ILSC 2013: Experts Meet to Share Laser Safety Improvements

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By Geoff Giordano

The tight-knit laser safety community made an impressive showing at the Laser Institute of America’s biennial International Laser Safety Conference (ILSC®) by stepping up to help fellow attendees hampered by the federal budget sequester.

Many participants, including four-time General Chair Ben Rockwell, had to pay their own way, use vacation or personal time, or ask fellow experts to deliver their presentations. But the nearly 200 attendees who found a way to make the trip were treated to a stellar program at ILSC 2013, held March 18-21 in LIA’s home base of Orlando, FL.

Participants from around the globe took in a smorgasbord of safety topics ranging from surgical plume management and advanced medical applications to electrical safety and laser lab design to reviews of laser accidents and the lessons learned. Held concurrently with a full week of meetings by laser standards committees and punctuated by a host of networking events, ILSC 2013 deftly balanced technical and practical information through 80 presentations and plenaries.

“You needed at least two people to cover all the useful presentations,” said Dr. Denny Rossbach, Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO) at Boeing. ILSC 2013 offered “a lot of very current and important information, a preview of the upcoming changes in the standards and a lot of international participation.”

Offering a wealth of real-world experience from the prime movers behind current and evolving laser safety standards, guidelines and procedures, was the goal of Rockwell and his session chairs.

“It came together excellently,” Rockwell said. “This is one of the best ILSCs. I really enjoyed the breadth of topics we had this time. We had a lot of different speakers addressing different kinds of light sources, the ways to use lasers and advanced laser systems.”

ILSC 2013 demonstrated a unity of purpose and a particularly noticeable level of collegiality — often demonstrated by speakers addressing audience members on a first-name basis when answering their queries. Freewheeling panel discussions and even a come-one-come-all networking lunch for university and academic affiliates emphasized attendees’ willingness to share war stories from the field in hopes of helping their peers tackle safe-use issues.

“The membership and the LIA staff came together and did a magnificent job to put on another absolutely fantastic program,” enthused Ben Edwards, chair of the two-day Technical Practical Applications Seminar (TPAS) and the radiation safety officer for Vanderbilt University. The “many last-minute heroics” that overcame hurdles presented by the sequester “demonstrates the strength of the laser safety community. Laser safety is a very shallow pond; there aren’t that many laser safety specialists in the United States or in the world. ILSC generates not only knowledge but documentation.” The proceedings convene “a group of people who are more knowledgeable when they leave, and that knowledge can disseminate outward.”


Opening the proceedings was a keynote address examining the FDA’s vigorously expanding laser research as detailed by Daniel Hammer, deputy director of the Division of Physics at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. He described numerous projects studying optical diagnostics, biosensing, bioimaging, laser-tissue interaction, medical device surface contamination and laser safety.

In one FDA project, an ultrashort-pulse laser is used to etch anatomically accurate features into a retinal phantom for “characterization and calibration of OCT imaging systems,” Hammer said. In terms of safety, he noted the agency is particularly interested in monitoring laser pointers and laser projectors for light shows. They “work with manufacturers, who submit variances. The FDA reviews and issues about 10 to 20 variances a month when these light projectors exceed the 5 milliwatt standard in the visible spectrum.”

The FDA also has its eye on femtosecond lasers, prevalent in LASIK and cataract surgery and emerging in dentistry, cancer therapy, drug development and neurology. “We have a few projects in this area,” Hammer noted, including one focused on “second-harmonic and third-harmonic generation in corneal tissue.”

Next, Dr. Eric Van Stryland, first dean of Orlando’s CREOL, The College of Optics and Photonics, explained CREOL’s success as the first such institution in the US. Van Stryland was introduced by Rockwell as a pioneer in nonlinear optics who has graduated more than 31 PhDs and is on the ISI’s list of most-cited researchers. The University of Central Florida not far from LIA headquarters, has produced what Van Stryland called the shortest known laser pulse — 67 attoseconds, or 67 billionths of a billionth of a second — letting researchers see electrons moving around nuclei “and stop the action.”

Not long before ILSC 2013, Van Stryland said CREOL installed a $500,000 Coherent laser “that puts out 12 millijoules at 40 femtoseconds —that’s near a terawatt of peak power that runs at a kilohertz.” The implied safety issue with the device helped illustrate CREOL’s Z-scan spectroscopy project, in which femtosecond laser output can be used to produce a broader-spectrum white-light continuum of which any 50 nanometer bandwidth could damage the eye. “You have to make sure you know where the beams are. What we have been doing over the years is working on methodologies to make passive optical sensor protection devices.” Inspired by the workings of photochromic sunglasses, “we work on things that will change in less than a billionth of a second to protect your eyes.”


ILSC 2013 served up example after example of actual successes and failures in laser programs, procedures, projects and facilities large and small. From laser alignment injuries or surgical airway fires to the increasing challenges facing Laser Safety Officers (LSOs) daily, attendees got a powerful glimpse into laser issues in various fields.

Particularly gripping were dire accounts of major accidents recounted during the Medical Practical Applications Seminar (MPAS), chaired by Vangie Dennis. Also disturbing were tales of repeated instances of apparently mislabeled — or unlabeled — lasers and laser systems.

Dennis acknowledged relying heavily on the decades of experience shared by MPAS presenters Patti Owens, founder of AestheticMed Consulting, and Leslie Pollard, owner of consulting firm Southwest Innovative Solutions.

Pollard enthusiastically delivered a picture of the future of laser-based medicine, including virus detection, injections with laser “needles,” laser “tweezers” to analyze cancer cells, photoacoustic laser pulses to detect melanoma cells before tumors form, and an expanding repertoire of diode laser human and veterinary therapies.

“Isn’t it incredible that we’re right next door to these guys (who are working on such advances)?” she asked. She later noted that she is seeing devices born of collaboration by optics specialists, electrical engineers and physicians “pulling the medicine together to get the best of the best of all the worlds: of the electronics, the photonics and the application. We know so much more about tissue now than we did before. We’re talking about medicine on a molecular level — finally.”

While those new applications and smaller, more powerful lasers will raise new safety challenges, Dennis surveyed a host of startling safety issues prevalent in today’s operating rooms and how to prevent them. “Just when you think you’re doing a good job, the games and the rules change,” she said, noting fire dangers from alcohol-based preps, petroleum lubricants, plastic corneal protectors, PVC in tracheal tubes, even the color in the lettering on surgical tubing or lint from drapes and towels. “The myth that hospitals don’t burn is not true.” Such incidents have prompted new head, neck and chest protocols in ANSI and AORN guidelines.

During the TPAS session reviewing laser accidents and knowledge gleaned from them, a panel of industry veterans offered their experiences. One, Greg Makhov of Orlando’s Lighting Systems Design, volunteered details of an eye injury he suffered while servicing a 20-watt argon laser. Leaning through an upwardly reflected beam, his first reaction was “kind of like slipping with a razor knife: ‘I could have avoided this if I had just taken an extra moment.’” No retinal bleeding was found; he later measured the beam power of the device at 60 milliwatts. “This absolutely will (hurt you), and it doesn’t take a lot of power. Tens of milliwatts will do the job. It took three visits to my ophthalmologist before he was able to see the damaged site. Could I have avoided it? Yes … I could have left my goggles on for another two minutes.”


Running in parallel to the Practical Applications Seminars, were the Laser Safety Scientific Sessions (LSSS) overseen by Chairperson Dr. Karl Schulmeister of Austria’s Seibersdorf Laboratories. Sessions ran the gamut from speculation about the need for a Class 5 designation to measuring bioeffects, proper signage, temporary visual impairment from LEDs in toys, new lab safety procedures and other hands-on guidance.

The growing hazard of laser pointers being aimed at pilots and drivers received a significant amount of research attention. In a study that drew national interest, Josh Hadler of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled data showing that 70 percent of 122 randomly selected Class 3R pointers failed to meet their certification criteria. Explaining how to create a compact and inexpensive testing apparatus, Hadler said NIST research found excessive visible (532 or 650 nm) or infrared (808 or 1,064 nm) emissions from about 90 percent of the green pointers and about 44 percent of the red pointers.

Later, in the first-ever ILSC series on glare and dazzle, Dr. Craig Williamson detailed an artificial retina model developed in the UK that dramatically replicates the degradation in the eye’s ability to distinguish objects when subjected to increasing laser irradiance.

In his opening plenary, the FDA’s Hammer noted the increasing prevalence of green laser pointers. “The technology is a diode-pumped solid-state laser, and it’s really amazing the advances that have occurred in the past couple of years,” he said. “What 10 years ago was something that would be on a bench top is now handheld and costs less than $20. They have demonstrably poor manufacturing practices.” With the FAA reporting double the reported pointer incidents from 2009 to 2012, Hammer said the FDA tested 15 devices and found excessive power up to 60 milliwatts in the green. He said the agency banned all pointers at the port of entry, drafted guidances for laser toy manufacturers, “and we’ve also just briefed Congress.”


Before ILSC even got under way, the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) Z136 convened for a full day of review of progress across the range of ANSI Z136 laser safety standards. ILSC offered an ideal opportunity to rub shoulders with the pacesetters in the laser safety community, including those involved in shaping draft versions of a standard for manufacturing and another for lasers in entertainment, displays and exhibitions.

“We want to make sure that the levels we set to protect people are reasonable and the controls we put on people are reasonable,” said Rockwell in his opening remarks. IEC and Z136 standards, like the new ANSI Z136.8 Safe Use of Lasers in Research, Development, or Testing, were the underpinning of several presentations throughout ILSC 2013. For the closing plenaries, Rockwell slated a set of five “hot topic” discussions that included updates on the upcoming revisions of the parent Z136.1 and IEC 60825-1 standards.

Bill Ertle, chair of the Z136 Technical Subcommittee on Control Measures and Training, walked attendees through changes proposed for each section of the next edition of Z136.1, which is being readied for release by fall or early next year.

“We are trying to standardize across all the Z136 series, as well as with other standards domestically and internationally,” said Ertle, also president of ILSC platinum co-sponsor Rockwell Laser Industries.

Changes include revised units of wavelength measure, renumbered tables, new definitions and inclusion of optics transmission in hazard classification of lasers. The completely rewritten section on control measures proposes requiring eye protection for Class 3B devices as opposed to simply advising such measures. Also, the draft proposes 100 seconds as the time base for selection of eye protection for UV intrabeam exposures. The section on non-beam hazards will be completely overhauled as well.


Amid the very serious business of advancing laser safety, ILSC 2013 participants were able to engage in a little fun and relaxation, thanks to a casual welcoming reception and raffle, an awards luncheon and an informative vendor reception.

LIA Executive Director Peter Baker awarded Roy Henderson the R. James Rockwell Jr. Educational Achievement Award, while former coworkers David Jack Lund and Bruce Stuck earned the George M. Wilkening Award in Laser Safety.

All in all, ILSC “went very well,” said Schulmeister. “We knew we had a great program.” First-time attendees were particularly impressed.

“The meeting was very informative,” said Wendy Woehr of North Carolina, who paid with her own funds to attend. “I was recently promoted and became laser safety manager for the research lasers and medical lasers at Duke. I am studying to take the CLSO exam. I came to the conference with several questions, and they were all answered. It was worth every penny, and I am looking forward to the next one.”

Michael Ranallo of TRUMPF in Cranbury, NJ, noted that “meeting other colleagues and research personnel gives a fresh perspective outside the confines of my day-to-day workplace. Exchanging ideas outside the sessions was also beneficial because of the different views offered, whether they applied to my situation or not. The presenters were obviously well-prepared and gave informative and intelligent presentations.”

To purchase ANSI Z136 standards or ILSC proceedings, visit

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