Laser safety protocol and technology have improved considerably since the operation of the first working laser in 1960. Despite this, serious eye injury from laser accidents continues to this day. One explanation for this is the expanded use of lasers in research, education, industry, health care, medicine, and consumers. That is, more laser accidents occur as more people are exposed to its potential dangers. While some of these accidents are caused by equipment failure, human behavior is by far the main culprit. Safety is especially crucial when using class 3 and class 4 lasers.Here are five common reasons why laser accidents happen:
Poor Safety Culture
Accidents are inevitable in dangerous environments when little thought is given to safety. Businesses, laboratories, and universities can’t rely on workers or researchers to exercise adequate safety on their own when working with lasers. Safety should be prioritized and mandated by upper management. A poor safety culture occurs when other priorities supersede safety.For example, the pressure to meet production deadlines may cause workers to omit safety procedures while their managers look the other way. The informality of small business startups combined with the pressure to become profitable can displace safety concerns. In academic and high-tech research and development environments, safety often takes a backseat to creativity, innovation, and ingenuity. But regardless of the particular circumstances, when safety ceases to be a primary concern, laser accidents and eye injuries will follow.
Operators with extensive experience with laser equipment and procedures are better able to anticipate and avoid situations that expose themselves and others to laser hazards. In addition to equipment proficiency, operators and other personnel must also be thoroughly trained in laser safety protocol.
Complacency may occur when repetitive action causes boredom. This leads to disengaged, unthinking, and distracted workers who do their work on autopilot. Such people are more likely to make mistakes when the unusual happens. Sheer boredom or a distraction may even cause improper execution of their usual repetitive routine.Complacency isn’t limited to those with repetitive work. It can also affect highly skilled people engaged in demanding work such as researchers and scientists. This comes about when overconfidence or a feeling of invincibility makes them lose touch with the true dangers of their situation. A lack of accidents in their work history further reinforces this overconfidence until the inevitable accident or near accident snaps them out of it. A poor safety culture, which is common to research environments, sets the stage for this problem.
Laser equipment failure can injure even the best trained and safety-conscious people. Malfunctioning class 1 laser equipment can be especially insidious. The laser is completely enclosed during normal operation. Various safeties and interlocks further prevent user exposure to laser light. Because of this, no safety equipment, such as laser safety glasses, or laser safety training is required. This leaves the typical user vulnerable to possible injury should equipment failure occur.Class 1 laser equipment failure can happen in a number of ways, such as buying equipment from disreputable sources, accidental equipment damage, and poor maintenance practices. Safeties and interlocks might be left off, bypassed, or tampered with by the owners or employees. Modified equipment can be rendered unsafe. Maintenance and repair people who bypass these safeties to do their jobs also face possible exposure to laser light.Laser fiber optic cables are normally safe because the laser beam is completely confined. However, laser light may leak from damaged or disconnected cables. Although the exiting laser beam rapidly diverges, eye damage occurs when a person’s face is next to the cable or when the cable is viewed through an optical device. Damaged cables that transmit high powered infrared laser light are especially dangerous because the light is invisible.Equipment failure is especially acute in laboratory environments because the equipment arrangements are often changed. Each new arrangement or modification can potentially introduce new and unexpected hazards. A lapse in attention, worker fatigue, distraction, or poor communication between lab workers about recent changes can cause serious accidents.
Failure to Use Laser Safety Glasses
Some of the previously discussed causes of laser accidents such as inadequate training, some forms of complacency, and equipment failure need not cause eye injury if laser safety glasses are always used. On the other hand, accidents involving high powered infrared and visible light can still cause skin burns, but these injuries have fewer serious long term consequences than damaged vision.Given the complexity of many work environments and the human tendency to make mistakes, the simple act of wearing laser safety glasses is the only foolproof way of avoiding laser contact with the eyes.Reasons people forgo or inconsistently use laser safety glasses include:
- Poor safety culture. It follows from the above treatment of safety culture, that an organization that doesn’t value safety, won’t encourage or enforce the use of laser safety glasses.
- Poor-fitting safety glasses. Poor-fitting glasses may fall off or slide down the nose at the wrong moment when they’re needed to protect the eyes from a stray laser beam or when someone mistakenly believes a laser is off when it isn’t. Accidental laser-eye contact is often momentary but is still sufficient to damage vision or cause blindness. A good fit ensures eye protection 100% of the time. Discomfort from a poor fit may induce the wearer to momentarily take their glasses off or forgo them altogether.
- Expediency. If laser safety glasses aren’t conveniently on hand, some people may feel that a brief instance of laser use doesn’t warrant the time or effort needed to get them. However, unprotected eyes in the wrong place at the wrong time will still get injured. In fact, workers have been injured while momentarily lifting their glasses to rub their eyes.
- Poor access control to the work area. When a laser is in use, unprotected personnel or the public should not be able to wander inside the work area.
- Incorrect laser safety glasses. You must only wear laser safety glasses rated for the frequency and beam energy intensity of the laser you’re using. Otherwise, wearing them is pointless because they won’t provide protection.
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