By Seth J. Bookey

Eyecare practitioners often see working with safety prescription eyewear (SRx) as more trouble than it’s worth. For many ECPs, SRx still brings to mind images of big, ugly frames with thick lenses nobody wants.

During the past few years, however, SRx has evolved on both the frame and lens sides of the equation. Suppliers are making OSHA- and ANSI-compliant frames that look just like fashionable dress eyewear, including lightweight titanium and rimless options. The emergence of detachable sideshields not only keep workers safe, but they encourage wearing the frames off-site as well. In terms of compliant lens options, safety eyewear is available in all the same materials and powers as dress eyewear lenses.

Independent ECPs are just as capable of serving SRx patients as larger national conglomerates. Smaller dispensaries are in a position to counter the problems safety managers experience with large, price-oriented programs by guaranteeing more personalized service and faster turnaround. Safety directors, especially those overseeing hundreds or thousands of employees, are looking for simplicity when it comes to implementing a safety eyewear plan. ECPs that can offer fast turnaround and simplified package pricing can compete with big box retailers.

SRx work represents about 10 percent of the business at Mike Galliland’s four Northstar Vision Center locations in the Columbus, Ohio area. But that 10th of his business is a springboard to other business, which is why he has spent the past 25 years dispensing SRx onsite at the workplace. “You have to be willing to understand the safety frames and how the companies work,” says Galliland. “Most people don’t understand that providing a service with a limited fee leads to other, more lucrative business.”

In terms of his SRx work, Galliland notes that “We are the middleman, filling out the forms, verifying the glasses and dispensing them to the employees. We charge a $15 fee. It’s a small fee but many patients get second pairs or bring in family members for Rx business. The point is that this generates new business.”

At Eyeworld in Saraland, Ala., SRx accounts for just 5 percent of Phil Gillette’s business, but he feels that safety work is significant. “That 5 percent might become 20 percent by the time referrals and other work happen. We’re very, very busy,” he says.

For Jack Holbert, owner of Decatur Optical in Decatur, Ala., SRx accounts for 20 percent of the business and he notes that the biggest impact on his general practice has been the referrals gained through the SRx patient base he has developed for the past 12 years. He has noticed the trend toward better styling and lens materials, resulting in “a much more comfortable pair and a better looking pair.”

Holbert adds that the pursuit of SRx is “pursued for the peripheral spin-off business. We hope to expose them to our services and have them come back for other business,” including contact lenses. He has also found that offering a frame-and-lens package with wholesale pricing has worked well with corporate safety clients.

Some ECPs have found having a lab helps keep them competitive when offering SRx work to clients. Eyeworld’s Gillette has been doing SRx work for more than 20 years and has a lab on the premises to speed up jobs. Other SRx provides have taken the reverse route: Wholesale optical labs have found success, especially with SRx, by opening a retail area.

Casey Conrad, owner of Heartland Optical in Lincoln, Neb., just celebrated the grand opening of a new retail store and has declared his business a “hybrid optical,” one that is one third wholesale optical work, one third safety and one third retailing. The new retail space was the outgrowth of Heartland, originally a wholesale lab dating back to the 1940s, seeing safety patients in their warehouse. “We make the best money from retail, but the most work comes from safety and wholesale jobs,” notes Conrad. “Unless you have a chain of six stores, it’s hard to keep the lab busy. We need to keep the lab busy to keep safety pricing competitive. One reason we moved into our new facility was to market the safety niche.”

Along with developing corporate accounts, Heartland sees walk-ins looking for safety eyewear, often people who do yard work or woodworking at home, as well as people who have already suffered an eye injury. Conrad also notes that by having his own lab, he can control the quality of specialty safety lenses he’s dispensed to walk-in and corporate patients alike. “New York City subway cars are made here in Lincoln and we have a lot of people doing overhead welding and need ‘double D’ bifocals,” he says.

“As soon as you help that person who needs a specialty safety lens, they are a customer for life. Specialty creates a bond that people like,” Conrad says. He has also developed another specialty patient base among medical employees and doctors who work in radiology departments and Xrays. “Studies show that taking of all those photos without eye protection causes cataracts more quickly. Lead-based glass lenses help counteract that. It’s a small niche item, but you’re marketing to doctors and they gain your trust and come to you for everything else.”

Safety Rx and Family Optical, with two locations in the Houston area and one in Dallas, has done safety eyewear since 1989 and added a lab six years ago to stay competitive. “We have to fight and hustle for every client we get,” says Matt Thomas, vice president. The dispensary services companies with anywhere from 50 workers to 10,000 employees and about half of Thomas’s business is done by going on site to dispense SRx, visiting clients anywhere from once a quarter to once a week.

Because manufacturing in the United States has been shrinking, with hiring down as well, getting into the retail aspect was essential to staying competitive. Being where the work is was also important; one of the three locations is in Deer Park, Texas, right near the ship channel that services the chemical plants and refineries are among Thomas’ clients.

Safety eyewear comes in all materials, but the advent of the ANSI Z87.1-2003 standard three years ago has led to polycarbonate becoming the lens of choice for employees needing SRx to stay compliant in the workplace.

At Wolfe Eye Centers, with 18 locations in Iowa, 20 percent of its business is SRx and 95 percent of the safety jobs dispensed at the Fairfield store are done with polycarbonate lenses, according to optician Cheryl Miller.

Fortney Eyecare, with six locations in southeastern Michigan, serving the automotive industry, also has a 20 percent SRx business. According to president and owner, Bill Fortney, Jr., polycarbonate lenses are used in 95 percent of its SRx jobs, up 30 percent since the standard was enacted. “The standard made it easier to sell poly,” says Fortney. “It’s thinner and lighter than plastic or glass. We only dispense glass on a special needs case.” Miller at Wolfe Eye Centers also sees very few SRx jobs done in glass anymore.

But glass has always been on the losing end of the lens spectrum in this category. The big change brought in by widespread acceptance of polycarbonate has been fewer SRx jobs in plastic or high-index lens material.

While polycarbonate is dominating the SRx category, there are cases when dispensing Trivex is desirable. According to Miller, when someone is getting rimless safety eyewear, “We encourage Trivex over polycarbonate. It’s scratch resistant and more sturdy than poly.”

At Northwest Optical in Ashland, Wis., Dennis DeCourcy, manager and optician, notes patients with detached retinas, chromatism, and more peripheral vision than central vision, often benefit from wearing Trivex in their safety eyewear. “The low Abbe values in Trivex work really well,” he says. Safety Optical’s Matt Thomas finds Trivex is a good choice for patients with higher powers in the prescriptions.

Heartland’s Casey Conrad has found many patients who “reject” polycarbonate due to a variety of optical problems and finds Trivex a good remedy for their safety eyewear needs. Conrad finds one in 30 people wind up in Trivex after finding their vision using polycarbonate resulted in blurriness or peripheral distortions. “Trivex has the optics of glass, but the impact resistance of polycarbonate,” he says.

Currently, a major factor in Trivex being dispensed less frequently is a higher price than plastic or polycarbonate. “Trivex will become more important,” adds Conrad. “It’s just a matter of more people entering the marketplace. It has great optics.” LT

CONSIDERING SAFETY Adding safety prescription eyewear services to your dispensary is not as difficult as it might seem. Keep these concepts in mind when considering this potentially profitable niche.
  • Be Patient: ECPs who view safety eyewear as a burden won’t stick with it. Keep your goals realistic. Eventually, for each pair of SRx sold, a second pair sale will accompany it.

  • Drive-Thru: While the eye exam itself might take some time, the ordering process for SRx shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, allowing patients to “feel good” about your dispensary. Dispensaries should keep authorization forms and displays up to date, since managers at factories and plants dislike changing suppliers and products. Providing quality services keeps corporate contracts renewed, leading to less fluctuation then is seen with dress eyewear patients. Also, SRx patients must have this eyewear for work, so they are coming to you without lures or advertising.

  • Plug Into a Network: If you don’t seek corporate safety clients on your own, ask either your lab or manufacturers of safety frames to get you in touch with potential clients in your area. If you are forging ahead yourself, getting involved with community groups like the Lions Club or Kiwanis International can lead to introductions. Even asking your dresswear patients where they work can lead to a corporate contract.

  • Discount Plans: Quite often, SRx patients have never been to an ECP. A good dispensing experience can lead to second-pair sales or referrals to friends and family. Savvy dispensers try to offer SRx customers discounts for multiple pairs for them and their family members. SRx customers are also more likely to pay in cash than most customers.

  • Get Educated: Everyone in the dispensary needs to understand SRx and its customer, since this niche is a growth opportunity. ECPs can ask their vendors or labs about ABO-accredited training sessions in SRx. Understanding the product is essential also: Safety lenses will only work when used with a safety frame and vice versa. Simply dispensing a polycarbonate lens won’t provide adequate protection.

The ANSI standard can be found at default.asp and search for ANSI Z87.1-2003 for information about “Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection.” Search for ANSI Z80.5-2004 for “Requirements for Ophthalmic Frames Devices.”