by Sandra Cormier
Outdoor workers are in one of the highest risk groups for eye hazards, such as work-related eye injury and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Unfortunately, they also have less access to vision benefits despite their increased risk and despite the effectiveness of early intervention and proper eye protection. Only 36% of outdoor workers have access to a vision plan offered by their employer compared to 47% of indoor workers. There is even greater disparity in industries in which the majority of employees don’t have a college degree. College graduates are 1.5 times more likely to have access to an employer-paid vision benefit, according to Transitions Optical’s 5th annual Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey. Outdoor workers who have access to vision benefits are more likely than their indoor counterparts to have used their vision benefit more than once in the past year to pay for a comprehensive eye exam for themselves. Outdoor workers value their vision plans, perhaps because many have never had these benefits. Employers of outdoor workers have found that offering comprehensive benefits, including vision, is an effective investment in attracting and retaining good employees. One of our largest agricultural clients has had success with introducing a vision plan to employees, because it gave workers access to something that many other employers didn’t offer. The benefit keeps eye exams affordable, which is important for eye health. It covers a large network of providers, many of which are retail-based locations with evening and weekend hours (an important consideration in industries in which daylight hours are a necessity and time off is at a premium). Since agricultural workers are out in the sun all day, having access to corrective eyewear is important for visual acuity and protection. Outdoor workers are exposed to five to 10 times more ultraviolet (UV) radiation yearly compared to indoor workers, putting them at increased risk of skin cancer.

Protection from UV and Related Disease

UV also poses a serious threat to eye health. A comprehensive vision plan that includes regular access to eye exams can help detect the onset of serious UV-related eye problems, such as cataract and macular degeneration, which can be treated best when caught early. In addition to protecting long-term eye health with a regular eye exam, the vision insurance plan should take into account the visual needs and concerns of employees who spend most of their day outdoors. Materials coverage should include eyewear that enhances sight and provides eye protection in accordance with occupational needs.  For instance, Transitions photochromic lenses change from clear indoors to dark outdoors in UV, providing a good option for employees who work outside or go back and forth between indoors and outdoors. Polarized lenses that reduce reflected glare, prescription sun wear, and impact-resistant lenses may also be appropriate for outdoor employees.

Protection from Glare and Fatigue

Productivity can suffer when employees don’t take the proper steps to protect their eyes from UV and glare. Almost 96% of outdoor workers say that seeing well is important to their work performance, according to the survey. But, it’s very likely that they’re already experiencing vision disruptions on the job. Outdoor workers are 13% more likely to be bothered by bright, glaring light and 12% more likely to be bothered by light reflected off of outdoor surfaces. This is in addition to problems that are widely reported by both indoor and outdoor employees, such as tired or dry eyes and headaches resulting from visual disturbances. Perhaps because of these issues, outdoor workers are more likely to enroll in a vision plan or keep using a plan if it covers premium options, such as photochromic lenses, which go from clear indoors to sunglass dark outdoors. As a result of their eyes feeling hurt or uncomfortable, almost 60% of outdoor workers take breaks to rest their eyes compared to 52% of indoor workers. On average, outdoor workers take two of these breaks a day, but 14% are taking more than five breaks. Just 15 minutes of taking breaks to rest the eyes per day adds up to 7.5 workdays a year.

Industries at Risk and Educational Needs

Taking the proper steps to decrease health risks associated with exposure to UV should be a priority for any company that employs people who spend a majority of their day outdoors or go back and forth between working indoors and working outdoors. Employees who are at increased risk include those working in industries, such as building and construction, agriculture, road repair, and postal service. Also at risk are employees who go back and forth between indoors and outdoors, like realtors, police officers, surveyors, and architects. In an industry like agriculture, high turnover and language barriers can make benefit education and communication difficult. Employers can help overcome these barriers and encourage higher enrollment/utilization of benefits by providing benefit summaries and websites in Spanish, reaching employees in the field, and offering print versions of materials. Brokers can bring significant value to their clients in industries that employ outdoor workers by letting them know about this unmet benefit need and by being their partner in education. ––––––––– Sandra Cormier is assistant vice president of Employee Benefits for USI Insurance Services of Northern California, Inc. (