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  • Laser safety: A university perspective

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2013
Nearly every genre of scientific research has a niche where the laser is used. And, much as radioactive materials have transitioned from physics to biology, laser research techniques are invading arenas of science not traditionally seen as “laser territory.” In addition to broader research applications, the increases in quality, variety, flexibility, efficiency, tuning and power have all improved, while costs have come down. These changes have drastically reshaped the use of lasers at research universities.

University as research platform

University research is not repetitive and is ruled by innovation, not production efficiency. By nature, it has a fluid, undefined behavior. An enormous variety of research covers a university campus: From high-energy physics to psychology, nearly every research area uses lasers. The challenge today is the flood of new laser research tools, such as laser-illuminated microscopes that can analyze ancient documents and artifacts, annihilate cancer cells, etc. In these genres of science, the typical laser user, unlike the laser user of the past, is not a physicist or engineer and does not have theoretical education in light, lasers or optics.

If lasers can kill cancer cells, what can they do if handled improperly? Top, gold nanorods (which appear as red) are designed to be incorporated only in cancer cells; bottom, the dark spots indicate dead cancer cells after laser exposure.

The research university has aspects of administration and policy that are distinct from those of other organizations. The university does not have the same centralized focus for planning and resources that is found in government and industry. The overlap in organizational charts and chains of authority for these entities is small. Principal investigators (PIs) operate their labs independently in most activities. This makes centralized safety more difficult, as there are many desks where the “buck” stops, and each must be persuaded of the importance of safety.

Safety in university research

In the past 25 years, educational-facility laser accidents have increased by 14 percent, while the scientific-facility accident rate has fallen by about 32 percent, according to data compiled by Bill Ertle of Rockwell Laser Industries. It appears that more and more research is being undertaken by a maturing university research community, which is accepting work that previously could be accomplished only by well-funded commercial or government labs. This means that the safety culture must mature as well.

With so many lasers, laser labs, laser personnel, PIs and campuses, the safety department cannot be integrated into every aspect of a lab’s operations. The university must rely on the PIs and individual lab workers to implement safety in their research.

The principal investigator

The PI is the controlling force for research in the lab and is directly responsible for safety. The PI can hire, fire, direct funding and stipulate what is acceptable behavior in his or her laboratory. Today, the competition for research funding and publishing is global, and the pressure on the PI is immense. The PI also gives 40 to 50 percent of grant funding to the university to cover overhead costs. The PI pays dearly for facilities and infrastructure, so when confronted with additional costs for safety, he feels that the bill has already been paid. Adding to the PI’s pressure is an increasing administrative burden. The PI’s admin tasks are up 24 percent compared with 20 years ago, according to a 2007 study by the Federal Demonstration Partnership.

Another issue affecting the PI is the large disparity in funding different projects. While one group is well funded for its projected goals, another is severely underfunded for the results it must produce. To an underfunded PI, added safety costs look like a cup of hemlock. Alternative sources of funding for safety equipment and installation – even partial funding – go a long way for the research PI. However, as strongly noted by Dr. Todd Ditmire, director of the Fusion Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the current Laser Safety Committee chair, if you bring in the equipment, you are responsible for making it safe.

Student researchers

University research relies on graduate student workers – and, to a lesser extent, undergrad students and postdoctoral researchers – to complete much of the lab work needed for research. Most of these students have little to no laser research experience and must be educated and trained in the safe use of lasers. The grad students usually run through the lab every two or three years, and fresh grad students are brought in to fill the gap. Also, a new student could take over work for another student who is still in the lab but moves on to “better” duties. The laser work could be passed on to a new person with a cycle of six months to two years. This creates a scenario of grad students training grad students, and such training may not accurately convey the hazards or the proper safety controls.

The PI must be aware of how work is done in the lab and cannot assume that his or her initial instructions are being carried out safely. The PI should periodically verify that the lab hazards are adequately controlled. Young research students attending graduate school require more guidance and greater oversight to ensure safe work conditions. The liability to the school and PI for a student injury is much greater than for a similar incident with a seasoned research scientist.

Safety culture

For lab safety to become a priority, the PI and lab personnel must create a culture of safety that wins out over competing goals. As more and more high-level research is brought to universities, the need for a formalized safety effort is becoming even greater.

Most researchers in industry, government or academia gain their first real lab experience at a university. They learn good safety practices – or bad ones – from this experience. “Institutions of higher education, which pride themselves on leadership formation and development of cutting-edge technologies, are in a unique position to influence the formation of appropriate habits and behaviors in the workplace,” said Susan Masih of the University of Missouri.

For a university, creating an expectation of safety as a priority has broader implications than immediate lab safety. Establishing a safety culture in the university produces long-lasting benefits for all the institutions who recruit researchers into their facilities.

A user sports safety glasses while demonstrating other safe-usage techniques at the Texas Petawatt Laser lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a case of injury or fatality, as with the accidental death of Sheri Sangji in a university chemistry lab, the university and the PI could be held criminally liable for lack of oversight in the operations of their labs. According to multiple reports and findings, the actual procedure used to perform the work was not properly reviewed, confirmed or verified as safe. It was a method that the postdoc had learned many years ago from another lab worker during graduate studies. A very specific set of procedures was available online from the manufacturer for handling the chemical, but was not reviewed.

Using an unsafe transfer method was reportedly the single largest direct cause of the fire and fatal injury in that case. Had the manufacturer’s recommendations been followed, Sangji would still be with us. To be fair, the PI and postdoc did not know that their actions in allowing the lab work to be performed incorrectly would lead to Sangji’s death, but there was not enough attention given to safe handling of dangerous chemicals. The lesson here is that all lab personnel, beginning with the PI, must supply the up-front effort to implement safety in research processes.

The laser safety officer

The PI can also implement standard operating procedures for laser use and alignment, with support from the laser safety officer (LSO). Deviations from procedure can be addressed by the PI at the individual-worker level. Having a documented safety policy for the lab decreases the liability of the PI and the university when an individual decides to perform an unsafe act in violation of known, accepted and enforced procedures.

A trained user makes optics adjustments to the Texas Petawatt Laser at the University of Texas at Austin.

The LSO can bring value to the table by completing a quality hazard analysis for the PI and by advising on lab setup and hazard mitigation. The LSO can also provide operating and alignment procedure guides, or templates, to the PI, reducing the initial level of effort to create the procedures. The LSO can work through central management to procure equipment, signage and protective materials for the labs, which could reduce compliance costs for the PI. The preapproval of certain laser suppliers and identification of low-cost, acceptable safety equipment reduce search time spent by the PI, prevent the purchase of unacceptable equipment, and give the LSO a voice in the process.

As the PI incorporates laser safety into the research lab, the LSO must respond with professional guidance and prompt assistance. If the LSO is not able to perform these functions properly, the PI will avoid working with the LSO and implement his own controls, which may be insufficient. Management can assist the safety process by providing the LSO with resources to respond to the PI’s needs effectively.

R. DeWayne Holcomb, CHP, CLSO
University of Texas at Austin

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