Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians

Significant Points

  • Although some lenses are still produced by hand, technicians increasingly use automated equipment to make lenses.
  • Nearly all ophthalmic laboratory technicians learn their skills on the job.
  • The number of job openings will be low because the occupation is small and slow growth in employment is expected.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians—also known as manufacturing opticians, optical mechanics, or optical goods workers—make prescription eyeglass lenses. Prescription lenses are curved in such a way that light is correctly focused onto the retina of the patient’s eye, improving vision. Some ophthalmic laboratory technicians manufacture lenses for other optical instruments, such as telescopes and binoculars. Ophthalmic laboratory technicians cut, grind, edge, and finish lenses according to specifications provided by dispensing opticians, optometrists, or ophthalmologists, and may insert lenses into frames to produce finished glasses. Although some lenses are still produced by hand, technicians increasingly use automated equipment to make lenses.

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians should not be confused with workers in other vision care occupations. Ophthalmologists and optometrists are "eye doctors" who examine eyes, diagnose and treat vision problems, and prescribe corrective lenses. Ophthalmologists are physicians who perform eye surgery. Dispensing opticians, who may also do work described here, help patients select frames and lenses, and adjust finished eyeglasses. (See the statement onphysicians, which includes ophthalmologists, and the statements on optometrists and dispensing opticians elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians read prescription specifications, then select standard glass or plastic lens blanks and mark them to indicate where the curves specified on the prescription should be ground. They place the lens into the lens grinder, set the dials for the prescribed curvature, and start the machine. After a minute or so, the lens is ready to be "finished" by a machine that rotates it against a fine abrasive to grind it and smooth out rough edges. The lens is then placed in a polishing machine with an even finer abrasive, to polish it to a smooth, bright finish.

Next, the technician examines the lens through a lensometer, an instrument similar in shape to a microscope, to make sure the degree and placement of the curve is correct. The technician then cuts the lenses and bevels the edges to fit the frame, dips each lens into dye if the prescription calls for tinted or coated lenses, polishes the edges, and assembles the lenses and frame parts into a finished pair of glasses.

In small laboratories, technicians usually handle every phase of the operation. In large ones, technicians may be responsible for operating computerized equipment where virtually every phase of operation is automated. Technicians also inspect the final product for quality and accuracy.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians work in relatively clean and well-lighted laboratories and have limited contact with the public. Surroundings are relatively quiet despite the humming of machines. At times, technicians wear goggles to protect their eyes, and may spend a great deal of time standing.

Most ophthalmic laboratory technicians work a 5-day, 40-hour week, which may include weekends, evenings, or occasionally, some overtime. Some work part time.

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians need to take precautions against the hazards associated with cutting glass, handling chemicals, and working near machinery.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians held about 23,000 jobs in 1998. Thirty-three percent were in retail optical stores that manufacture and sell prescription glasses. A little over 31 percent were in optical laboratories. These laboratories manufacture eyewear for sale by retail stores that fabricate prescription glasses, and by ophthalmologists and optometrists. Most of the rest were in wholesalers or in optical laboratories that manufacture lenses for other optical instruments, such as telescopes and binoculars.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Nearly all ophthalmic laboratory technicians learn their skills on the job. Employers filling trainee jobs prefer applicants who are high school graduates. Courses in science, mathematics, and computers are valuable; manual dexterity and the ability to do precision work are essential.

Technician trainees producing lenses by hand start on simple tasks such as marking or blocking lenses for grinding, then progress to lens grinding, lens cutting, edging, beveling, and eyeglass assembly. Depending on individual aptitude, it may take up to 6 months to become proficient in all phases of the work.

Technicians using automated systems will find computer skills valuable. Training is completed on the job and varies in duration depending on the type of machinery and individual aptitude.

Some ophthalmic laboratory technicians learn their trade in the Armed Forces. Others attend the few programs in optical technology offered by vocational-technical institutes or trade schools. These programs have classes in optical theory, surfacing and lens finishing, and the reading and applying of prescriptions. Programs vary in length from 6 months to 1 year, and award certificates or diplomas.

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians can become supervisors and managers. Some technicians become dispensing opticians, although further education or training is generally required.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall employment of ophthalmic laboratory technicians is expected to grow more slowly than average through the year 2008. Employment is expected to increase slowly in manufacturing as firms invest in automated machinery. In retail trade, employment is expected to decline.

Demographic trends make it likely that many more Americans will need vision care in the years ahead. Not only will the population grow, but also the proportion of middle-aged and older adults is projected to increase rapidly. Middle age is a time when many people use corrective lenses for the first time, and elderly persons require more vision care, on the whole, than others.

Fashion, too, influences demand. Frames come in a variety of styles and colors—encouraging people to buy more than one pair. Demand is also expected to grow in response to the availability of new technologies that improve the quality and look of corrective lenses, such as anti-reflective coatings and bifocal lenses without the line visible in traditional bifocals.

Most job openings will arise from the need to replace technicians who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Only a small number of total job openings will occur each year because the occupation is small.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians were $9.39 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $7.56 and $11.58 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $6.48 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.74 an hour. Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians in 1997 were $8.60 in ophthalmic goods and $8.30 in retail stores, not elsewhere classified.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Workers in other precision production occupations include biomedical equipment technicians, dental laboratory technicians,orthodontic technicians, orthotics technicians, prosthetics technicians, and instrument repairers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For general information about a career as an ophthalmic laboratory technician and a list of accredited programs in ophthalmic laboratory technology, contact:

  • Commission on Opticianry Accreditation, 10111 Martin Luther King, Jr. Hwy., Suite 100, Bowie, MD 20720-4299. Internet: http://www.coaccreditation.com
O*NET Codes: 89917A & 89917D About the O*NET codes

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