Introduction to Laser Safety Management

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  1. Intro and Article Index (this page)
  2. Overview
  3. Biological Effects: Why We Care About Laser Exposure
  4. The Laser Safety Officer: The Key to Laser Safety
  5. Standard Operating Procedures: A Binding Safety Contract
  6. Practical Tools for Laser Safety and Traps to Avoid
  7. The Laser-Safety Management Program
  8. Laser Safety Training
  9. Personnel Protection Equipment
  10. Laser Accidents
  11. An Explanation of Control Measures
  12. U.S. and European Regulations and Standards
  13. Laser Safety Calculations
  14. Nonbeam Hazards
  15. Practical Control Measures
  16. Laser Basics

This guide came out of extensive field research: via government/military, industrial, academic (university/college) and even hobbyist applications and misc. recorded events (notes).

We have been involved with training courses in laser safety for many years, but on separate continents. Since that time, we have shared experiences and views on laser safety training, and this guide tries to bring together those experiences.

Mention laser safety to many people and their immediate reaction is that this is something that is going to cost time, money, and effort. It’s something that gets in the way of research and profit. Most appreciate that lasers can present safety issues; we have the popular perception of the "ray gun" to thank for that.

Very few see the positive benefits of implementing a practical laser-safety management program. We make a bold claim at this stage: A well-thought-through laser-safety management program will save you time, money, and effort. It will improve the quality of your research program. It will improve your reputation as an organization, and, ultimately, it can improve the bottom line. While the approach and many examples demonstrated in this guide are geared toward laser use in research and development or academic settings, it’s easily translated to any laser use environment.

How can we make these claims? We make them based on experience with applying the techniques in this guide across many types of organizations in a number of countries. There is some pain to be suffered in setting things up, but like many things in life, the effort is worth it.

There are many excellent books and web sites on the theory and practical operation of lasers, so I have not tried to repeat these. This is a practical guide to laser-safety management techniques. Whether you are a chief executive officer, general safety officer, laser safety officer, postgraduate researcher, or manufacturing supervisor, this guide should provide you with the tools to implement a practical laser-safety management program.

The laser was first successfully demonstrated in 1960 and has become a ubiquitous part of our life, in both the workplace and the home. Compared with a lot of other technology, the number of deaths and reported injuries involving laser technology is relatively small. Does this suggest that there is no problem and managing laser safety is a waste of time? We suggest not. Laser safety has generally been a success story because the technology arrived at a time when caution would have been expected. Most of those people at risk of injury in the early days were those who developed the technology. By the 1970s we had manufacturing safety standards for laser products, which coincided with the first public experiences of lasers in supermarkets for scanning barcodes.

Many of us use laser products in the office and home without having to consider laser safety. The laser printer and compact disc player are just tools; the manufacturer has (we hope) ensured that we can safely use these devices.

An explosion of incidents involving laser pointers highlighted the concern over laser products being in the hands of the public. Many of these incidents hit the headlines in the media and possibly fueled further incidents. The perception of those who had the lasers, which were suddenly both very available and very cheap, was: How could such a small device possibly be harmful? The perception of those who were targeted was that some sort of death ray was blinding them.

The situation was not helped by conflicting messages from laser safety and security "experts." What was not taken into account was the availability of an amazing piece of technology - way beyond the wildest dreams of those early researchers - that could teach a whole new generation the wonders of laser beams. We will try to address the perceived conflict of easy access with ensuring safe use as one application of the laser-safety management program.

An organization buying a laser product to carry out a specific activity may only need to consider most of the laser-safety management issues up to the implementation stage. For others, especially those doing research, laser-safety management may be a daily issue.

Let us consider the impact of having a laser safety incident in the workplace.

It does not really matter whether the workplace is a manufacturing plant or a university research laboratory. For our hypothetical incident we could have a pair of researchers working in a laboratory aligning a laser beam through a specific path on an optical bench. We will assume that the laser beam is relatively low power and is green. One researcher is adjusting a mirror while the other is watching a small screen on which he is expecting the laser beam to appear. It does not, so he turns around and at that moment his colleague moves the mirror too far and targets him momentarily in the eye with the beam.

What happens next? Has the recipient of the beam suffered an eye injury or is he just dazzled? Do either of the two researchers understand the risk posed by the laser beam? Do they know what to do now? They could call for help. There could be bitter feelings because eyewear was not worn, why alignment aids were not used, or more fundamentally, why the operator was not more careful? Perhaps punctuated by more colorful language. Emotions are likely to take over for a while.

Certainly there will be an element of guilt and concern on the part of the researcher doing the adjustment. The recipient of the beam may be on his way to the hospital. Let us leave them for the moment and think about the wider impact.

The research has stopped. It may have been part of a very important, well funded and urgent project. The safety office and managers have been notified and an investigation begins, followed almost immediately by a lot of blame shifting. This takes time that could have been spent doing other things. Perhaps the regulators need to be informed. They stop all laser work at the facility until they have carried out their investigation. The problem now affects the work of many other researchers.

Within a relatively short time the local newspaper has heard that something has happened and reporters start arriving. The insurance company representative arrives and informs management that they won’t meet any claim because the researchers were either not properly trained or were inadequately supervised.

The regulators decide to prosecute the establishment. This now becomes bigger news and generates a new wave of media interest. One knock-on effect of this is that the funder of the research becomes uncomfortable with the media attention and threatens to withdraw the funding.

Although the "casualty" does have an injury on the retina, it’s far from the critical central vision region and does not affect the quality of his life (too much).

He decides to sue for compensation.

The management now starts to take an interest in the use of this "dangerous" laser equipment in the establishment. There are two options: get rid of all of the lasers or try to implement a proactive laser-safety management program.

Summarizing the "cost": someone was injured; his fellow researcher and many staff members suffered stress; a lot of time was consumed at every level of the organization; there was a financial penalty for the fine and increased insurance premiums; and research across the organization was delayed. One additional major cost was to the reputation of the organization. This can be the most difficult to recover from.

This is perhaps a dramatic story, but it’s based on a real incident. The conclusion of the real incident was the implementation of a very effective laser safety management program. It has become part of the research mindset, and the quality of research has improved.

When you look at who is generally responsible for ensuring an adequate level of laser safety, the list is quite long. We can focus on the organization and work our way down from the top, from managers with specific responsibility for general safety and perhaps specifically for laser safety to the users of the laser equipment.

However, the net is much wider than this. We can branch out to the suppliers of the equipment and through them to the manufacturers and designers. There may also be consultants who advise all parties along the way.

Our objective with this guide is to provide practical tools for all who are responsible for laser safety. You will read many of the suggestions and perhaps think, "Well that is just common sense." You will be right, but sometimes even the obvious has to be spelled out. We will refer you to other resources where relevant. Some of the details of laser-safety management are continuously evolving. Please contact me to share your experiences - and suggestions that don’t work. This is how we have learned over the years. The methodologies covered will work in any workplace.

As already alluded to, this guide would not have happened without a lot of people making mistakes and a few doing well. We have learned from them all and extend our thanks to them. The participants in our laser-safety training courses have taught us a lot of what we know, as have those to whom we have given advice. Our peers in laser safety have humbled us with their commitment and dedication to the application of laser technology in a safe way.

Our hope was to make this guide as useful as possible regardless of where in the world one uses lasers.

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