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Protecting the eyes from sun exposure

22 May 2018

Employers are generally well aware of the need to protect their employees’ eyes from hazardous substances and flying objects, but there is a threat to eyesight that is far more prevalent in almost all employees’ lives – the sun. Ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun can cause short- and long-term eye damage including cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Jim Lythgow, director of strategic alliances, Specsavers Corporate Eyecare, explains more

The eyes are just as vulnerable as the skin to damage from the sun (The Skin Cancer Foundation, Australia). Excessive exposure to the sun can cause a painful sunburn-like inflammation of the cornea at the front of the eye. This can greatly increase the risk of developing more serious, even sight-threatening, conditions in the future. 

The sun’s damaging power is increased by glare, which occurs when UV rays are intensified as they reflect off shiny surfaces such as glass. It is important to protect the eyes from the sun while working and driving, as well as when relaxing outside of working hours.

Dangers from the sun can be reduced by polarised lenses, which use a layer of iodine crystals to absorb the glare. Non-polarised sunglasses will only have a minimal effect, even though they will reduce the amount of visible light. Cheap sunglasses may cause the pupil to dilate, actually increasing the amount of UV light filtering into the eyes. High-quality sunglasses will also protect the delicate skin surrounding the eyes.

Age-related macular degeneration 

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common form of macular damage and is currently a leading cause of sight loss in the developed world (www.macularsociety.org/types-macular-condition). It occurs when a person’s retinal cells die off and are not regenerated, causing visual impairment and, in some cases, blindness. 

Numerous factors can increase the risk of developing the condition, including smoking, a poor diet, and genetics. Overexposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays is also a key contributor.

AMD affects more than 600,000 people across the UK and it is crucial that people ensure they are wearing sunglasses, or UV-blocking contact lenses, particularly throughout the summer months, to protect against the harmful exposure.

Role of employers

Sunglasses may not be the first thought for employers regarding PPE, but they are a valid requirement for many employees who work outside or drive. Employers are in a position to be able to protect the eyesight of their employees while providing a cost-effective employee benefit. Sunglasses do not need to be expensive and may provide a small but highly-appreciated additional benefit. 

Sunglasses can be a particularly welcome benefit if employees are offered a choice of a wide range of styles, and even designer options can prove affordable. Purchasing sunglasses from a reputable optician will not only mean that they offer the required sun protection, but sunglasses are also often available with prescription lenses.  

Choosing wisely

It is important that sunglasses are not purely a fashion statement. Sunglasses without an adequate UV rating can actually cause more damage than not wearing sunglasses at all. 

Specsavers Corporate Eyecare offers the following guidance for finding the right pair of sunglasses and ensuring the eyes are protected:

  • Check sunglasses comply with BSEN 1836: 1997, or bear the CE kite mark and are marked UV 400
  • Dark sunglasses do not necessarily provide more UV protection
  • Polarised lenses decrease the amount of glare, which can dazzle and strain vision. This can be particularly important for those with working roles requiring high levels of concentration 
  • The larger the lens, the more protection they will give the eyes as there is less chance that light will filter in through the sides
  • Ensure sunglasses fit properly. They should not be able to slip off or have a tight strap that digs into the head
  • Invest in photochromic lenses – such as the Specsavers Reactions lenses that instantly adapt to light changes, darkening in bright light. Alternatively, have prescription lenses tinted to minimise the amount of UV rays that reach the eyes.

Take advice

An optician is there to provide advice on all aspects of eyecare and not just to provide glasses for those with visual difficulties. Opticians will be best placed to advise on the type of sunglasses for the employee’s needs in terms of protection, comfort and appearance. They may even offer to check the amount of UV protection being offered by the employee’s existing sunglasses, so make the most of the help and information available.