. When your treatment is finished, your primary physician will give you an evaluation. He’ll determine whether your eye injury is fully healed, or whether it’s serious enough to have resulted in a disability.

After examining you and reviewing your ophthalmologist’s prognosis, your primary physician will complete a “return to work” form. He’ll determine whether or not you can return to your former job. If you’ve sustained a debilitating eye injury, your physician’s statement will explain whether you have a temporary partial disability, permanent partial disability, or total permanent disability.

With a temporary partial disability, you can return to your former job after a period of recovery. With a permanent partial disability, you may return to your job only if you can do it with your new disability. If you sustained a permanent total disability, you won’t be able to return to your previous job, or any other job requiring the use of your injured eye(s).

In a case of a permanent disability, you’re entitled to a cash settlement in addition to your other workers’ compensation benefits.

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