Lasers are a common tool that can quickly injure workers. Operators can be hurt by the laser's intense light. Co-workers could get hurt if they are struck by laser light reflecting off surfaces. Eye damage and serious burns are the most common injuries. Only trained workers should use this tool.
How workers are exposed
Lasers have become more common on worksites. Workers can be exposed by operating a laser. Simply being in the area when a laser is being used can also result in exposure. Lasers can reflect in unpredictable ways off some surfaces, causing the beam to strike nearby workers.
Laser light shining into a worker's eye is always a concern. The actual danger depends to some extent on the power of the laser. If the laser is low-powered, the worker should be able to blink, close, and protect the eye. But she or he could be distracted, and that could cause other workplace injuries.
More powerful lasers can damage eyes faster than workers can blink. Some lasers, such as CO2 lasers, use invisible infrared light. They won’t create a blink response. This can cause serious injury and loss of vision.
Lasers can also cause other types of harm. Direct or reflected light from a moderately intense laser can cause thermal burns to skin. The reddening and blistering would be akin to what people might get from a bad sunburn. With more powerful lasers, the consequences of exposure could be worse. Workers could suffer a serious third-degree burn.
How to reduce the risks
Workers should only use a laser if they have been trained. They should know what class it is and how it works. They should know what protective equipment is needed and what safety measures need to be taken. If the worksite has a Class 3B or Class 4 laser, regulations require a laser safety program and a trained laser safety officer.
The most effective way to reduce the risk of lasers is to eliminate the source of exposure. If that's not possible, there are other risk controls to use. These should be identified in an exposure control plan. When choosing risk controls, start by asking yourself the questions in the following steps. The steps are listed in order of effectiveness.
Elimination or substitution
Eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible, is the most effective control. A question to consider:
- Can a less dangerous cutting process be used that eliminates the need for a laser?
Making physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes can reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:
- Can the work process be automated to eliminate workers' exposure to laser light?
- Can enclosures or barriers be put up to eliminate exposure to laser light, and to prevent unauthorized access to areas where lasers are being used?
- Are all shields and guards properly installed and operating?
These involve changing work practices and work policies. Awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. All can limit the risk of laser exposure. Some questions to consider:
- Has an exposure control plan been developed?
- Do you have a person in charge of laser safety?
- Are warning signs posted in the work area?
- Can shiny or reflective surfaces near the work area be eliminated?
- Have written work procedures been developed?
- Have workers had instruction and training on how to use the laser safely?
Personal protective equipment
This is the least preferred control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:
- Do workers have proper eye protection that is rated for the specific laser(s) being used?
- Has personal protective equipment been tested to make sure it is working properly?