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By Geoff Giordano

After 15 years with LIA, Education Director Gus Anibarro has plenty of stories to tell from his experiences teaching hundreds of laser safety officers (LSOs) and laser users how to safely use these powerful tools.

He can tell you about the retinal damage and painful skin burns — and worse. He can tell you about the non-beam hazards, like compressed gas cylinders that have exploded and blasted through concrete walls. He can tell you how, while auditing laser equipment at a particular facility, he’s found lasers that hadn’t been accounted for in inventory.

“The most notable skin injuries are holes through fingers and third-degree burns,” he said during his safety presentation at the inaugural Lasers for Manufacturing Event® (LME®) in 2011. “I have heard of amputations when people have accidentally put their hand in the path of a beam. I have heard of people (who have) gotten a best-buy date marked right into their forearm.”

Preventing such dire events is the job of a proper laser safety program.

As more manufacturers and job shops utilize the speed and precision of lasers to boost profits, preventing harm to users is increasingly vital. A finely tuned risk-mitigation plan is essential for protecting employees in your facility, be it manufacturing or medical. Such a plan is one of the best “insurance policies” a facility can implement — particularly in the health care setting, where patients can be at risk of airway fires, or in a research environment, where custom-built lasers are common and must be accounted for.

When a company invests in lasers to bolster its production line, “the flipside is they’ve introduced a hazard into the workplace if the lasers are not enclosed,” Anibarro explains. “Now they have to mitigate those hazards.”

Toward that end, LIA’s comprehensive suite of laser safety and training solutions — from classroom and online courses to safety publications including the ANSI industry standards — is geared to help harried LSO’s avoid having to reinvent the wheel.

Keeping employees safe is more than just the right thing to do. A sound safety plan helps keep workers on the job, avoiding lost productivity as well as potential workers’ compensation outlays. The price of implementing such a program will be far less, in the long run, than the cost associated with repeated — and avoidable — injuries.

Then there are the regulatory imperatives. “Some states require that there be a laser safety officer where Class 3B and 4 lasers are present,” he explains. “Some states require that you register your lasers.” And, if OSHA investigates your facility, you want to be sure you’re complying with a safety standard.

“I’ve walked into places that didn’t have laser safety officers but did have a laser safety program in place — but because there wasn’t an LSO, nobody was really following the safety program,” Anibarro recalls. “So they got paid a visit by OSHA as a consequence of an accident.”

It is not entirely uncommon to see LSOs appointed when facilities unearth a potential hazard or suddenly realize they do not comply with a state regulation. In a course he taught recently, “there were people from places where the laser safety officer had retired or quit, so laser safety kind of went by the wayside and a new guy came in and said, ‘We have a hazard here.’ So all of a sudden, they are thrust into the position of LSO, so they come to one of our courses.”

It is at one of Anibarro’s courses that LSOs of all levels of experience learn the nuts and bolts of their jobs, from regulations to hazard-control measures like purchasing protective eyewear, curtains or barriers — and, of course, how to write a safety program by first creating a safety policy. “From there, you have to figure out what your program is going to look like, what it will cover, who is going to be trained and what the LSO will document.”

Usually, a company — whether a small shop or a large firm’s safety committee — will scrutinize a proposed laser safety program — which should include a plan for handling accidents, Anibarro says.

According to the ANSI Z136.1 standard in regard to laser safety programs, “management (employer) has the fundamental responsibility for the assurance of the safe use of lasers owned and/or operated in facilities under its control. Management (employer) shall establish and maintain an adequate program for the control of laser hazards.” Further, “employer and/or facility safety programs and employee training programs shall be provided for Class 3B or Class 4 lasers and laser systems.”

An LSO is a key component to a successful safety program — and support from his or her employer is even more critical. “I went into one facility where the laser safety officer quit because he didn’t get the support of upper management,” Anibarro says. “If the employer doesn’t give the LSO the responsibility and authority to monitor and enforce a safety program, the job of the laser safety officer becomes twice as hard.”

Not having an LSO to enforce a facility’s laser safety plan can give a false sense of security; he goes on to say, with many skin injuries going unreported. During one course, he recalls, an attendee thought Anibarro was “scaring” the class while educating them about potential laser hazards. The technician was adamant that he had never suffered an eye injury — but then let on that he suffered numerous burns on his hands and arms.

“Minor as it may be, that is still considered an incident,” Anibarro notes.

At one facility he has visited, employees routinely put their hands into laser chambers to hold material to be welded — and burns are an acknowledged hazard of the job.

To be blunt: When a facility gives short shrift to its laser safety program, bad things happen.

“At one facility, they started having some issues,” Anibarro recalls. “Lasers were being moved around; nobody knew where they were. I found keys in the lasers when the keys should not have been in them. Safety protocol overall wasn’t being followed. There’s an accident waiting to happen. And if an employee got injured, it would have cost the company some money.”