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Bringing Laser Safety to the Modern Age

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Formal laser safety guidance originated in the 1970s with the publication of the ANSI Z136.1 Safe Use of Lasers standard, and product safety requirements set out by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Since then, the Z136 series has grown with numerous application-based standards for medical, outdoor use, and other additions.

The standards provide guidance for laser safety officers (LSOs) and their controls, actions, and responsibilities. But a high percentage of the initial standards content has stayed the same throughout the years, excluding some minor wordsmithing. The tools to achieve laser safety have arguably become stagnant.

The chief reason for this is that laser standards are written by dedicated volunteers. Making time for standards committee work is challenging, let alone finding time to think of new approaches. This is why the publication of new editions of the Z136 standards takes more than seven years on average. Think of how much laser technology changes during such periods.

In my personal opinion, the Z136 secretariat shares some responsibility for this by allowing the time lag. The standard Z136.8 (American National Standard for Safe Use of Lasers in Research, Development, or Testing) in my mind is a rare exception. It introduced several new ideas and topics aimed at helping LSOs.

It would be incorrect to say that all controls and technologies have stayed the same. Laser warning lights, for example, have progressed considerably since the sole reliance on the red light bulb to indicate whether a laser was in use. Further, laser eyewear and entryway interlocks have increasingly embraced technology and market needs. With that said, to uphold laser safety, it is necessary for institutions to adopt emerging technologies. There are several examples worth consideration.

Smartphones aid security and safety

The ever-present smartphone offers numerous ways to assist with laser safety. Regarding accident response measures, for example, a smartphone app can supplement or replace a conventional wall poster to provide readily available information on recommended actions in response to a suspected laser injury, as well as provide links to emergency services and security. Smartphones can also provide a means to send out emergency alerts.

Smartphone apps offer additional measures for limiting access to interlock controls — the electronic locks that control entry into spaces in which a laser is active. Specifically, a smartphone can provide stronger security than a key code that many people might share.

Facial recognition systems have become compact and inexpensive enough to be added to smartphones. This suggests standalone facial recognition systems could be another tool to enhance the control over access to an area and provide better security than a key code could provide.

Similarly, the new generation of doorbell cameras not only shows an image of who is at the door, but also notifies users of someone’s presence. The image and notification are pushed to a user’s phone, whether they are home or not. Doorbell cameras would offer a definite benefit for spaces in which lasers are in operation.

A technology that could further enforce control over access to laser operation areas is radio frequency identification badges. A user’s identification badge can communicate with a standalone system or databases to confirm authorization for entry.

Cameras in smartphones also introduce the possibility of using quick response (QR) codes, strategically placed to make important safety information more immediately available than paper binders, for example. Binders cannot be used in some locations such as cleanrooms, and they are harder to update and distribute than a digital file. QR codes can allow users to access operational steps, standard operating procedures, safety data sheets, safety alert information, and service instructions on their personal electronics.

Smartphones, by definition, are a communication device. But are LSOs using that capability to their greatest advantage? A few nontraditional uses for these devices include announcing that a sweep or alignment is in progress, or sending notifications about laser startup activities, for example, the removal of covers, the need to don eyewear, or whether a laser user is working alone.

Smartphones increasingly include capabilities for communicating via video. It is a useful tool for laser users to send videos of safety concerns to the LSO and other safety folks. Users typically wait for the safety staff to come to them. But smartphones introduce a way to take a more active role in laser safety. The video function also allows LSOs to distribute video lessons on best practices, rather than to rely on static emails.

Augmented and virtual reality

The emergence of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) technology offers another new laser safety training tool. In the last few years, a few commercial safety firms have introduced these options for industrial safety training. Why not for laser safety?

VR training allows users to perform certain tasks without risking negative consequences, akin to a flight simulator. It also allows users to practice a task several times and become familiar with a work setting before they ever encounter it in person. A 2020 Price Waterhouse Cooper study found that employees can complete VR training 4× faster than similar physical training and 1.5× faster than using e-learning methods. Trainees also retain the knowledge for significantly longer periods.

AR is also gaining interest. Several firms are developing universal laser eyewear that uses smartphone-type cameras to project an image of the real world on a display inside the eyewear. Prototypes are already being tested.

COVID-19 restraints on occupancy raised an interest in remote auditing, which now offers some unique advantages for laser safety — via AR glasses or by more conventional camera platforms such as a tablet or phone.

The idea of using tablets to document audits is not new, though its adaptation to laser safety has been slow. The utilization of tablets does have advantages, including the ability to more easily share findings and look at trends. Tablets could also facilitate remote auditing by allowing users to invite an off-site subject matter expert to tag along virtually and comment on specific problems. Similar applications of this technology have been successfully demonstrated in medical settings.

Emerging technology solutions

AI chatbots have received a lot of press lately for their ability to communicate like a person, usually in writing. Users can even select different communication styles. This technology has raised concerns that students can use it to write “original” reports, and similar concerns have been raised about its potential application to scientific literature. But AI chatbots also have a legitimate capability for writing safety chapters, standard operating protocols, or training and educational information. This can make it easier and faster for laser users to document their protocols.

The 3D printer has had a major effect on the manufacturing arena. It allows more complex items to be made from a variety of materials, including metals and glass. Why not apply this technology to laser safety? One can customize beam blocks, extended beam tube holders (stabilizers), and periscope covers to name a few potentially printable items.

Lastly, there are smart sensors. Anyone who has experienced a water or other coolant leak might have wished they had some earlier notice of the leak. Today, commercially available smart sensors can constantly monitor a coolant system and automatically send a phone alert if a leak is detected.

Certain safety and emergency technology cannot be easily improved, such as the oxygen masks that are designed to automatically be released on passenger planes. This technology has not changed in 40 years, but laser safety tools need to be updated, and there are a wealth of new, inexpensive, and widely available technological advancements that offer creative solutions to make laser safety programs more effective and efficient.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2023
columnslasersLaser Safetylaser safety standardslaser safety officerANSIAmerican National Standards Institute

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