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The AILU Interview

The laser safety business

Interview with Paul Tozer

Managing Director of Lasermet Ltd

As Lasermet celebrates its 25th anniversary, its managing director addresses some of the current issues in laser safety.

Lasermet are world leaders in laser safety products. To what do you owe your success and what challenges do you see for the future?

In the early years our success was built on the reputation of my father, Prof Bryan Tozer, one of the worlds’ leading experts in laser safety and our willingness to continually expand our range of products and services to encompass all aspects of laser safety. Nowadays it is all about having the right team of people and the desire to produce and bring to market high quality and innovative products. We are always seeking to design new products associated with our existing range and to upgrade and improve existing designs.

What is driving improvements in laser safety in the UK? Is it EU Directives, HSE demands, or fears of litigation (should a laser injury occur)

I believe the major driver is product innovation by laser safety companies including Lasermet and the genuine desire by most laser users to work to best practice. Fear of litigation is there in the background but I don’t think it is the primary driver. EU Standards and Guidelines establish best practice and thereby create a market for safety products. But what can be reasonably achieved by the user is very much dependent on the products available. An example of this is our ICS series of laser Interlock® systems. When we brought out the ICS-1 in 1996 it was the first dedicated laser Interlock® system to conform to Machinery Directive standards (EN 954-1 now superseded by EN 13849-1). Prior to this, most laser users either didn’t Interlock® or made their own system, the vast majority of which didn’t comply, with some notable exceptions. Once the ICS-1 was seen by laser users, they were largely driven by their own desire to work to best practice and the knowledge that they could now easily purchase an off the shelf turn-key system. Subsequent systems have offered improvements in useability and well over 1000 units have been sold to date. Enforcement of workplace safety by the HSE is also important.

Laser safety is still a significant deterrent to the uptake of laser technology by industry. What message would you like to give UK industry?

In the vast majority of cases the cost of the safety measures is small in comparison to cost of the laser equipment itself. There can be a hassle / fear of the unknown factor. We’ve always taken the approach of trying to take the hassle away from the customer by offering a full turn-key solution, thus allowing them to get on with their laser work. There’s no reason not to embrace laser technology on the grounds of safety. Just make sure that it is planned in from the start of the project and not tacked on to the end.

How do you rate laser safety in the UK in terms of the user guide TR 60825-14? In your experience how does the UK compare with mainland Europe?

I don’t pretend to have a great deal of comparative experience in this context but it is my impression that the UK is one of the leaders in laser safety practice. Most new build and refurbished laboratory projects tend to come with the correct interlocking, guarding and signage these days and old labs are generally being upgraded. We’ve recently heard reports of governmental safety bodies in other European countries targeting laser users for safety inspections in an effort to enforce best laser safety practice.

In your opinion should LSOs have to pass a recognised examination, and if so what form do you think it should take?

This is a thorny issue that has been around for over 20 years without resolution, perhaps for good reason. My answer would be ‘No’, because I can’t see a way of making it work satisfactorily. The required knowledge of an LSO responsible for a 1 kW CO2 laser machine in a workshop that is always used in the same way to do the same types of work will be much less than that of an LSO responsible for a research laboratory in which several different types of Class 4 lasers are used for a range of applications. The training needed for safe use of the CO2 laser machine will largely be limited to providing an awareness of the hazards associated with the process and to attempt to broaden this to address the complexity of safety issues that can arise in a laser research laboratory would be impractical and probably not even helpful even were it workable. I think it is sufficient to say that the LSO should have the required knowledge and ability to do their job and that a part of that ability is to enforce a safe system of work, something that cannot be measured in an examination anyway.

What training in laser radiation safety do you feel is required in the context of industrial laser process machine users? What do you see as the main hazard for laser machine operators?

Most industrial laser machine users are operating Class 1 systems, or at least they should be. As such you could argue that they don’t need laser safety training for normal operation. However, some laser hazard awareness training would be sensible, outlining the hazards from laser radiation and associated hazards. Over and above this the operative must be trained in the safe system of work for the machine they are operating. As a Class 1 system there shouldn’t be a direct laser radiation hazard and fire, explosion and fume are probably greater hazards. However, these should also have been mitigated by ventilation, extraction and fire suppression systems. One recent trend which we will no doubt be seeing a lot more of is robot delivery of multi-kilowatt laser power. As these powers threaten the ability of the enclosures to contain the laser beam in the event of it missing its target (or the target not being there) constant vigilance on the part of the operative may not be sufficient and an active guarding enclosure may be needed.

Do you often come into contact with non-compliant laser machines? What can be done?

The worst offenders I come across in this regard are cheap imports, largely from China, for the cosmetic market; purchased via Ebay or similar outlets. In this respect I think the UK manufacturers and distributors of better quality systems for the cosmetics market have rather shot themselves in the foot by supporting the deregulation of Cosmetic Laser Clinics. By removing the regulation of the CQC, who always carried out an inspection and would not accept non-compliant lasers, this has removed what was in effect the only serious barrier to the uptake of these systems in the UK.

What do you say to people who use off the shelf common materials instead of laser rated guarding?

That’s fine if they are prepared: (a) to take the responsibility for specifying the material themselves; (b) keep a record of their rationale; and (c) gain their employer’s approval for them to do this. However, increasingly organisations and individuals prefer to have a professionally made and certified product. Some years ago I was asked to provide a small laser blocking curtain to protect against a low power infra-red laser. I advised the client that the power was so low that a piece of paper would be adequate to stop the beam. However they bought the laser curtain because their employer required a certified product.

How does laser safety in the industrial field compare with that in the medical field?

In the medical field the possibility of enclosing the laser does not exist so most laser procedures are carried out in a Class 4 environment with all persons present wearing safety eyewear. Also in the operating theatre environment there will typically be 4 – 6 people present with a number of different entrance doors and the laser process is only one of a number of different processes taking place. There may also be several different lasers used in the theatre (at different times) each requiring its own specific eyewear. Such factors tend to make the risk of an ocular laser injury occurring in the medical field much greater than in the industrial field; which is I think, borne out by the statistics on laser accidents.