For something as critical as eyewashes and safety showers, OSHA regulations are pretty vague. 1910.151(c) states: “Where the eyes or body of any person may be exposed to injurious corrosive materials, suitable facilities for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and body shall be provided within the work area for immediate emergency use.”

It’s not surprising that when I teach safety classes, I find a lot of misunderstanding surrounding emergency showers and eyewash stations. Clearer instructions come from the Canadian Centre For Occupational Health and Safety and ANSI Z358.1-2004. However, a truly safe workplace takes safety measures beyond government regulations and voluntary standards.

When a person is exposed to a corrosive chemical, immediately flush the affected body part with large volumes of water or other neutral liquid for at least 15 minutes. Water does not neutralize corrosive chemicals; it simply dilutes them and removes them from the body.

Large exposed areas dictate immediate head-to-toe spraying, usually with an emergency shower. It is imperative that a person in this situation immediately strip off clothing that can trap the reactive chemical next to the skin and drastically slow dilution. All safety showers should have privacy curtains so affected workers don’t hesitate to remove clothing. Hesitation can mean the difference between minor injury and extensive third-degree burns.

For similar reasons, anyone who could be exposed to chemicals shouldn’t wear contact lenses. Any delay in removing them when an eyewash is needed could mean serious injury, including blindness.

To ensure adequate water volume, eyewashes and safety showers should be plumbed. If the location does not permit permanent plumbing, workers should have access to portable units. All water from emergency flushing must be captured and treated as hazardous waste. Good drainage and collection also reduces slip-and-fall hazards. Any nearby electrical outlets must be GFCI protected.

Workers must be able to get to the equipment fast, within 10 seconds, according to ANSI. Because affected workers may not be able to see their way to the units, a maximum distance of 10 to 20 feet from probable exposure areas is more realistic than a time frame.

Equipment should be brightly colored and in a well-lit location that lets a worker with impaired vision see and identify it. The worker shouldn’t have to navigate around obstacles or change levels to reach the equipment.

Once workers reach the shower or eyewash units, they should be able to activate them easily in less than a second. The units should continue to spray after initial activation without anyone holding the valve open.

If the equipment sits where a person might be working alone, its activation should trigger an alarm that sends help.

Workers, supervisors, or maintenance personnel should inspect the equipment weekly and note their inspection on a nearby sign-off sheet. Twice-yearly preventive maintenance should check for leakage, clogged openings and lines, and fluid volume. Maintenance personnel should keep a work record on hand along with replacement parts.

Most importantly, workers should be taught how to find and use the emergency eyewash and shower units. Although it’s helpful to post written instructions near the units, they may be useless in an emergency.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at lannyb@comcast.net.

Edited by Jessica Shapiro