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  • Laser Safety Training: How Much Is Enough?

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2013

Experts offer practical advice for selecting and scheduling laser safety training.

For people who work with lasers – laser safety officers, industrial hygienists, health physicists, environmental health and safety professionals, manufacturing and laboratory managers – some training is always better than none. Fortunately, laser safety training can be combined with other safety and training efforts. Repetition, follow-up, and measurement of knowledge and of results are essential.

Training requirements

The American National Standard for Safe Use of Lasers (ANSI Z136.1 – 2007) is the primary driver for all laser safety training considerations in the US and is recognized by OSHA as the guide for laser end users in any environment. The fundamental laser safety training requirements are: You must provide training for each laser safety officer (LSO), and you must train each employee routinely working with or potentially exposed to Class 3B or Class 4 laser radiation.

Table 1 of the Z136.1 standard helps identify whether your installation needs an LSO and training, but this standard establishes only a few definitive requirements and leaves many decisions about training up to the laser community.

Virtually all lasers can create or contribute to hazardous conditions, so our recommendations for laser safety training are based on these two requirements plus the third, and often misunderstood, requirement of Z136.1-2007 Section 5.1: “The course topics selected … shall largely be determined based on the results from a complete hazard evaluation.” Therefore, we believe that some laser safety training should be provided for all users.

Consider the model depicted in Figure 1. Laser safety training needs are determined by changes in lasers and laser complexity on-site, laser knowledge among the users and the results of a laser hazard evaluation. Laser safety training must be a continuous process, because any laser environment is dynamic.

Training needs are determined by a number of factors.

Note that laser hazard evaluation as defined by the standard is the main element that the LSO can control. The most effective LSOs are those who find ways to influence all dimensions of this problem.

Hazard evaluation is training

The first order of business for the LSO is to visit every installation, with the ultimate goal of building a complete inventory of all lasers, their operating parameters, the materials being processed with lasers and a roster of staff working directly with the lasers. Our expert advice to the LSO is to purchase a copy of the ANSI Z136.1 standard, which is constructed as a teaching standard. A thorough read and implementation of the standard should yield a valuable independent study program. Together, the LSO and the laser user should review each point of beam emergence, each change in beam direction, and each modification of beam structure or composition. Using Appendix F of the Z136.1 as a guide, the LSO and laser user should work together to list and evaluate all nonbeam hazards in each laser environment.

To the extent that the conversation is open and encouraging, the LSO will improve his/her knowledge of laser applications and will discover which safety measures are actually being used. The end user benefits from this exchange of information by learning about the expectations for laser safety and becoming more aware of both the beam and nonbeam hazards in the workplace.

It may take several visits to each laser installation, and the LSO may require third-party expert assistance for large-scale audits or complicated hazard analysis, but the LSO eventually must be comfortable that staff members are trained commensurate with the risks presented by the laser laboratory or workstation. Further, the LSO should develop a routine for revisiting laboratories or a trigger that notifies him of new lasers or changes in laser environments. A helpful hint: Some universities copy the LSO on purchase orders containing the keyword “laser.”

Knowledge is required

While it’s a bit of a Catch-22, the most effective hazard evaluation programs are those conducted with knowledge. The LSO will gain knowledge over time, but some required expertise is very technical: The LSO must evaluate maximum permissible exposures, nominal hazard zones, optical densities, etc. The best way to learn is by attending annual formal LSO classroom training in an environment where problems and solutions can be shared with professional peers, and a reliable network of problem solvers can be built. The LSO can then provide selective training to other staff at your organization.

The LSO also should obtain one of the several software packages available commercially that have embedded expert knowledge for laser hazard evaluation. Most providers of this software introduce the product in conjunction with classroom laser safety training; most also offer ongoing support in the form of Q&A’s by telephone or email.

Collecting and organizing the information and knowledge of the laser hazards at your site also is critical, both for immediate and comparative use over time as laser environments change. Some hazard software packages offer modules for documenting each laser area. We highly recommend supplementing this with a generous collection of digital photographs of each laser setup. With a little practice, you will learn to take images of hazard mitigation ideas that can be shared within your organization during both formal and informal training sessions. Successful LSOs often carry a picture library with them on tablet devices, enabling specific, customized and spontaneous training.

Evaluation reveals training needs

The conclusions that an audit or hazard evaluation yield will point directly to the training needs:

• Do personnel understand the basics of how their lasers operate, how the beam is generated and modified, and how the beam is directed?

• Do personnel recognize beam hazards?

• Do personnel understand and appreciate nonbeam hazards?

• Are control measures and standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place for each laser installation (and used effectively)?

Because the LSO performs routine inspections and random or opportunistic spot-checks, the effectiveness of safety awareness and training initiatives will become evident over time. Another helpful hint: The LSO should try to stagger visits to laser installations and not be “predictable” with an annual visit. Also, get away from your desk and wander into laser land. A more visible LSO will encourage users to follow control measures and SOPs all the time.

Training intervals

Every interaction between the LSO and a laser end user should be viewed as an opportunity to train. But training classes and refresher courses are not the same thing. Your organization should set an initial knowledge expectation that can be achieved through a formal training regimen. This is supported by ongoing, periodic refresher courses or modules that serve to maintain awareness. When it comes to laser safety knowledge, if an individual is incapable of understanding how to initiate safe work, given the extent of the potential risk, then even the best awareness or refresher course will not help.

Our advice on training intervals starts with this: Laser safety training should be integrated into existing orientation programs and be required before personnel work in the laser environment. Each user should demonstrate some level of proficiency before independent work commences; proficiency should be measured by written exam or oral questioning. Just as you would not allow a machining apprentice to run a lathe until he demonstrates understanding of the machine and its guards and controls, you should not allow anyone to operate a laser of any design before exhibiting an established degree of competency and confidence.

Annual refresher training provided by the LSO or, better yet, by a third party, is normally sufficient. The refresher course should balance formal presentations with Q&A periods or joint problem solving. Your organization must expect to learn and improve on laser safety performance from these sessions.

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