Bruce Berard, vice president and chief operating officer for Stanley Tree Service, Inc., a dual-accredited, 32-year TCIA member company in Smithfield, Rhode Island, has had a unique experience with eye injuries.
Berard’s brother, Bryan, is a former National Hockey League first-overall draft pick and NHL Rookie of the Year who lost vision in one eye after being hit with a high stick in his fifth season, in March 2000. He received a $6.5 million insurance settlement, as his career appeared over. Beating the odds, he worked to regain his depth perception, gave back the money for the chance to try out for the New York Rangers and worked his way back to the NHL for six additional seasons. Bryan shared that story and others in a book, Relentless: My Life in Hockey and the Power of Perseverance.
That was not the only experience Bruce Berard had with sight-losing incidents. A Stanley Tree Service worker suffered the loss of vision in one eye after a freak injury on the ground. For him, the result wasn’t as successful.
“That eye injury was actually kind of an odd injury where, if I remember correctly, he had the safety glasses on and the proper protection, because we had shields on our masks,” Berard recalls. “A branch actually came up under it.
“That’s one of those things where, even though he was doing everything right, you can still have it happen. So anytime anyone asks about eye injuries, I get it, because I spent two years taking care of my brother when he almost lost his eye permanently.”
Personal protective equipment (PPE) won’t always save one from injury in the sometimes unpredictable and dangerous world of commercial tree care, but using the right equipment, safety training and adherence to that training is a good way to avoid incidents, according to those spoken with for this article.
In a work environment where chips, particles and sometimes branches fly, protecting eyesight is a safety priority. “We only get two eyes, and it’s very easy to lose one, or both of them, for good if you’re not wearing the basic PPE package,” says Timothy Walsh, CTSP and corporate safety director at The Davey Tree Expert Company, an accredited, 49-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio.
The development of safety glasses is a story more about evolution than revolution, with gradual design and manufacturing changes that include lighter-weight material, fog-proof lenses and solutions and styles to make them more comfortable and more fashionable. It protects two very important assets, but generally retails between only $8 and $18 (some are more expensive) and often meets its end because somebody sits on a pair in the cab of a truck.
John Ball, Ph.D., CTSP and advisor and teacher at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota, says the average workers’ compensation for an eye injury is about $27,000, but a case involving loss of vision can be more than $140,000, and sometimes much higher.
“About 20% of the eye injuries occurred to workers wearing eye protection,” says Ball, an expert on safety who was a member of the committee that drafted the ANSI Z133 safety standards for arboricultural operations. “These were facial fractures – a fracture of the eye socket – either from a chain-saw kickback or a fall. Eye protection cannot protect against all injury, but it can reduce injury.
“Most injuries were partial-thickness lacerations to the cornea,” Ball continues. “These do not violate the globe, but are abrasions to the surface from small debris that our glasses can protect against. These incidents usually occurred to a worker not wearing glasses while running a chain saw, getting some small debris in an eye and trying to rub it out – a good way to rub it in deeper. We also have full-thickness lacerations to the cornea – a rupture of the globe – from a small sliver of wood or metal. These are true medical emergencies and can result in loss of sight.”
Why do so many eye injuries occur when the glasses are off?
As with many other tree care injuries, the causes are often complacency, errors in judgment, forgetfulness and other human errors.
Any of those reasons could support a strange fact about eye injuries that occur to workers who aren’t wearing the proper eye PPE. The most common position among those injured: the worker who runs the chipper.
“I think, and now you’re getting an opinion, one of the biggest problems I see with eye protection is just forgetfulness,” Ball says. “You know, you think you put it back on, but you didn’t because it is lightweight. And a lot of (the lenses are) pretty clear, so it’s kind of like the old guy saying, ‘Hey, I can’t find my glasses,’ while they’re actually wearing them.”
Particularly in some Southern states, the days get hot and workers get sweaty and equipment gets uncomfortable. A worker might take off their gear and forget to put it back on. They might also wipe their eyes with dirty hands or try to rub a speck out of their eye and inadvertently rub it into the eye.
Ball notes that some workers wear glasses and mistakenly believe those regular specs can substitute for safety glasses, which have a safer design.
Walsh has observed that some companies have begun manufacturing helmets with visors – some mesh and others that meet eye-protection standards.
“One of the problems I see, and I often see it in the magazines and definitely on social media, is people working with the visor up,” Walsh notes. “The moment you flip the visor up, you’ve taken away your eye protection.”
While the industry often views complacency as a precursor to accidents, Walsh sees risk perception by individual workers as a key reason.
“People don’t really understand the true risk – that taking your glasses off, even for just one chain-saw cut, could mean the loss of one or both eyes,” he says.
“If you’re going to be a climber, you need two eyes,” Ball says. “If you don’t have depth perception, you’re not going to do this. And you only start out with two. So the problem we have is, you’ve really got to protect your eyes. Absolutely.”
Ball believes that eye injuries may not get the same attention as other types of injury because they are usually so short-lived. “You know, anyone who’s had a small bit of debris get into their eye goes through the intense pain. Every time you blink it hurts, but it heals very quickly. A lot of people think about helmets because you don’t want your head bashed in. They think about cut-resistant leggings. They don’t want to cut off their leg.”
There are two areas people often overlook for protection, Ball says. They often overlook hearing protection and, like many older workers in tree care, end up with poor hearing. Or they overlook eye protection and suffer an injury that alters the course of their career.
“I knew a guy who suffered penetrating trauma and lost significant vision in one eye. He could still work, but he couldn’t climb,” Ball says. “He left the field. He said, ‘Yeah, the company said I could sell.’ And he was good at that, but said, ‘I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go out and do production.’
“It doesn’t limit you from everything, but I think people need to be aware of the fact that eye injuries can be career altering.”
The trend is no trend
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations say that all eyewear must meet the standards of ANSI Z87.1. Those letters and numbers are etched into the frames or elsewhere on glasses or visors that fit the standards, which makes it an easier choice for consumers.
Some situations might require more protection, for example, a shield over the eyeglasses. While a mesh screen that drops over the face can be valuable in many circumstances, it’s generally more useful in some situations – when the particulates are larger – than others.
“Most of Petzl’s eye-/face-protection line meets the Z87.1 requirements, except for the Vizen Mesh, which offers face protection only, but does provide great ventilation on those hot days,” says Samantha Heim, media specialist for Petzl America, a 26-year TCIA corporate member company headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Materials are lighter, there’s more choice in color and the styles are more attractive than what was available years ago, but most of those changes in eye protection occurred five years, 10 years or more than two decades ago, according to Dave Francis, president of American Arborist Supplies, a 39-year TCIA corporate member company based in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
“It all got sexy in the ’90s,” he says. “I came here in 2002. We had this new, exotic, sexy-looking line of eyeglasses, but I don’t feel like that’s a trend worth talking about anymore.”
Anti-fog sprays and glasses made with anti-fog lenses are relatively new (about five years old), Francis says, and are valuable for workers when the work gets hot. American Arborist Supplies carries Husqvarna and Stihl products, including glasses, as well as the popular Edge safety-glasses line, which sometimes comes with polarized lenses, and 3M glasses also. “They’re big in PPE,” Francis says of 3M.
One thing that consumers may want to consider is the different colors of lenses, he suggests.
“There are times when it’s wonderful to have that smoke, or shaded color, because it takes the bright sun out. But if you’re under the crown of a tree and you’re doing pruning work, or you’re directly pointing up or directing pruning work at crews up in that crown, there are times you feel like you’re looking into the dark, so you want clear lenses,” Francis says. “Then the other thing that happens is, on the rainy days, when everything’s kind of foggy or misty and there’s no contrast between anything, the yellow lenses make definition come back.
“So, if I was really serious about my safety glasses, I might have three pairs in the truck. I’m not going to take them all out each day. But I might have three pairs for those different applications.”
Although he makes that recommendation, Francis thinks most arborists buy their glasses one at a time and might buy a pair with different-colored lenses out of frustration after being in one of the aforementioned scenarios.
Beyond that, the glasses are generally due for replacement after a thousand cuts – or scratches, more accurately – or after their sudden death.
“They normally get scratched first. So when there are enough scratches that the wearer doesn’t want to look through scratches anymore, they’re looking for another pair,” Francis says. “But a lot of them just get sat on, on the truck seat. They sit on the truck seat and the worker gets in and sits down, and that’s the end of that. Oops.”
Life goes on
When his brother was injured, Berard says, “I spent days in the yard with him just playing catch with a tennis ball so he could learn how to judge (distances) again.” Because of this experience, Berard gained a sense of the personal cost to a person losing an eye.
“Just try understanding how to live without depth perception,” he says. “Close one eye; it’s not easy.
“So many times Bryan would be sitting in a restaurant laughing because if he was sitting on the outside booth, the waiter would be standing beside him for a couple of seconds and he wouldn’t even know it,” Berard says. “There’s a lot that goes into an eye injury, other than the costs, right? I mean, nowadays healthcare isn’t cheap, workers’ comp’s not cheap, insurance isn’t cheap. But when you lose vision, it changes your life forever.”
Stanley Tree has more than 250 employees, and the employee who lost sight in his eye had made his mark as an “up-and-comer,” Berard says. “He wasn’t running the crew, but he was definitely an asset.”
Berard notes that his company makes safety a priority. When it comes to preventing accidents, Paul Lozeau, Stanley Tree’s safety director, says the biggest challenge is to establish buy-in from workers in the field.
“Our biggest challenge is getting people to buy into the rules,” says Lozeau. “It’s very easy to sit in an office and create policies and procedures. It’s another thing to actually get them implemented and have people buy into the system.”
Lozeau notes that sometimes people learn best only after a mishap has occurred, but it’s good to get buy-in from leaders within the ranks.
To that end, Stanley Tree now has a climber who – like the previous employee – lost his eye in a workplace accident. The two significant differences are that the climber got hurt while working for himself, and through hard work – like Berard’s brother – he has rebuilt his depth perception and resumed his career.
He’s been an asset as both a worker and leader, including in the area of safety.
“When he came to us, he’d been a safety and training manager for a different tree service,” Berard says. “He kind of flipped all the roles from taking those chances that got him to where he is, and went back and reflected on that and became a trainer to keep people from being in the situation he’s in.”