Laser safety is safe design, use and implementation of lasers to minimise the risk of laser accidents, especially those involving eye injuries. Since even relatively small amounts of laser light can lead to permanent eye injuries, the sale and usage of lasers is typically subject to government regulations.
Moderate and high-power lasers are potentially hazardous because they can burn the retina of the eye, or even the skin. To control the risk of injury, various specifications, for example ANSI Z136 in the US and IEC 60825 internationally, define "classes" of laser depending on their power and wavelength. These regulations also prescribe required safety measures, such as labeling lasers with specific warnings, and wearing laser safety goggles when operating lasers.
Laser radiation hazards
Laser radiation predominantly causes injury via thermal effects. Even moderately powered lasers can cause injury to the eye. High power lasers can also burn the skin. Some lasers are so powerful that even the diffuse reflection from a surface can be hazardous to the eye.
Diagram of a human eye.
The coherence, the low divergence angle of laser light and the focusing mechanism of the eye means that laser light can be concentrated into an extremely small spot on the retina. A transient increase of only 10 °C can destroy retinal photoreceptor cells. If the laser is sufficiently powerful, permanent damage can occur within a fraction of a second, faster than the blink of an eye. Sufficiently powerful in the visible to near infrared laser radiation (400-1400 nm) will penetrate the eyeball and may cause heating of the retina, whereas exposure to laser radiation with wavelengths less than 400 nm and greater than 1400 nm are largely absorbed by the cornea and lens, leading to the development of cataracts or burn injuries.
Infrared lasers are particularly hazardous, since the body's protective "blink reflex" response is triggered only by visible light. For example, some people exposed to high power Nd:YAG laser emitting invisible 1064 nm radiation, may not feel pain or notice immediate damage to their eyesight. A pop or click noise emanating from the eyeball may be the only indication that retinal damage has occurred i.e. the retina was heated to over 100 °C resulting in localized explosive boiling accompanied by the immediate creation of a permanent blind spot.
Lasers can cause damage in biological tissues, both to the eye and to the skin, due to several mechanisms. Thermal damage, or burn, occurs when tissues are heated to the point where denaturation of proteins occurs. Another mechanism is photochemical damage, where light triggers chemical reactions in tissue. Photochemical damage occurs mostly with short-wavelength (blue) and ultra-violet light and can be accumulated over the course of hours. Laser pulses shorter than about 1 μs can cause a rapid rise in temperature, resulting in explosive boiling of water. The shock wave from the explosion can subsequently cause damage relatively far away from the point of impact. Ultrashort pulses can also exhibit self-focusing in the transparent parts of the eye, leading to an increase of the damage potential compared to longer pulses with the same energy.
The eye focuses visible and near-infrared light onto the retina. A laser beam can be focused to an intensity on the retina which may be up to 200,000 times higher than at the point where the laser beam enters the eye. Most of the light is absorbed by melanin pigments in the pigment epithelium just behind the photoreceptors, and causes burns in the retina. Ultraviolet light with wavelengths shorter than 400 nm tends to be absorbed in the cornea and lens, where it can produce injuries at relatively low powers due to photochemical damage. Infrared light mainly causes thermal damage to the retina at near-infrared wavelengths and to more frontal parts of the eye at longer wavelengths. The table below summarizes the various medical conditions caused by lasers at different wavelengths, not including injuries due to pulsed lasers.
The skin is usually much less sensitive to laser light than the eye, but excessive exposure to ultraviolet light from any source (laser or non-laser) can cause short- and long-term effects similar to sunburn, while visible and infrared wavelengths are mainly harmful due to thermal damage.
Lasers and aviation safety
Since November 19, 2004 there have been over 2800 incidents of lasers directed at aircraft within the United States. These concerns have led to an inquiry in the US Congress. Exposure to hand-held laser light under such circumstances may seem trivial given the brevity of exposure, the large distances involved and beam spread of up to several metres. However, laser exposure may create dangerous conditions such as flash blindness. If this occurs during a critical moment in aircraft operation, the aircraft may be endangered. In addition, some 18% to 35% of the population possess the autosomal dominant genetic trait, photic sneeze, that causes the affected individual to experience an involuntary sneezing fit when exposed to a sudden flash of light. Some observers believe that the danger is greatly exaggerated, at least for small hand-held lasers
Maximum permissible exposure
Maximum permissible exposure (MPE) at the cornea for a collimated laser beam according to IEC 60825, as energy density versus exposure time for various wavelengths.
MPE as power density versus exposure time for various wavelengths.
MPE as energy density versus wavelength for various exposure times (pulse durations).
The maximum permissible exposure (MPE) is the highest power or energy density (in W/cm2 or J/cm2) of a light source that is considered safe, i.e. that has a negligible probability for creating a damage. It is usually about 10% of the dose that has a 50% chance of creating damage under worst-case conditions. The MPE is measured at the cornea of the human eye or at the skin, for a given wavelength and exposure time.
A calculation of the MPE for occular exposure takes into account the various ways light can act upon the eye. For example, deep-ultraviolet light causes accumulating damage, even at very low powers. Infrared light with a wavelength longer than about 1400 nm is absorbed by the transparent parts of the eye before it reaches the retina, which means that the MPE for these wavelengths is higher than for visible light. In addition to the wavelength and exposure time, the MPE takes into account the spatial distribution of the light (from a laser or otherwise). Collimated laser beams of visible and near-infrared light are especially dangerous at relatively low powers because the lens focuses the light onto a tiny spot on the retina. Light sources with a smaller degree of spatial coherence than a well-collimated laser beam lead to a distribution of the light over a larger area on the retina. For such sources, the MPE is higher than for collimated laser beams. In the MPE calculation, the worst-case scenario is assumed, in which the eye lens focuses the light into the smallest possible spot size on the retina for the particular wavelength and the pupil is fully open. Although the MPE is specified as power or energy per unit surface, it is based on the power or energy that can pass through a fully open pupil (0.39 cm2) for visible and near-infrared wavelengths. This is relevant for laser beams that have a cross-section smaller than 0.39 cm2. The IEC-60825-1 and ANSI Z136.1 standards include methods of calculating MPEs.
Non-beam hazards – electrical and other For general electrical safety, see High voltage.
A discussion of laser safety would not be complete without mention of non-beam hazards that are often associated with use of laser systems. Many lasers are high voltage devices, typically 400 V upward for a small 5 mJ pulsed laser, and exceeding many kilovolts in higher powered lasers. This, coupled with high pressure water for cooling the laser and other associated electrical equipment can create a greater hazard than the laser beam itself.
Electric equipment should generally be installed at least 250 mm / 10 inches above the floor to reduce electric risk in the case of flooding. Optical tables, lasers, and other equipment should be well grounded. Enclosure interlocks should be respected and special precautions taken during troubleshooting.
In addition to the electrical hazards, lasers may create chemical, mechanical, and other hazards specific to particular installations. Chemical hazards may include materials intrinsic to the laser, such as beryllium oxide in argon ion laser tubes, halogens in excimer lasers, organic dyes dissolved in toxic or flammable solvents in dye lasers, and heavy metal vapors and asbestos insulation in helium cadmium lasers. They may also include materials released during laser processing, such as metal fumes from cutting or surface treatments of metals or the complex mix of decomposition products produced in the high energy plasma of a laser cutting plastics.
Mechanical hazards may include moving parts in vacuum and pressure pumps; implosion or explosion of flashlamps, plasma tubes, water jackets, and gas handling equipment.
High temperatures and fire hazards may also result from the operation of high-powered Class IIIB or any Class IV Laser.
In commercial laser systems, hazard mitigations such as the presence of fusible plugs, thermal interrupters, and pressure relief valves reduce the hazard of, for example, a steam explosion arising from an obstructed water cooling jacket. Interlocks, shutters, and warning lights are often critical elements of modern commercial installations. In older lasers, experimental and hobby systems, and those removed from other equipment (OEM units) special care must be taken to anticipate and reduce the consequences of misuse as well as various failure modes.
Protective eyewear Laser goggles
The use of eye protection when operating lasers of classes 3B and 4 in a manner that may result in eye exposure in excess of the MPE is strongly recommended, and is required in the workplace by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Protective eyewear in the form of spectacles or goggles with appropriately filtering optics can protect the eyes from the reflected or scattered laser light with a hazardous beam power, as well as from direct exposure to a laser beam. Eyewear must be selected for the specific type of laser, to block or attenuate in the appropriate wavelength range. For example, eyewear absorbing 532 nm typically has an orange appearance, transmitting wavelengths larger than 550 nm. Such eyewear would be useless as protection against a laser emitting at 800 nm. Furthermore, some lasers emit more than one wavelength of light, and this may be a particular problem with some less expensive frequency-doubled lasers, such as 532 nm "green laser pointers" which are commonly pumped by 808 nm infrared laser diodes, and also generate an intermediate 1064 nm laser beam which is used to produce the final 532 nm output. If the IR radiation is allowed into the beam, which happens in some lower-quality green laser pointers, it will in general not be blocked by regular red or orange colored protective eyewear designed for pure green or already IR-filtered beam. Special YAG laser and dual-frequency eyewear is available for work with frequency-doubled YAG and other IR lasers which have a visible beam, but it is more expensive, and IR-pumped green laser products do not always specify whether such extra protection is needed.
Eyewear is rated for optical density (OD), which is the base-10 logarithm of the attenuation factor by which the optical filter reduces beam power. For example, eyewear with OD 3 will reduce the beam power in the specified wavelength range by a factor of 1,000. In addition to an optical density sufficient to reduce beam power to below the maximum permissible exposure (see above), laser eyewear used where direct beam exposure is possible should be able to withstand a direct hit from the laser beam without breaking. The protective specifications (wavelengths and optical densities) are usually printed on the goggles, generally near the top of the unit. In the European Community, manufacturers are required by European norm EN 207 to specify the maximum power rating rather than the optical density.
Many scientists involved with lasers agree on the following guidelines:
* Everyone who uses a laser should be aware of the risks. This awareness is not just a matter of time spent with lasers; to the contrary, long-term dealing with invisible risks (such as from infrared laser beams) tends to reduce risk awareness, rather than to sharpen it.
* Optical experiments should be carried out on an optical table with all laser beams travelling in the horizontal plane only, and all beams should be stopped at the edges of the table. Users should never put their eyes at the level of the horizontal plane where the beams are in case of reflected beams that leave the table.
* Watches and other jewelry that might enter the optical plane should not be allowed in the laboratory. All non-optical objects that are close to the optical plane should have a matte finish in order to prevent specular reflections.
* Adequate eye protection should always be required for everyone in the room if there is a significant risk for eye injury.
* High-intensity beams that can cause fire or skin damage (mainly from class 4 and ultraviolet lasers) and that are not frequently modified should be guided through tubes.
* Alignment of beams and optical components should be performed at a reduced beam power whenever possible.
Lasers have been classified by wavelength and maximum output power into four classes and a few subclasses since the early 1970s. The classifications categorize lasers according to their ability to produce damage in exposed people, from class 1 (no hazard during normal use) to class 4 (severe hazard for eyes and skin). There are two classification systems, the "old system" used before 2002, and the "revised system" being phased in since 2002. The latter reflects the greater knowledge of lasers that has been accumulated since the original classification system was devised, and permits certain types of lasers to be recognized as having a lower hazard than was implied by their placement in the original classification system. The revised system is part of the revised IEC 60825 standard. From 2007, the revised system is also incorporated into the US-oriented ANSI Laser Safety Standard (ANSI Z136.1). Since 2007, labeling according to the revised system is accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on laser products imported into the US. The old and revised systems can be distinguished by the 1M, 2M and 3R classes used only in the revised system and the 2A and 3A classes used only in the old system. Class numbers were designated using Roman numerals (I–IV) in the US under the old system and Arabic numerals (1–4) in the EU. The revised system uses Arabic numerals (1–4) in all jurisdictions.
The classification of a laser is based on the concept of accessible emission limits (AEL) that are defined for each laser class. This is usually a maximum power (in W) or energy (in J) that can be emitted in a specified wavelength range and exposure time. For infrared wavelengths above 4 μm, it is specified as a maximum power density (in W/m2). It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to provide the correct classification of a laser, and to equip the laser with appropriate warning labels and safety measures as prescribed by the regulations. Safety measures used with the more powerful lasers include key-controlled operation, warning lights to indicate laser light emission, a beam stop or attenuator, and an electrical contact that the user can connect to an emergency stop or interlock.