By Geoff Giordano
The presence of so many attendees wearing red Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO®) and Certified Medical Laser Safety Officer (CMLSO®) ribbons at the International Laser Safety Conference (ILSC®) in Orlando, served as a clear indicator that the ranks of laser safety professionals are growing. And their job is going to be increasingly demanding as photonics expand into more advanced applications in aviation, energy, medicine, defense and manufacturing.
“We train about 1,000 laser safety officers a year,” noted LIA Education Director Gus Anibarro. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when considering the enormity of the task ahead for companies and research facilities making an intensive use of lasers and trying to ensure the safety of their personnel.
Consider Boeing: With 170,000 employees, only about 70 are LSOs — and three are CLSOs — according to Dr. Denny Rossbach, CLSO for directed energy systems radiation safety.
Because the ranks of the laser safety community are relatively small, the number of hats an LSO might wear in his or her role is considerable. LSOs might also be asked to serve as radiation safety officers, environmental health and safety managers or industrial hygienists, for example. As those roles evolve, so do lasers, the standards regulating them and the resources that allow them to be used safely.
Busy LSOs don’t have time to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training laser users. The most effective education offers extraordinary convenience and personalization. Onsite and online options are critical to training large numbers of people who might be working different schedules or in different facilities.
“The training we’ve been doing online is about as forward as you can get,” Anibarro says. In terms of teaming with companies that host the training, “we’ve been doing that way longer than anyone else.” LIA’s industrial and medical training has been facilitated at industry-leading firms like IPG Photonics and Coherent, which provide classrooms for the training. And more such courses are scheduled, including potential visits to Stanford University and Canada. “We’ve been going to Northwestern Memorial (Hospital in Chicago) for years,” Anibarro notes.
In short, in these days of financial austerity and barebones staffing, “the future of training is ultimate flexibility,” he says. In the past couple of years, LIA and other organizations have been aggressive in creating highly customizable online courses laser professionals can take at their convenience from anywhere in the world.
For example, LIA’s recently launched Laser Safety Awareness Training course allows one or more users to complete a two-hour program at a pace ideal for them. Newly appointed LSOs can take the course first, then purchase multiple “seats” at a discount to ensure their employees are fully apprised of the guidelines set forth in the parent ANSI Z136.1 Safe Use of Lasers standard. Users have three days to complete the course and receive a certificate when they do. Such classes are particularly ideal for personnel who cannot travel for work purposes.
Since LIA is the secretariat of the Z136 standards, its courses are cutting-edge companions to these guidelines as they are revised. At the beginning of May, LIA launched a medical version of the laser safety awareness course based on the recently updated Z136.3 standard for the Safe Use of Lasers in Health Care. Meanwhile, the new Z136.8 standard for the Safe Use of Lasers in Research, Development, or Testing that was released last year also has spawned a class geared to teaching the specifics of guidelines relating to the highly fluid lab environment.
LIA is also continuing its participation in the alliance program of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), through which LIA has been providing progressive laser safety training to workers since 2005. Anibarro trains federal workplace compliance officers in laser safety — and they are quite grateful.
“With this last group (in Arizona), I opened their eyes,” Anibarro recalls, noting that Arizona has its own OSHA. “Arizona has stringent laws regulating lasers, particularly in medical facilities. I started telling them about the laws in Arizona, and they were surprised.
As part of the alliance, “our agreement is for us to produce laser safety products,” he says. Within the year, LIA will make available several OSHA-approved online publications that will address the 10 steps to creating a medical or non-medical laser safety program, the 13 questions an OSHA compliance officer will ask and an introduction to lasers.
In addition to training, products that ensure personal protection for laser personnel evolve along with laser powers, wavelengths, work environments and ever-more-advanced applications.
A prime example is at the Orion physics research facility in Aldermaston, UK. At ILSC 2013, Steve Melton detailed the facility’s comprehensive improvements to workplace safety.
“We are identifying all the time things we can do to improve the facility and increase our capability,” he said. “We intend to keep benchmarking ourselves against the best of these kinds of facilities around the world (and) continue attending forums like this to learn and ensure that the way we operate is the best it can be.”
Among the many improvements the Orion facility has instituted are:
- RFID identifiers on lanyards to keep track of critical access keys that are part of a complex system required to energize and fire the laser.
- Newly partitioned areas of the facility.
- A turnstile at the entrance to the target hall that is operated both by an electronic swipe card and a personal access key.
- A sign that alerts personnel that they are not wearing goggles. When protective eyewear is not being worn, the message “Not Wearing Goggles” is visible; with goggles on, the message becomes invisible.
“Another thing we’ve discovered along the way: We’ve become a tourist attraction,” Melton noted. “As the facility is being run up, we’ve had more and more visits from VIPs in government and in the UK Ministry of Defense. Our viewing galleries have become busy. Originally we designed them with a set of blinds that went up and down to protect anybody from stray laser light.” But with the increasing interest, laser-protective glass has been installed over the clear glass windows to allow the blinds to stay up during alignment operations. The blinds must still be lowered for target shots.
Those kinds of improvements are what keep companies like Laservision USA busy. Based in St. Paul, MN, Laservision USA has been rolling out a variety of products since late last year, including a unique active window for industrial applications that shuts down a laser when struck directly by the beam. The company also launched laser-safe gloves, “featuring a certified resistance of 40 kW/m² against laser radiation of 1064 nm wavelength before exceeding the MPE Skin-Value,” according to the website.
Available in two sizes, the windows are geared to high-powered laser wavelengths between 820 and 1100 nm. While the active windows are geared primarily to safeguarding automated processes, mainly in the automotive industry or shipyards, humans also benefit. In some instances, lasers have gone through walls, says business development manager Serdar Guvenc.
The laser-safe gloves, made with bamboo thread, are certified for diode and Nd:YAG in the same range. “Cut-resistant glass fibers and abrasion-resistant polyamide guarantee optimum mechanical protection,” according to Laservision. The fingertips and palms are coated with a high-performance elastomer to protect fragile optics.
AUDITS CAN BE SURPRISING
Keeping on top of a facility’s inventory of equipment is also essential to ensuring safety — another moving target to contend with for LSOs. That’s why in addition to onsite courses, LIA offers onsite audits.
“I was at one facility in Indiana, and I was walking down their line,” Anibarro recalls. “They had a punch press, an arc welding machine, a water jet machine, and then they had the laser, and you didn’t know what it was unless you worked there. The average person walking down there who is not an employee or who didn’t work with these things would not know.”
It is not uncommon for lasers to go unaccounted for. “There have been several times I’ve done an audit of a facility and found a laser they didn’t even know they had,” Anibarro says. For example, “I might find out they have a Class 3B or 4 used for marking product codes. When I went in there to look at the laser welder, they forget that they had a marking laser. Nobody really knew to take a look at it. It’s the same in hospitals; we find a laser they didn’t know they had because a sales rep was loaning it to the hospital. It wasn’t a rental laser, and the hospital didn’t own it, and the LSO was unaware until I showed up.”
BEYOND PROFESSIONALS: THE PUBLIC
Advances in smaller, more powerful, hand-held devices — not to mention laser pointers — mean the general public could be increasingly exposed to potentially harmful wavelengths. When prescribed for home use, therapeutic lasers, such as biostimulators, present still more challenges.
For example, a physician might prescribe to a patient who has rheumatoid arthritis a laser for treatment of acute pain. While it is unclear how this therapy works, what is clear is that the patient now has a class 3B laser in his home. The guidelines for use of the device are clarified in the ANSI Z136.3 Safe Use of Lasers in Health Care standard.
According to ANSI Z136.3 Section 4.3.7: Lasers or laser systems used for home health care can present atypical situations requiring unique control measures. When possible, the laser product should be designed to preclude ocular exposure above the MPE during operation, maintenance and under reasonably foreseeable misuse. If the laser or products cannot be designed to preclude such exposure, the manufacturer or dispenser of the laser product shall provide the user with training and/or clear, plainly written procedures for safe use. In such cases, the standard indicates, users shall assume full responsibility for personal safety as well as the safety of any others in the vicinity of the device.
“There are home health care laser products that are at least Class 3B,” Anibarro says, “so we have to give guidelines on how to use them safely. The rental company tells you that you are taking home a laser that is considered hazardous and you need to learn more about safety in order not to injure yourself or somebody else.” That is when the home user needs to reach out to the experts. “Will the general public buy the guidelines? Only if they are made aware that there is a hazard and seek training. It’s more of an education campaign with the home user because there is no regulatory body.”
That is why laser safety trainers need to be ready to guide users at a moment’s notice. “I’ve gotten a call once in regard to a home-use laser,” Anibarro notes. “The individual bought the laser for treatment of his wife, and he wanted to know what the hazards were.”
He has even fielded queries from gun owners who purchase laser sights. “Manufacturers put LIA’s phone number in their literature,” Anibarro says. “I get calls from people who buy laser gun sights and ask how to attach or align them.” Such devices range up to Class 3R, like pointers.
When that kind of one-on-one contact isn’t possible, online resources — such as LIA’s podcasts — offer immediate guidance.
With all these options available, the savvy LSO can create just the right mix to ensure the safe use of lasers. As recent developments make clear, the most effective training is highly personalized, and the makers of laser safety products are responding to the ever-changing capabilities of photonics devices.