Lens Choices: Today's 'Specials'

Of all the possible dispensing niches in an eyecare practice or optical retail store, occupational and industrial safety eyewear is one of the most rewarding—and overlooked. Many eyecare practitioners only dabble in it or avoid it altogether, feeling the margins are not high enough, the product is not fashionable enough or there are too many esoteric lens options to offer.

“A lot of doctor’s offices or opticians see the safety market as a annoyance rather than a positive income producer,” says Bob Bales, a veteran optician who is director of marketing and customer relations of Dispensers Optical Service, a Louisville, Ky. lab that specializes in safety eyewear. “The good thing about it is that it’s a continuous niche. It’s not going to go away; it’s always required.”

As with sales of dress eyewear, safety eyewear purchases are often dictated by how often a patient’s insurance plan will allow for new glasses. “A lot of companies will buy their employees a new pair every year,” notes Bales. “That’s a consistent return business. It may not have the highest margins, but it keeps your patients coming back and seeing what’s new with your other products.”

Though less glamorous than dispensing fashion eyewear, dispensing occupational and industrial safety specs has come a long way in recent years. More attractive frame styles and enhanced frame and lens technologies have contributed to safety eyewear reaching enhanced levels of fashion, comfort and performance. At least one eyewear manufacturer—Titmus—offers rimless safety eyewear.

“As safety glasses get more fashionable, people tend to wear one pair all the time,” observes Bales. “However, more companies are requiring permanently attached side shields on their glasses. As that grows, opportunity to have a second pair sale is growing.”

Developing the safety eyewear niche requires a thorough knowledge of specialty lenses encompassing a wide range of products ranging from task-specific multi-focals to special filters optimized for such jobs as welding. Because patients are typically less informed about these specialty lenses than they are about higher-profile products such as progressive or high-index lenses, it is often up to the dispenser to inform the patient.

“To build a successful business dispensing industrial safety eyewear you need to have the tools handy to be able to educate people,” says Cheryl Miller, an optician with Wolfe Eye Centers in rural Fairfield, Iowa. Miller notes that occupational and safety eyewear accounts for about 25 percent of Wolfe’s total sales.

These selling tools include a wide assortment of sample lenses and product literature. One of the most comprehensive explanations of occupational and industrial safety lenses available is a new brochure published by X-Cel Optical, “Special Lenses for Special People.” It can be viewed and ordered through

While safety lenses offer many of the same features and benefits as dresswear, there are some important differences. For example, dispensers must observe Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requirements as well as guidelines set by individual employers. Under the ANSI Z.87 standard, safety lenses must have a 3mm minimum center thickness. For safety, polycarbonate is typically the lens material of choice due to its superior impact resistance. Other lens options commonly offered with dress eyewear, such as rimless drill mounts, simply won’t work when safety is the top priority.

“That lens has got to stay together with the frame if it’s impacted,” stresses Bales. “If you’ve already got holes in your lenses because they’ve been pitted as a result of wear, then you drill a hole in it, the structural integrity of the eyewear has been weakened.”

In some cases, wearing an uncoated lens is preferable to a hard-coated one. This is particularly true for polycarbonate, a relatively soft lens material that typically requires a hard coat.

“If a solvent has an acetone base, it could take off the coating. It could spot the lens or eat into the material. Then we would recommend an uncoated CR-39-type lens,” says Ernie Collins, an experienced optician who is an industrial sales manager for Dispenser’s Optical Service.

“Quite a few places won’t allow tints because of the difference in the lighting and the different areas people work in,” continues Collins. “They might allow a very light tint, such as a Rose 1 and 2, or sometimes as high as 15 percent.”

Miller concurs. “In our area, the factories don’t allow a lot of tints,” she says. “If you’re working in a dark area, you want to have the clearest vision. We sell either clear lenses or photochromics for people who are working outside.”

Collins says many companies he works with don’t even allow photochromic lenses. “Photochromics are okay if you’re a dock worker and you have to move from indoors to outdoors,” he says. “But if you’re working with a piece of machinery, the time it takes for the lenses to change back indoors could be a danger.”

For some jobs, conventional, lined multifocals outperform progressives. “For multifocals, our safety sales are probably about 60 percent conventional multifocals as opposed to progressives,” says Miller. “We do a lot of computer segs with wider bifocal areas for reading. Also, we have a lot of construction workers and factory workers and you don’t want to have a lens with a lot of distortion in periphery. If you’re working in a factory pouring hot iron, that could be a problem.”