Laser Helpers

Laser Safety Training – How Much is Enough?

in Laser Safety

In this article, we provide practical advice for selecting and scheduling laser safety training.  We will target Laser Safety Officers, industrial hygienists, health physicists, EH&S professionals, manufacturing managers and laboratory managers.  We will draw from established standards such as the ANSI Z136 series and from our own in-depth experience.  Our premise is that some training is better than none, and that laser safety training can be combined with other safety efforts.  We also believe in repetition, follow-up, and measurement of knowledge, as well as measurement of results.

Laser Safety 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 United States and is recognized by OSHA as the guide for laser end-users in any environment.  There are two fundamental laser safety training requirements:  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, needs training, and possibly needs medical surveillance.  We know that virtually all lasers can create or contribute to hazardous conditions, and 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…”

A key insight is that the Z136.1 standard is constructed as a teaching standard:  a thorough read and implementation of the standard should yield a valuable independent study program for the Laser Safety Officer.  We learn from experience, and the experience is gained over time.  Our approach to laser safety awareness is based on this three-point model:

3-point model - How much laser safety training is enough?

Laser safety training is a continuous process.  This “learning machine” has its own momentum and will improve in effectiveness over time.  Intervention and/or expert assistance with any of the three points at any time will only enhance the process or organizational learning.  You just have to start somewhere.

Hazard Evaluation Is Training

The first order of business for the Laser Safety Officer is to visit every installation with the ultimate goal of building a complete inventory of all lasers, the operating parameters of the lasers, the materials being processed with lasers and a roster of staff involved in working directly with the lasers.  Together, the LSO and the laser user should review each point of beam emergence, each change in beam direction, each modification of beam structure or beam composition.  Using Appendix F of the Z136.1 as a guide, together the LSO and laser user should list and evaluate all non-beam hazards in each laser environment.

To the extent that the conversation is open and encouraging, the LSO will improve his knowledge of laser applications at the same time he learns what 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 non-beam hazards in the workplace.

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

Knowledge is Required for Hazard Evaluation

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 needs to evaluate MPEs, NHZs, ODs, etc.  For this, we recommend at least annual formal classroom training for the LSO in an environment where he can share problems and solutions with his professional peers and build a reliable network of problem-solvers.  The LSO can then provide selective training to other staff at your organization.

We also recommend that the LSO obtain one of the several excellent software packages available commercially that have embedded expert knowledge for laser hazard evaluation.

Hazard Evaluation Yields 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, how the beam is directed?
  • Do personnel recognize beam hazards?
  • Do personnel understand and appreciate non-beam hazards?
  • Are control measures in place? And used effectively?

Because the LSO performs both routine inspections and random or opportunistic spot checks, the effectiveness of safety awareness and training initiatives will become evident over time.

Training Intervals

Every interaction between the LSO and a laser end-user should be viewed as an opportunity to train.  That said, we make a distinction between training classes and refresher courses.  Your organization should set an initial knowledge expectation that can be achieved through a formal training regimen.  This is supported by on-going, periodic refresher courses or modules that should serve to maintain awareness.  When it comes to laser safety knowledge, if an individual cannot learn what he needs 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 ought to be integrated into existing orientation programs and be required before personnel work in the laser environment.  Each person should demonstrate some level of proficiency before independent work commences; proficiency is measured by written exam or oral questioning.  Just as you would not allow a machining apprentice to run a lathe unless he demonstrates understanding of the machine itself plus its guards and controls, you should not allow anyone to operate a laser of any design before he exhibits an established degree of competency and confidence.

We believe that annual refresher training provided by the LSO or, better yet, a third party is normally sufficient.  The refresher course should balance formal presentation with periods of questions and answers or joint problem-solving.  Your organization must expect to learn and improve on laser safety performance from these sessions.