By David Goldberg
For Barry Weatherall, April 13, 1998 started as an average day at work, but the plumber and hot water engineer was tasked with using sulphuric acid to clean copper manifold headers. He was the first person to take on the new procedure at work and it was a job that would change his life forever.
“I was wearing a paper dust mask,” says Weatherall, recounting the day of his accident, “… a welder’s mask, gloves and a coat. I poured the chemical in then I took everything off except the paper dust mask for some reason, but it saved my life. Otherwise the chemicals would’ve gone in my lungs.”
He was mixing caustic soda beads to neutralize the acid sitting inside an underground pipe. He shed most of his protective gear except the paper mask covering his mouth and nose. He left to write down a procedure. He returned ten minutes later and peered down the pipe’s opening. Something went terribly wrong. The acid reacted in a different way, creating so much heat and
pressure that the chemicals exploded 40 feet into the air.
“Like a bullet from a gun,” describes Weatherall. “I got bad information. I got false information from the chemical company. I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
He suffered third degree burns on his face and neck. His right eye had to be removed that day. He lost vision in his left eye in hospital a few days later.
“[Telling my story] just sometimes reminds me of the beauty of the world that I’ve lived in that I can’t see anymore. But I deal with it and it does get easier as time goes on … but it’s very emotional.”
Weatherall relives that day often. He travels across Western Canada speaking at safety seminars in hopes of preventing horrific accidents like the one he suffered.
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) offers some sobering statistics. More than 200 Canadians suffer eye injuries in the work place every day. While three out of five workers were not wearing eye protection at the time of the accident.
The other almost 40 per cent of injured workers wore the wrong eye protection for the job.
Dr. William Ulakovic has been practicing optometry in Thunder Bay, Ontario for more than 20 years. There isn’t much he hasn’t seen in his career. “I’ve seen fewer eye injuries related to industrial jobs,” says Dr. Ulakovic. “I think companies, unions and workers are becoming more conscientious of the need for safety eyewear.” Flying particles are the cause of most eye injuries. Small bits and pieces no larger than the tip of a pen can cause that few people see are hurtling towards them until it’s too late.
“We see a lot of guys come in and their eyes are damaged because they spend eight hours a day under a car and flecks of rust are falling in their eyes,” explains Dr. Ulakovic.
Through his research he found that, “Even though the vast majority of employers furnish eye protection at no cost to employees, about 40 per cent of the injured workers received no eye
safety training on where and what kind of eyewear should be used.”
Choosing goggles, a face shield, a welding helmet, a full-face respirator or just prescription/non-prescription safety glasses can be the difference in preventing a catastrophic injury.
Companies like Armourx Safety Inc. want to change the safety eyewear industry. The company specializes in prescription safety glasses offering a line of bold, aesthetically pleasing designs in an effort to make the gear more appealing and accessible to the everyday worker. Armourx president Ryan Nadler says they want to make protective glasses that staple item workers don’t leave the house without, a lunch pail, hard hat or steel-toed boots.
“We wanted to make something that people want to wear, as opposed to the old clunky safety frames that people don’t like to wear because they don’t look good,” explains Nadler.
It’s not just factory workers and tradespeople who need to take care of their eyes. Recently, experts coined the term Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Symptoms include blurry vision, headaches, and even weakening of the eyes leading to long term nearsightedness. There’s no safety gear but you can make it easier on your eyes by taking regular breaks and working with bigger font sizes.
There are just as many dangers around the home too. Dr. Ulakovic sees a lot of patients every year that come in after doing some gardening.
Yes, gardening. A weed whacker sends grass particles flying at such high velocities you might find a foreign object in your cornea.
What about playtime? Just think about Canada’s game. Dr. Ulakovic’s treated some patients since childhood, from Tyke hockey to the big leagues.
He doesn’t understand why anyone would step on the ice without a visor when flying sticks, pucks and skate blades threaten at every turn.
“Think about it. You play with a visor or cage from the first time you step on the ice. But that hockey mentality for some reason tells them to go without a visor when they hit 18-years-old.” But Dr.Ulakovic says athletes are getting smarter. “We used to see a lot more hockey players in the waiting room, but more of them are wearing protection now.”
Speaking from his home in Red Deer, Alberta,Weatherall talks about embracing what life has given him. He says losing his vision has pushed him to live life to the fullest.
“I’m more adventurous now that I can’t see then when I did see. I was working too much and I had a fear of heights and I don’t anymore because I can’t see the ground.”
Weatherall uses that newfound bravery to tackle rock climbing every week. Next year he wants to try parasailing. Usually he can be found walking his guide dog, Owen. They cover 15 kilometers a day in the summer months.“It’s human nature,” says Dr. Ulakovic, “You take everything for granted until you have an injury.” •