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    Laser Safety

    Sub-Table of Contents

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    Introduction to Laser Safety

    Lasers are unique in their safety hazards, particularly to something you value highly - your vision. While the dangers of firearms and explosives are obvious to most sane people, the possibility that a stream of massless photons even from a low power laser can cause instant severe and irreversible damage to vision or even total blindness is something that often needs to be stressed and restressed. For high power lasers, there may be fire and other hazards as well. And many lasers - even small ones - may use potentially lethal voltages. There can be other dangers as well. If you don't read any other parts of Sam's Laser FAQ, study the material that follows as well as the more specific safety info in the chapters on each particular type of laser. Go to the various laser safety Web sites to see how major institutions and regulatory organization deal with laser safety. It is possible to work with lasers safely and doesn't require rocket science - but it won't happen automatically.

    WARNING: The information in this chapter should NOT be considered a substitute for a comprehensive course in laser safety. Casual reading and common sense precautions may be adequate when dealing with low power visible CW lasers but is totally useless for anything above a few milliwatts and for invisible or pulsed lasers, as accidents will happen. And, if an accident means a beam in your eye, damage may very likely be irreversible. As in permanent. As in, some portion of vision in the affected eye(s) will be gone forever. Only classroom instruction with an associated hands-on laser lab can develop and enforce the required procedures and habits that will apply to a wide variety of laser equipment.

    You Only Received One Set of Eyeballs?

    Lasers have tended to be high glamor devices popular with with hobbyists, experimenters, entertainers, and serious researchers alike. However, except for very low power lasers - those with less than a fraction of a mW of beam power - they do pose some unique hazards particularly with respect to instant and permanent damage to vision. The visual receptors (the light sensitive cells) lining the eye's retina are part of the central nervous system and do not regenerate. You're pretty much born with your lifetime allocation.

    Here we only discuss the hazards with respect to vision. There are other safety issues - such as the danger from the high voltages used to power certain types of laser. These are summarized later in this chapter and dealt with in more detail in the chapters on the lasers for which they apply. There are several reasons that even small lasers which do not represent any sort of burning or fire risk can instantly and permanently damage vision:

    See the section: Laser Safety Sites for links to much more information on general laser safety, laser safety organizations, and regulatory agencies.

    And since laser pointers seem to be everywhere these days, consider this: If carefully focused, as little as 5 or 6 mW from a laser is sufficient to produce burn marks on black electrical tape along with wisps of smoke. Think about what similar power levels can do to the delicate tissue at the back of your eyeballs! While laser pointers themselves may not be quite as dangerous as some people (and politicians) may have you to believe, that such macroscopic effects can take place at these relatively modest power levels should provide some additional respect for the damage that can result under just the wrong set of conditions.

    A popular graveyard joke in the laser industry is: "Do not stare into the beam with your remaining good eye". Another one is: "How many times can I look into a laser beam?". Answer: "Twice, once left, once right". Or see Peer Pressure in the Laser Lab from David Farley's Doctor Fun Archive. Nonetheless, laser safety is no laughing matter.

    Intensity of a 1 mW Laser versus the Sun

    Here is a comparison between the maximum intensity on the retina of the Sun and the beam from a 1 mW HeNe laser. (Adapted from one of Simon Waldman's optics lectures.)

    Standard Sun:

    Typical 1 mW HeNe laser (or laser pointer):

    So the 1 mW laser has the potential to produce an intensity on the retina 167 times that of direct sunlight! But there are many more factors to consider in determining the real risk of damage. In addition to those noted below, the actual focal point when looking at a laser at close range will not be at the retina so the spot size will most likely be much larger than the diffraction limit of the calculation. Even if the spot from the laser beam is smaller, natural eye movements or movement of the source (e.g., some moron waving a laser pointer) will result in it hitting any given point for a shorter time than the larger spot from the Sun (which usually doesn't move very quickly).

    But, at least, perhaps you'll now have a bit more respect for that little HeNe laser or laser pointer!

    (From: Jim Webb (

    The real problem behind this is that it is assumed that the power density is the significant factor in the thermal damage mechanism. The ability of the retina to dissipate heat is not dependent on the area covered, but the periphery (circumference) of the exposed area! The blood vessels are in the retina and not the sclera (the surface under the retina) - it is the blood flow that dissipates the heat and so can only act on the *edge* not the middle of the exposed area. In circumference terms, the ratio drops to 7 times. Furthermore because the larger spot is less efficient at dissipating heat, the effective power delivered by the laser beam is only about 2 times greater than that of the spot formed by the sun.

    Why a 1 mW Helium-Neon Laser Still Appears Bright a Mile Away

    At a distance of 1 mile (1,609 m), the beam from a typical helium-neon laser (which is a quite well collimated source) will have spread to a diameter of roughly 4 feet (48 inches, 1.3 m). However, it will still appear quite bright. Why is this so?

    (Portions of the following from: Don Klipstein (

    The fraction of light entering the eye for a large diameter beam is pupil area divided by beam area.

    Assuming a pupil diameter of 1/4 inch (6.3 mm, rather dilated but not fully dark adapted which may approach 1 cm). The portion of the beam entering the eye would then be the square of (1/4)/(48), which is about 27 millionths of the total. Since the 4 foot diameter beam is not uniform but dimmer towards the edges, I would say the eye could get about 35 millionths of the beam near the center or 35 nanowatts (35 nW).

    Note that close to the laser, the pupil size is going to be larger than the beam diameter (which is typically less than 1 mm) and pupil size larger than this will not affect the maximum possible power entering the eye (though it will affect the probability of this occurring. (One suggested laser safety practice is to brightly illuminate the laser lab to make your pupils smaller. Even though there are times this will not reduce the severity of the worst case, a smaller target reduces likelihood of this happening.)

    However, where the beam diameter is equal to or larger than the pupil diameter, the difference in pupil diameter between bright and dark adapted eyes will be very significant - more than a 30-fold difference in power entering the eye for this analysis.

    I calculate that a 4 foot diameter 1 mW 632.8 nm beam appears about as bright as a 100 W bulb does 88 feet away.

    Although 35 nW is definitely eye-safe, it may look quite bright against pitch black surroundings especially when the eye is fully dark adapted (the pupil is wide open and the combined retinal/neural sensitivity is maximum as it is after awhile when out at night) and may quickly result in a noticeable afterimage. The effect is probably enhanced by the knowledge that the light source is a laser and thus potentially damaging to your eyesight.

    And, what would happen if the divergence of the laser in this example were reduced by a factor of 10 so that the beam was only about 5 inches in diameter? Then the laser at a distance of 1 mile would appear much much brighter than a 100 W bulb less than 1 foot away! The reason it will be much much brighter is that the laser will appear as a point source, while the light bulb at 1 foot will be a large area. Imagine a pin-point of light with same total optical power as the 100 W bulb.

    As a side note, the 1,710 lumen output of a typical 100 Watt incandescent bulb is about the same lumens as *10 Watts* of 632.8 nm light!

    Also see the section: How Much Light Does a 5 W Laser Really Produce?.

    Problems With Determining Safe Limits

    Since you likely did only receive the standard single (1) pair of eyeballs and replacement isn't yet feasible (or covered by major health insurance plans!), trying to figure out if your laser is a hazard to vision by staring into its beam is a really really bad idea. Many factors can result in it being way to late before you discover that your vision has been harmed.

    Note that even a wavelength considered eye-safe like 1,500 nm (1.5 µm) is only safe in the sense that this light won't penetrate to the back of the eye and be focused on the retina. A high enough power density can still obliterate the cornea and/or lens!

    (From: Paul Mathews (

    There are a variety of problems with doing experiments to determine safe levels of optical radiation incident on the eye. Here are some:

    1. Subjects are generally not aware of any retinal damage until they notice that parts of the visual field of one eye are blind. The visual system does a good job of providing us with the illusion of perfect vision, in spite of deficits. There is little or no pain in most instances.

    2. There are individual differences in tolerance.

    3. Absorption of energy varies with wavelength.

    4. The blink reflex comes into play for visible sources.
    If you're smart, you don't stare at the Sun, and you don't stare at other intense light sources - visible or not. If you are involved with the design of devices to illuminate the eye, consult the experts. Check out the Laser Institute of America for more info. See the section: Laser Safety Sites (May Also Include Other Laser Information) for additional safety related links.

    On-Line Laser Safety Calculator

    Laser Safety Training by Laser Professionals has a free Web program for calculating MPE, laser safety eye-wear OD, and other safety parameters based on the laser's characteristics. Click on "EASYHAZ". (Javascript must be enabled.)

  • Back to Laser Safety Sub-TOC.

    Safety Issues With Respect to Hobbyist Lasers

    Low, Medium, and High Power Lasers

    The most common types of lasers generally available to hobbyists - CD laser diodes, visible laser diodes, laser pointers, and small HeNe lasers, are all rated Class II or IIIa. See the section: Laser Safety Classifications. Class II lasers should be relatively low risk if even minimal precautions are taken. However, Class IIIa lasers must be taken much more seriously if the beam is well collimated - as it would be from a laser pointer or HeNe laser tube.

    When you graduate to higher power lasers (e.g., argon ion) rated Class IIIb or more, additional very real dangers are present of both instant damage to vision and with Class IV lasers - the possibility of burning or setting fire to flesh and other things. The smallest CO2 laser is going to be rated Class IV!

    Higher power diode lasers (above 5 mW) are becoming more readily available both as surplus or pulls from optical drives and high performance laser printers, and also at not totally unreasonable prices even new. Their small size may lead one to assume that a diode laser can't be dangerous. WRONG! A 100 mW laser diode operating on battery power can blow a hole in your retina as easily as a 100 mW argon ion laser consuming the same electrical power as a space heater! And, higher power laser diodes are more likely to be infra-red (IR) and invisible - and thus more dangerous because the aversion response won't work - you have no idea your vision is being destroyed until it's way too late! (CO2 lasers are also IR but the much longer wavelength will only vaporize the front of your eye since the beam is blocked by the cornea.)

    In addition to their vision hazards, gas lasers generally use high voltage or line connected power supplies so there is the added shock hazard resulting from touching or accidentally coming in contact with uninsulated connections. See the document: Safety Guidelines for High Voltage and/or Line Powered Equipment before working on any type of equipment which uses line voltage or produces high voltage. (With diode lasers, you can easily fry the laser diode but the low voltage power supplies don't generally pose much of a shock hazard.)

    Note that some of these 'small' lasers are only small in comparison to their higher power cousins and small doesn't equate to safe!

    Furthermore, you may come across a truly high power CO2 or argon ion laser, or even a 100 mW HeNe laser tube. These, rated at the upper end of Class IIIb or Class IV, represent even more significant risks of both instant permanent eye damage even from momentary reflections from shiny (specular) surfaces as well an actual fire hazard. The possibility of electrocution from their power supplies is correspondingly greater as well. You must handle them properly for your own safety and the safety of others around you and your surroundings.

    See the specific chapters on each of these types of lasers for additional hazards and precautions Note that other people in the area may actually be more likely to get caught by the beam. The reason? You will be aware of what NOT to look at while they will be looking in the direction of the action not having a clue of what to expect! Don't take chances.

    The following very large number is designed to impress: The power density of a 1 mW laser beam when focused to a spot of around 2 µm (which isn't difficult with a simple convex lens) is around 250,000,000 W per square meter! Don't let that spot be in the back of one of your own or someone else's eyeballs!

    Be extremely careful when working with any laser!

    (From: Mike Poulton (

    A 1 mW diode will probably not cause damage if you briefly look into it, but I wouldn't encourage you to try it. While it probably won't do anything bad, it is not good to become comfortable with the idea of checking the operation of lasers by looking into them. If you are a hobbyist who uses lasers quite a bit, there is a good chance you will, at some point, end up with an unmarked diode. It could emit any wavelength at any power level, and how bright the beam appears when you shine it on something has no bearing on the power level. Looking into an unmarked diode just because the beam is dim could (and probably will) have disastrous results. I have a 1 W 808 nm laser diode, and it appears much dimmer than a .5 mW 670nm beam when focused into a .2 mm spot. When focused in that way, it will easily engrave plastic and burn paper and wood (and skin). Just because it looks dim doesn't mean it won't instantly blind you.

    (From: Daniel P. B. Smith (

    Be aware that eye damage that is localized to a small area of the eye is not very noticeable. For example, few people ever notice the existence of the large blind spot where the optic nerve enters the eye even though it is rather huge (10 degrees or so) and not all that far from central vision. A laser wouldn't necessarily have to make you totally blind; it could just wipe out a teeny patch here and a teeny patch there. This kind of damage would be very insidious; each time you'd say "Wow! That was bright! lucky I didn't get blinded" - while slowly and cumulatively losing your sight...

    General Laser Safety Guidelines

    These guidelines are for your own protection and that of others around you. Lasers have a unique set of dangers not present with other equipment common at work or at home. And, yes, some of these guidelines even apply to those $9.95 laser pointers!

    Also see the additional comments below, and the more specific information on laser safety in each chapter for the specific laser(s) you will be using.

    Laser Pointer Safety

    There have been some recent articles (mainly in the UK) about eye injuries resulting from careless or malicious use of common laser pointers. In the U.S., there have been numerous news reports which would lead the average person to believe that the absolute end of civilization as we know it will result from the proliferation of these devices. Although the potential for eye injury is typically what comes to mind when one thinks of a laser, the possible side effects - or collateral damage - that may result from aiming one at somebody is at least as likely a cause for the current wave of hysteria.

    Keep in mind that what gets reported in the popular press is not exactly what you would call rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy. And, if it turns out that the outcome wasn't quite as reported originally, any correction for a front page story is usually to be found in fine print buried on page 17! Actual substantiated instances of long term or permanent effects on vision resulting from momentary or unintentional exposure to a laser pointer's beam - or even from prolonged intentional misuse - appear to be all but non-existent. Flash blindness IS possible, but this is temporary and will clear up on its own.

    The above applies where the laser pointer has been manufactured and tested to meet CDRH Class IIIa safely limits or below. Note that where these devices originate from countries with less rigorous quality control or where an internal current adjust pot can be twiddled or even if run at very cold temperatures where laser diode output power is greater, to risk of eye damage from intentional abuse, at least, may increase.

    With respect to direct personal danger, potential damage to vision is the only real consideration - there is no risk from radiation or enough power in a beam of less than 5 mW to burn anything. However, from a public policy and regulatory perspective, there are actually three areas of concern:

    1. Flash blindness from momentary exposure or permanent damage to vision from prolonged intentional misuse. Laser pointers are usually rated Class IIIa or less which means that the power is low enough that the eye should be protected from permanent damage by natural pupil contraction, blink, and aversion reflexes.

    2. Distraction and collateral damage - you wreck your car because someone pointed a laser pointer at you while you were driving.

    3. Misinterpretation of intent - you get blown away by someone with a BIG gun who thinks you are targeting them with a laser sight. Or, you are arrested and thrown in the slammer for aiming a laser pointer at a cop (this happened recently).

    I am in favor of tough laws to make (2) and (3) crimes and require at least full restitution (maybe even 2X or 3X) for any resulting damages in addition to disciplinary action or jail time. Such behavior should not be tolerated. However, in the remainder of this section, I only really want to address the vision issues (1).

    While I absolutely agree that intentionally aiming a laser of any kind into someone's eye is basically stupid (unless you are having laser eye surgery), one must be careful in interpreting the meaning of press reports that describe momentary exposure to the beam from a laser pointer waved around an auditorium resulting in instant total loss of vision in all three eyes. One would have to direct the beam into the pupil of the eye from a close distance for a few seconds or more without either the eye or pointer moving, twitching, or blinking. Distance is significant both because even laser pointer beams diverge (especially cheap ones) so less energy is able to enter the pupil of the eye as the source moves further away and it is harder/less likely for it to remain stationary and centered on such a target a few mm across. This is not really possible by accident and even takes significant effort to do intentionally since the eye's natural pupil contraction, blink, and aversion reflexes will prevent the beam from focusing on a single spot on the retina with a sufficient concentration of energy for more than an instant - not enough time for damage to result. There would have to be cooperation which can only really happen in a game of chicken - but it is hard to protect people from their own stupidity. This does mean, however, as if it isn't already obvious, that laser pointers should be kept from infants - period, and away from children unless adequately supervised. Adults, on the other hand, presumably know not to stare into painfully bright lights and some may even read the warning labels!

    Though momentary exposure may indeed result in temporary flash blindness, disorientation, multiple afterimages, and a headache, such effects, while not to be minimized in importance, should not be permanent. And, as the distance between the eye and the pointer increases, their severity and duration diminishes greatly. To suggest any long term eye injury from a pointer's beam originating on the other side of a football stadium is simply not plausible.

    In fact, despite the great amount of press coverage lately - and such reports resulting in the passage of laws in some places banning laser pointer sales to minors (or to anyone), there are very few if any confirmed reports of permanent vision damage attributable to these things. The irresponsible aiming of a laser pointer at a person that might result in tragic consequences from distraction or misinterpretation of intent is far more likely to be a problem in today's world - and justifiably so.

    Laser pointer manufacturers and resellers make all sorts of claims about power levels and there may be deliberate (power is, after all, a major feature) or unintended (due to poor quality control) sale of devices with power even beyond the approved safety limits and these could indeed be much more dangerous. However, simply enforcing existing regulations could go a long way toward reducing this possibility. But, of course, the prices would likely go up if more sophisticated laser power control circuitry were required and every unit had to be more fully tested, adjusted, and certified to be compliant.

    To further minimize the chance of vision damage, I think a maximum power limit of 1 mW would be more than adequate for most purposes with the newer 635 nm pointers. These appear 5 to 7 times brighter than previous 670 nm models and green laser pointers which are now available at affordable prices - under $50 - will appear even brighter by another factor of 5 or so. Staring into the noonday Sun would result in the same order of magnitude of power focused on the retina as a 1 mW laser pointer against your eyeball and we don't even bother to regulate THAT! :)

    Don't get me wrong - I am definitely NOT recommending that laser pointers be treated as toys and handed out to all the neighborhood kids as party favors. They can still be dangerous and at least a niusance even if eye injury isn't the primary risk. I fully agree that any use of such a device in a way that annoys other people or puts them at risk - even if it is a small risk - is valid grounds for confiscation and possible severe disciplinary action.

    For that matter, how come no one has banned butane lighters or matches? :-) They are cheaper, more readily available, and certainly result in more injury, death, and destruction in the hands of kids than laser pointers! Or, how about cigarettes.... Sorry, I will get off my soap box now....... No, I don't expect an answer. :-)

    Note that at the same actual output power - say 5 mW since this is the legal limit in the USA - there isn't all that much difference between red and green laser pointers. Since the green wavelength of 532 nm appears much brighter than even 635 nm red (the shortest wavelength from a red diode laser (and most red pointers are closer to 650 nm), you'll be more likely to look away faster with green than red. However, shorter wavelengths can focus to a smaller spot producing higher power density and the receptors in the eye may be more absorptive at the green wavelength.

    However, if pointers are compared without regard to actual output power, red pointers actually are incapable of producing much more than 5 mW no matter how hard you try. They will just die if an attempt is made to boost them much above 5 mW.

    But most green pointers that use constant current drivers can produce much more than 5 mW even if rated only 5 mW since turning up the current will increase power - possibly substantially. This may even happen by accident or from poor quality control at the factory - which is very common. Manufacturers are now switching over to constant (optical) power drivers and adding means to prevent tampering, so this will be less likely in the future.

    The following is a report that deals specifically with legal (5 mW) green laser pointers. (This is copyright by NEWSWIRE.)

    Green Laser Pointer Can Cause Eye Damage

    ROCHESTER, Minn., May 9 (AScribe Newswire) -- Mayo Clinic ophthalmologists have found commercially available Class 3A green laser pointers can cause visible harm to the eye's retina with exposures as short as 60 seconds. The findings will be published in the May issue of Archives of Ophthalmoloyg.

    Dennis Robertson, M.D., Mayo Clinic ophthalmologist, conducted investigations with a green laser pointer directed to the retina of a patient's eye; the eye was scheduled for removal because of a malignancy. The green laser damaged the pigment layer of the retina, although it did not cause a measurable decrease in the visual function of the patient's eye. Dr. Robertson believes that longer exposures could harm vision, however. He also warns about potential damage from higher-powered green laser pointers.

    "With the use of laser pointers that are more powerful than five milliwatts, there would likely be damage to the actual vision," he says. "Functional damage could occur within seconds."

    Dr. Robertson does not advocate against use of green laser pointers; rather, he advocates against their misuse. "Green laser pointers are not a public health hazard at this time, but something people should be aware of," he says. "I'm raising concerns that people should be cautious when using green laser pointers not to point them at someone's eye or face. It's like how you use your knife -- carefully."

    While pointing out risks of green laser pointers, he adds, "This is a potential hazard to people's eyes, but rarely is it going to be a practical hazard because the aversion reflex we have naturally will cause a person to blink or turn away from a laser light."

    Green laser pointers are readily available in stores and on the Internet, according to Dr. Robertson. "Kids can buy these," he says. "They're not strictly regulated."

    He adds that Class 3A green laser pointers are increasingly being used by amateur astronomers to pinpoint objects in the night sky and by the construction industry and architecture educators to point out details of structures in daylight.

    Dr. Robertson conducted the eye exposure test with a consenting patient two weeks before eye removal due to ring melanoma. The patient's vision was 20/20, and the macular retina appeared healthy.

    Dr. Robertson exposed the patient's retina to light from a commercially available Class 3A green laser with an average power measured at less than five milliwatts: 60 seconds to the fovea, the center of acute vision; five minutes to a site 5 degrees below the fovea; and 15 minutes to a site 5 degrees above the fovea.

    Dr. Robertson had color photographs taken of the eye before and after exposure to the laser.

    Dr. Robertson examined the patient's eye 24 hours after laser exposure. He found retinal damage characterized by yellowish discoloration involving the pigment layer beneath the fovea and at the site of the 15-minute exposure above the fovea. Each of these sites developed a grainy texture within six days. Study of the eye tissue under a microscope also confirmed damage to the pigment layer in the laser-exposed regions.

    Dr. Robertson has been interested in the effects of lights on the human eye during his career, testing operating room microscopes, lights used in the clinic, red laser pointers and now green laser pointers.

    Previously, he determined red laser pointers to be quite safe. "I tested different powers up to five milliwatts and could not create recognizable damage in the human eye with the red laser pointers," he explains. "So, at least a transient exposure to red laser pointers' light is only of trivial concern."

    Dr. Robertson attributes the risk differential between red and green lasers to wavelength. "We know that the retina is infinitely more sensitive to shorter wavelengths," he says. "The green lasers appear much brighter to the human eye because of the shorter wavelength and can cause damage."

    Dr. Robertson says Mayo Clinic's investigations have clearly demonstrated that green laser pointers can cause irreversible damage to the pigment layer of the retina.

    And for someone advocating a total ban (includes some useful links):

    Also see the other links in the section: Laser Safety Sites.

    (From: Gregory Makhov (

    As chair of the ILDA (International Laser Display Association) laser safety committee, I have been carefully following the thread on laser pointer safety (in the sci.optics newsgroup - search via Google Groups for the complete saga). I have seen most of the articles in the press on laser incidents/accidents in the UK. If you have a source of factual evidence concerning these 'injuries', I would greatly appreciate the information. My own experience with laser pointers would indicate that a level of 5 milliwatts and below is unlikely to cause injury unless self-inflicted and for a substantial duration (several seconds). I say self-inflicted, as it is unlikely that another person could direct the laser accurately into someone's eye at any significant range. Almost immediately after the initial exposure to the beam, the pupil shrinks to a very small size (a few millimeters) which is an awfully small target to illuminate from a distance of even a few meters.

    However, if there is any medical evidence of these injuries, and some documentation of how they occurred (laser power, range, duration, etc.) I am most interested.

    Barcode Scanner Safety

    The light source in a supermarket or other common barcode UPC (Universal Product Code) scanner is either a .5 to 2 mW HeNe laser (632.8 nm orange-red) or a 1 to 5 mW diode laser (most often around 670 nm, red). So, while the beam may appear bright, as long as it is scanning at all, there is no risk to vision or anything else. (The average power into your eyeball is probably less than 10 microwatts.) And, as with laser pointers, you would really have to go out of your way for there to be any possibility of damage even if the beam was stationary due to a failure of the scanner.

    You can tell the difference between the types of scanners by the color of the light. The beam of the diode laser based scanners will appear a much deeper red than that of a HeNe laser based unit. (If you are into lasers, this is one of the 'rites of passage' so to speak - to check out the local groceries and supermarkets!) Of course, the other way to tell is that if your store installed checkout scanners when the UPC was new technology, and hasn't upgraded since, they are almost certainly based on HeNe lasers. (Barcode scanners of all types, shapes, and sizes are often available from surplus outfits as well as on-line auctions like eBay. At the right price, they represent an excellent source of laser and optics related parts - even if you don't want to use the unit for their intended purpose.)

    How Does Wavelength Affect Laser Safety?

    Laser hazards and laser safety classifications depend on wavelength but not just because some colors are much more visible than others.

    For wavelengths within the visible spectrum and near IR where the cornea, lens, and vitreous of the eye are transparent, 1 mW is the same amount of power whether it is near IR, red, or green. There will be slight differences in damage threshold depending on wavelength (spot size on the retina, absorption) but green is really not more dangerous than red, mW per mW for a beam that reaches the back of the eye. Since green light at 555 nm *appears* about 30 times brighter than red light at 670 nm, the green laser may actually be slightly less of a hazard since you will likely respond to it faster (and, in the case of laser pointers in particular, a lower power unit may be adequate).

    Beyond the visible - IR and UV - there are other issues. UV laser light, like UV Sunlight can indeed have effects beyond just those due to the power density. Fortunately, there aren't likely to be UV any laser pointers any time soon even if there were a use for them (phosphorescent white boards?)! :-) Most other UV lasers (excimer, helium-cadmium, frequency quadrupled YAG, etc.) are not that common either (at least not that the typical hobbyist will acquire). However, should you consider building the nitrogen laser (among the easiest of home-built lasers), its output is at 337.1 nm which is near-UV (UV-A range).

    Near IR is perhaps the most dangerous since it progressively less visible the longer the wavelength starting at about 1/250th visibility compared to 555 nm and going down to 3E-14 visibility (estimated) at 1,064 nm. Yet, until well beyond this (maybe 1,500 nm), the light can still pass through the anterior structures of the eye to reach the retina and will focus reasonably sharply despite not being visible. There will be no blink or aversion reflex so damage can be done even for modest power lasers without any immediate symptoms. Only later, will the pretty patterns engraved on your retina(s) become evident (since your brain will initially tend to fill in and mask their effects). And, they won't go away - ever!

    At mid IR, the beam can still penetrate to the lens, heating it, which may produce a cataract. Far far IR such as the 10.6 µm (10,600 nm) from a carbon dioxide (CO2) laser is effectively absorbed and blocked by the cornea of the eye - and it can be damaged in a similar way. And, almost all CO2 lasers produce enough power (a few W to 10s of kW) that they are also hazardous with respect to burning things (including other types of flesh) as well as actually setting fires.

    The long and short of it is that there is a threshold of laser power that will be dangerous in various ways at ANY wavelength and no laser can be treated as totally safe until the detailed specifications of the laser and its optical system are known.

    Harmonic Generation and Laser Safety

    Many lasers generate outputs that are not the fundamental wavelength of the lasing medium such as Nd:YVO4 or Nd:YAG at 1,064 nm. The most common is 532 nm such as produced in green laser pointers. A non-linear crystal inside the laser cavity uses non-linear process called Second Harmonic Generation (SHG) to double the 1,064 nm to 532 nm. Other (usually scientific or industrial) lasers may use Third Harmonic Generation (THG) or Four Harmonic Generation (FHG), or some other process like sum or difference frequency mixing to produce other wavelengths.

    Unless your laser is set up for harmonic generation, there will be no higher frequency radiation in the beam. The only accidental source of harmonics that could pose a risk would be for the beam from a high peak power pulsed laser (most likely it would need to be Q-switched) to pass through a non-linear material that has good optical quality AND for the reflection from some surface downstream to hit you in the eye. Materials with both those properties do not occur naturally. Aiming the beam at common plastics, glasses, and crystals won't produce significant, if any, harmonics. Finding a household material that does so could be an important discovery. :)

    To be doubly sure, you can buy goggles that protect for both the fundamental and doubled outputs (e.g., 1,064 and 532 nm, harmonics above SHG would be virtually impossible.) But they will be darker than those for the fundamental along and thus less desirable. They are also more expensive. If you intend to experiment with SHG, etc., or acquire a such a laser, that could be a worthwhile investment.

    A great deal of laser safety is in good work practices (outlined elsewhere in this chapter). Goggles are just the last resort when everything else goes wrong. However, for pulsed lasers where the entire beam path isn't enclosed, they really are essential.

    Fluorescence and Laser Safety

    Fluorescence is a process whereby a high energy photon is absorbed by a material which then emits a photon at a lower energy. For example, aiming a green laser at a DayGlow(tm) sign or often those bright orange Fragile stickers on packages will result in a bright yellow glow at the point where the beam hits. The intensity may be 25 to 50 percent or more of the incident beam. However, fluorescence phenomena do not produce a beam, only a diffuse glow so there is generally no risk of eye injury from reflections of the fluorescence or even direct viewing unless the laser is extremely powerful (e.g., several watts or more).

    Caution About Depending on Neutral Density Filters for Protection

    (From: Don Klipstein (

    While thumbing through some gel filter sample packs, it has occurred to me that there are neutral density gel filters - and that they are not truly neutral. Both Gam and Rosco ones are somewhat neutral through to about 700 nm - and become more transparent as wavelength increases through the low and mid 700's. They are nearly transparant above about 750 nm.

    They also have a slight peak at 380 nm, where they are a bit more transparent than they are to visible light. Transmission at 380 can exceed the average visible transmission for darker grays.

    This is because these filters are made gray with some kludge of dyes rather than something truly neutral-density. They also do not equally attenuate all visible wavelengths; they have transmission peaks around 480 (greenish blue) and 600 (orange), and absorption peaks around 450 (mid-blue) and the mid 500's (yellowish green). Different brands may have some differences, as well as having some similarities. They probably have some but not all dyes in common.

    I do not know whether the infrared transparency is an unavoidable consequence of dying plastics/gels, or something intentional to reduce filter heating. I do know that the colored filter gels are also nearly transparent to most wavelengths from the upper 700's (sometimes low 700's) through probably at least around 1500 nm.

    Because of this, dark filter gel combinations are probably unsafe for directly viewing the sun, and are probably unsafe for attempting to protect eyes from infrared lasers.

    If you Insist on NOT Using Proper Eye-Wear

    I realize that no matter what is said, many people will not want to invest in laser safety goggles. OK, so be it. However, there are things you can do to minimize the chance of eye damage when working with Class IIIb lasers at least. (For Class IV lasers, you're on your own!) In either case, we won't be responsible for the consequences!

    Much, if not most, of being safe around lasers has to do with work habits. Laser safety goggles are only protection of last resort.

    Where none of these are possible - as with using green laser pointers to identify astronomical objects in the sky, all I can suggest is to take as many precautions as possible. Only use a pointer that has the normal momentary switch so it will go off instantly if dropped and make sure all the observers are aware of the dangers of Class IIIb lasers so they won't do anything stupid. Even a momentary exposure at the higher power levels often used in these activities - especially to dark adapted eyes - can result in permanent eye damage.

    Indirect Viewing of Lasers for Maximum Safety

    The safest way to view the beam or objects illuminated by a visible to near-IR laser is indirectly using a video camera (e.g., Web cam or camcorder) and monitor. There is no way the laser beam will sneak through the lens of the camera to hit you in the eye except by reflection! Modern video cameras using CCD or CMOS image sensors have a response from deep violet (and maybe near-UV) to near-IR out past 1,100 nm. This covers most of the lasers of interest to the experimenter and hobbyist except the CO2 laser. However, it will probably be necessary to remove a built-in IR blocking filter to get decent IR response. Note that the appearance on a color video monitor of IR well beyond the red-end of the spectrum - say 800 nm - will likely be white or even blue-white, not red as might be expected. This may be because the color filters used in the image sensor are dichroic coatings optimized for the visible spectrum and all three (RGB) have high transmittance in the IR.

    I have one of those $50 video cameras that are sold by various electronics distributors. This particular one is listed for IR and comes with 4 IR LEDs (IREDs) for illumination (which I removed). It works fine except that there is no way to defeat the automatic gain control so it gets confused with very bright sources like lasers. I have also been given a very nice digitally controlled color CCD camera. This has a Windows interface and provides full control of gain, offset, and other parameters. For low power lasers, this can be used without a lens viewing the beam diractly. Where there is a risk of damage to the CCD, the beam is projected on a screen.

    (From: Dave (

    I use a CCD video camera with the proper filters in line to balance the sensitivity to the laser lines (e.g., 808 nm pump, 1,064 nm IR beam, 532 nm green beam) and mount this outside of a cardboard box(helmet) with a 9" LCD flat-panel display mounted on the inside. With this contraption over my head I can see everything clearly and without any worry of eye damage and have both hands free. My first version was my autofocus digital camera in a box but the screen was too small for long duration work.

    Comments on Eye Protection for High Power Lasers

    (From: Paul M. Brinegar, II (

    I would have to say that proper eye protection is much more important than any laser component. This cannot be stressed enough. There have been some interesting demonstrations performed showing the effects of high optical power densities on meat (think lots of smoke and some flame). The ones I've seen on videotape were spectacular, and were more than enough to convince me that proper beam blocks and eye/body protection are mandatory.

    When in doubt, be overly safe.

    You should have enough pairs of laser goggles for everyone in your laser lab! After all, what's the fun of a laser if you can't show it off to your friends? ;)

    Now, about the ratings of goggles in terms of optical density.

    Optical densities are reasonably easy to understand. To determine the fraction of optical power transmitted through a material of optical density D, divide 1 by 10 raised to the D power. Or, if D is an integer, just write a zero followed by a decimal point, followed by D-1 more zeros, followed by a 1. This is the fractional transmittance of the material. Multiply by 100 if you want a percentage.

    For our O.D. 5+ goggles above, this means that less than 1/100,000 of the incident power will pass through the goggles, the remainder either being reflected or absorbed. For a 100 Watt laser with a 1 square centimeter beam (power density 100 W/cm2), the transmitted power density should be 0.001 W/cm2 (or 1 milliwatt per square centimeter). I have to locate my safety sheets to see what the exposure limit is for eyes and skin under a 1 mW/cm2 beam at 10.6 microns. I suspect it is eye and skin safe, but without a good reference, I'm not betting my body parts on it. ;)

    Keep in mind that the O.D. is rated AT A SPECIFIC WAVELENGTH OR RANGE OF WAVELENGTHS! Deviations from this wavelength will results in completely different O.D. values. If the goggles use some type of interference coatings, then at some wavelengths the coatings may have an effective O.D. of ZERO, meaning they are completely transmissive. Don't expect CO2 goggles to protect you from an argon laser beam.

    When Laser Safety Goggles may be a Bad Thing

    By now, the following should be intuitively obvious but it never hurts to retate it. While the use of laser safety goggles is highly recommended in most situations when dealing with lasers, it is possible for them to do more harm than good. This would be the case:

    Realistically, if all you will ever be working with are visible lasers of Class II or less, the use of laser safety goggles may be excessive. However, by wearing goggles and treating even that low power beam with respect, you will develop habits that would help to protect you (given the conditions, above) should you graduate to higher power lasers. Just as the recommendation in some laser safety classes to treat every laser beam - even one from a laser pointers - like it will slice cleanly through you and never let a laser beam intersect with any part of your anatomy (see the next section and the one that follows), making laser safety eye-wear part of your routine can be a vision saver when dealing with a 100 W YAG instead of 1 mW HeNe!

    More on Laser Safety Precautions

    There is a nice article in the March, 2005 issue of Photonics Spectra describing 5 incidents where carelessness around high power lasers, some of which resulted in permanent serious vision loss to scientists who should have known better.

    (From: Richard Alexander (

    During the 1st Trimester of the laser program, long before the student is allowed near so much as a HeNe laser, the students are shown "the monkey film." This is one of the films that would drive PETA nuts. All you see is this eyeball, which we are told belongs to a monkey that is strapped down and anesthetized. We are told that an IR beam of a certain power has been turned on, and is striking the eyeball. After an eternity (a second or 2), a small spot appears on the bottom of the eyeball. Then, the spot rapidly expands, forming an ulcer that covers much of the bottom of the monkey's eye. I don't know if that was in slow motion or not.

    We also read accident reports from the field. There was a technician who was working on an extremely powerful laser. He had removed his eye protection, and walked across the room. There was a weak stray specular reflection that struck one of his eyes, immediately causing permanent damage to that eye. He did not lose all of his sight in the eye, but he did lose part of his field of vision.

    From the first time that the laser students operate a HeNe laser, they are required to treat the beam as lethal. Under no circumstances are they permitted to break any beam of any power with any part of their body. Our little HeNe beams could not cause damage to skin, but we had to act as if they would cut off our arms. The student is also responsible to ensure that he knows where all the parts of the beam go, and to block the beam appropriately.

    The HeNe laser labs had curtains across the doorways, which we closed before beginning experiments. The Argon Ion and Nd:YAG labs had solid doors, and there were sensors in the doors that would cut off the power to the lasers if the door were opened. There was also a red warning light that was to be turned on when the laser was in operation.

    Comments on the Effects of Various Power Lasers

    (From: Steve Quest (

    Normally in the laser show world, you deal with eye injury, lasers up to about 5 watts or so, typically only a few hundred mW though. A few hundred mW on your skin simply "looks cool", while 30 watts will quickly blow a hole right through your whole hand and out the other side! The worst thing about this is it is absolutely painless. Not black burned skin, but white ablated skin. Blows a hole right through, not even smoke is left behind. You don't feel the pain from such an injury for many minutes AFTER, then it's excruciating! I won't even go into what would happen if you took 30 watts into the eye directly. Also, most of us have seen bright laser spots on white surfaces (projection screens) up close, and know how "blindingly bright" they are, but also that the plain-air beams are invisible. Imagine a laser where the plain-air beams hurt the eye to look at! :) The spot on a surface is so bright as to light a room up as though it was bright sunlight (in green) given that the spot was expanded to around 30 mm so as not to burn a hole in the surface.

    Accidents Can Happen

    (From: Someone who wishes to remain anonymous).)

    Several years ago there was a long thread on the USENET newsgroup rec.guns where people posted their stories about all the accidents or near accidents they had experienced with firearms. These were all seemingly intelligent people like computer programmers and scientists and engineers. Still, while dealing with a simple device with only a few knobs, they managed somehow, sooner or later, and while trying to obey all the safety rules, to blast a hole in something or someone. This was very educational reading.

    There was a really good story recently posted on sci.optics. Some guy was working with a laser, and then took off his goggles blowing out some of his eye. Dumb. Then, rather than realizing that the goggles don't work if they are not worn, he decided that he just wouldn't wear them at all, and he would Be Real Careful. This is called "People Who Don't Learn From Their Mistakes". Let's hope he doesn't take up firearms.

    When you have goggles on (assuming that they are the right kind, and you should make damn sure they are), you have very good protection against loss of vision. When you take them off, you don't. A movement of a mirror, lens, or baffle can cause a specular reflection, total internal reflection, or refraction right into your eye. This isn't something to anticipate -- that's why it is called an accident. Even with all the appropriate precautions, accidents can still happen.

    Imagine that you are working with the laser off, aligning some mirror, no goggles, and you spill your coffee over the on-off switch to the laser power. Oops. Collect insurance.

    Laser Safety and Aviation

    This is the first draft of a section on this topic. I welcome comments and additions/corrections.

    If you are a laser user, there is only one rule: Under no circumstances should ANY laser be pointed in a direction that might intercept any aircraft. Period. For research purposes and laser shows, there will be specific protocols to follow such that any laser beams shot skyward will not come anywhere near planes.

    If you are a pilot, the recent news reports of incidents supposedly involving lasers pointed at commercial airplanes from the ground must be of concern. But how to sort the facts from the hype and exaggerations?

    For the following, a fixed wing airplane is assumed. Helicopters, balloons, and other types of aircraft that can hover or travel slowly do make more inviting targets since the aiming is easier and the beam could be maintained in the cockpit area longer. However, most of the Press has been with respect to commercial airplanes - so far. And, the hover or slow movement works both ways - they can more easily spot the origin of any laser beams and report the location to the authorities.

    For the time being, only continuous wave (CW) lasers will be addressed. These are by far the type most likely to be involved in these incidents. Some green laser pointers are quasi-CW - they typically produce a beam that's chopped at a rate from 500 to 5,000 Hz - but don't generate the high peak power of true pulsed lasers. Thus, the information still applies to them.

    There are many variables to consider when separating fact from fiction. These include:

    There are three types of effects that need to be considered:

    Protection for pilots:

    Since the majority of incidents are likely to involve green lasers, and green laser pointers specifically, having goggles available with a narrow band filter response providing high attenuation at 532 nm would provide excellent protection with virtually no effect on color vision. It should also be possible to add filtering for IR and UV wavelengths with minimal effect on percent of light transmission. Such goggles would protect both from annoying laser flashes as well as much less likely higher power lasers that have the potential for permanent injury.

    While this doesn't address other visible wavelengths, the most common ones would be various red wavelengths from 630 to 680 nm. Laser pointers in this range of wavelengths are limited to 5 mW by law, but more importantly, not much more than this by the technology. Unlike green pointers that can relatively easily be boosted in power, sometimes by just turning a pot inside, the laser diodes in red pointers just die if pushed much above 5 mW. Although it's possible to replace the 5 mW diodes with higher power ones - up to more than 100 mW are now available - this requires a significant level of skill. While medium power red lasers are available, they are not common and most are not portable.

    As has been noted above, protection for far-IR (beyond a few µm) is provided automatically by the glass or plastic of the cockpit windows.


    The important thing is not to become paranoid. Figure the odds: How many takeoffs and landings are there in the USA, the World, each day? How many incidents have been reported? Why would someone want to target your plane? If that's not enough reassurance, get yourself a set of of high quality multiwavelength laser safety goggles as noted above. It's a small investment. You don't have to wear the goggles all the time, just keep them at hand - it's very likely there would be some warning of someone attempting to target your plane. The googles should deal with 99.9 percent of the lasers likely to be used.

    Sure, you can worry about high power IR lasers or laser weapons. It's more likely you will suck a goose into the engine intake. You can also get squashed by a bus walking across the street, and that's really a lot more likely than getting hit in the eye by a laser while flying!

    (From: L. Michael Roberts (

    Patrick Murphy, who was very involved in the discussions which led to the current regulations regarding outdoor laser shows, posted the following:

    June 2004 FAA simulator study: The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach at The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach

    The FAA study addresses points including whether having a brief flash-like exposure is not harmful compared with a full-on, steady illumination. Also, whether pilots really can be temporarily flash-blinded by light levels 10 to 100 times below what we think of as flash-blinding levels.

    For those who want to skip the details, here's a summary:

    Even a single, 1-second-long exposure at a very low light level (one-half microwatt per cm2.) can have a moderately negative effect on pilots' ability to operate the aircraft during final approach. At this level, which is 5000 times lower than the Class IIIa limit of 2.5 mW per cm2, 18% of the pilots felt they had been flash-blinded, and 13% reported afterimages. At ten times this level, a still-low 5 microwatts per cm2, 21% of the pilots had actual or potential aborted landings.

    The study is not perfect but it is the best data available. It demonstrates that pilots do feel their landings are disrupted by light levels that laserists would normally think of as acceptable because they are so short (just 1 second) and so low (50 to 5000 times lower than Class IIIa exposure limits). The subjective experience of laserists, that a particular light level is reasonable, may not be the same for all people -- and especially not for pilots who are concentrating on landing a commercial airliner.

  • Back to Laser Safety Sub-TOC.

    Laser Safety Classifications

    A Smorgasbord of Acronyms

    There are ANSI, OSHA, FDA (CDRH), NRPB, and military standards. The CDRH (Center for Devices and Radiological Health is part of the Food and Drug Administration and is the most relevant regulatory organization in the USA for commercial and scientific lasers. The complete CDRH document may be found at: Performance Standard for Light Emitting Products.

    As of Summer 2007, there is an updated "ANSI Z136.1 (2007) Safe Use of Lasers" which among other things substitutes Class 3R for Class 3A, add Classes 1M and 2M, changes some of the control measures and terminology, and more. Nothing earth shattering though. I have not yet seen a full copy. However, there is a summary article in the June 2007 Photonics Spectra magazine. And a narrated slide show of the changes can be found in the Laser Institute of America ANSI Z.136.1 Presentation. However, without details or access to the full document, it's an excellent cure for insomnia at best. :)

    The best discussion of the various classifications, plus general treatment of the topic, is a book by Sliney and Wolbarsht, "Safety with Lasers and Other Optical Sources", Plenum Press, New York. While they will agree with each other in most respects, some differences will result in a particular laser changing classes depending on which standard is used. The major criteria are summarized below.

    Note: I may use Class 1 and Class I, Class 2 and Class II, Class 3 and Class III, and Class 4 and Class IV interchangeably. They are equivalent.

    The following is based on material from the University of Waterloo - Laser Safety Manual.

    All lasers are classified by the manufacturer and labelled with the appropriate warning labels. Any modification of an existing laser or an unclassified laser must be classified by the Laser Safety Officer prior to use. The following criteria are used to classify lasers:

    1. Wavelength. If the laser is designed to emit multiple wavelengths the classification is based on the most hazardous wavelength.

    2. For continuous wave (CW) or repetitively pulsed lasers the average power output (Watts) and limiting exposure time inherent in the design are considered.

    3. For pulsed lasers the total energy per pulse (joule), pulse duration, pulse repetition frequency and emergent beam radiant exposure are considered.

    Lasers are generally classified and controlled according to the following criteria:

    Here is another description, paraphrased from the CORD course: "Intro to Lasers". (Cord Communications. Lasers.) It relates the laser classifications to common laser types and power levels:

    The classifications depend on the wavelength of the light as well and as noted, there may be additional considerations for each class depending on which agency is making the rules. For example, the NRPB (British) adds a requirement for Class IIIa that the power density for a visible laser not exceed 25 W/m2 which would thus bump some laser pointers with tightly focused beams from Class IIIa to Class IIIb. For more information on laser pointer safety and the NRPB classifications, see the NRPB Laser Pointer Article.

    In the US, start with the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). See the section: Regulations for Manufacturers of Lasers and Laser Based Equipment for more info on how to find the relevant guidance documents.

    For additional information on laser safety and laser safety classifications, see the section: Laser Safety Sites (May Also Include Other Laser Information).

    Here is a table of the CDRH classification and labeling requirements for commercial laser products:

      Class   Max Power (mW)       Logotype             Warning Label Text
        I       <,= 0.39         None Required          None Required
       IIa    > 0.39 to 1.0      None Required          None Required
                             (Exposures < 1,000 s)
       II        <,= 1              CAUTION             Laser Radiation - Do not
                                                         stare into beam
      IIIa       <,= 5              CAUTION             Laser Radiation - Do Not
                             (Irradiance < 2.5 mW/cm2)    Stare into Beam or
                                                         View Directly with
                                                         Optical Instruments
                                    CAUTION             Laser Radiation - Avoid
                            (Irradiance >,= 2.5 mW/cm2)  Direct Eye Exposure
      IIIb      <,= 500             DANGER              Laser Radiation - Avoid
                                                         Direct Exposure to Beam
       IV        > 500              DANGER              Laser Radiation - Avoid
                                                         Eye or Skin Exposure to

    Here are some excerpts from the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) regulation 21 CFR 1040.10 and 21 CFR 1040.11, the standard classification for lasers are as follows with some additional comments by Wes Ellison (

    Sometimes, you will come across a laser subassembly that has a sticker reading something like: "Does not Comply with 21 CFR". All this means is that since the laser was mounted inside another piece of equipment and would not normally be exposed except during servicing, it does not meet all the safety requirements for a laser of its CDRH classification such as electrical interlocks, turn-on delay, or beam shutter. This label doesn't mean it is any more dangerous than another laser with similar specifications as long as proper precautions are taken - such as adding the missing features if using the laser for some other purpose!

    (From: Johannes Swartling (

    It is not the laser in itself that is given a class number, but the whole system. A system which is built around a very powerful laser can still be specified as Class I, if there is no risk of injury when operating the system under normal conditions. For example, CD players are of class I, but the (IR) laser diode may in itself be powerful enough to harm the eye. CD players are designed so that the laser light won't escape the casing.

    When it comes to laser safety and exposure levels the regulations are fairly complicated and I will not go into details. Basically, there are tables with 'safe' levels of exposures. The exposure has to be calculated in a certain way which is unique to each case, depending on among other things: laser power, divergence, distance, wavelength, pulse duration, peak power, and exposure time.. Although it is true that near infrared lasers are potentially more dangerous than visible because you can't see the radiation, it is incorrect to say that it must be, say, Class III. The level of exposure may be so low that it can be a Class I (note that Class II lasers are always visible though, so infrared lasers are either of Class I or Class III or higher).

    (From: John Hansknecht (

    OSHA STD-01-05-001 - PUB 8-1.7 - Guidelines for Laser Safety and Hazard Assessment is an "open source" release of the ANSI Z136.1-1986 standard. It is not as up to date as the present ANSI standard (ANSI Z136.1-2009), but it's close. The ANSI standard is considered to be the authoritative guide for safe work practices and would be a better source than a University safety manual. The key point to understand is if a laser accident ever occurs and a lawsuit ensues, the lawyers will be checking to see if the facility was following the "recognized best work practices".

    Laser Safety Systems LLC, a supplier of laser safety products, has a good intro page for anyone serious about becoming ANSI compliant at A Practical Guide to Laser Class 4 Entryway Control Requirements.

    Hobbyist Projects and Laser Safety Classifications

    While many of the partial circuits and complete schematics in this document can and have been used in commercial laser products, important safety equipment has generally been omitted to simplify their presentation. These range from simple warning labels for low power lasers (Class I, II, IIIa) to keyswitch and case interlocks, beam-on indicators, and other electrical and mechanical safety devices for higher power lasers. Laser safety is taken very seriously by the regulatory agencies. Each classification has its own set of requirements.

    The following brief summary is just meant to be a guide for personal projects and experimentation (non-commercial use) - the specifics for each laser class may be even more stringent:

    Aside from their essential safety function, laser warning or danger stickers DO add something in the professional and high-tech appearance department. Companies selling laser accessories will likely offer genuine CDRH approved stickers. If you are selling any laser based equipment, you'll need them (and a lot more). For hobbyist, some semi-standard unofficial samples can be found in the next section.

    Laser Safety Labels and Signs

    I have prepared some sample labels for a variety of common lasers. With minor modifications, these can be customized for your laser or lasers!

    Note: I don't claim that these signs will meet CDRH guidelines in terms of type font or style - though there doesn't seem to be any real standard that is evident looking at commercial laser products!

    Edit the labels for your specific laser if necessary. If your equipment is just a laser and not something containing a laser, remove the word 'product'. These were created with MSPAINT. I like to use LVIEWP for format conversion (e.g., .gif->.bmp and vice-versa), filtering, and other simple processing of graphics and pictures. (The version of LVIEWP I used is shareware but may no longer be available from the major download sites. There is now a much expanded commercial product which I haven't tested.) The font is: Arial Bold. Each of the labels is about 800 x 525 pixels. The result will be about 1.33" x 0.87" on a 600 dpi color printer or 2.66" x 1.74" on a 300 dpi printer. To use a 300 dpi printer to produce the same size labels, processing the image with a 2x2 averaging filter and then subsampling (resizing or scaling) by 2:1 works fairly well.

    The following is a generic label to put near your output aperture:

    And for anyone building their own power supplies or complete lasers, here are some high voltage danger labels that can be edited for your needs:

    Here are two other Web sites which have a variety of sample laser safety labels, and laser and other related warning signs:

    Many laser companies and some laser organizations sell laser warning, danger, and aperture signs. One example is: Laser Institute of America. They sell a number different types of laser safety warning signs in their on-line store.

    Coherent, Inc. currently has an offer of free personalized Class IV laser danger signs if you just go to their Danger Sign Request Page and fill out the form. (If this link doesn't work, go to Coherent's homepage, "Products", "Lasers", and there should be a link from there.) It is certainly worth taking advantage of this offer but please don't abuse the privilege by requesting too many! I requested one and it arrived in about 6 weeks - a most spiffy 8" x 11" plastic laminated card and the perfect addition to any laser lab!

    Or, if you really want people to get the point, try Big Scary Laser Warning Sign. Given the graphic, you might want to edit it to read something like: "Do Not Allow Laser Beam to Contact Remaining Intact Parts of Body". :)

    Regulations for Private Ownership, Transfer, or Sale of Lasers and Laser Based Equipment

    (From: Steve Roberts (

    I'm not a lawyer, but this is what I have learned in doing laser shows for quite a while.

    Please don't give the legislators ideas. Sales of lasers are unregulated except for medical and laser show systems, and a few systems under export controls. For all other systems, you just have to register as a manufacturer if you're making them for public sales and submit your product for compliance, and maintain records of who it was initially sold to in case there is a need for a recall. Nothing now on the federal books prohibits sale unless it is:

    If it's manufactured in the USA and domestically certified laser of any class, you can own it no matter what. The violation occurs if you do a public display or show with it, regardless if for profit or not, and it exceeds Class IIIa. I can legally buy a megawatt laser if it's off the shelf technology and other then the manufacturer having to have the initial customer's name for recalls and modifications required to meet safety specs, no further paperwork is required, except in 4 states that require registration - Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. If I'm not in one of these states, I can then sell my megawatt laser to anyone, even a underage kid. I dont have to notify anybody either. I can toss it into the trash or disassemble it. I can build all the prototypes I want as well, provided I do not put them into commercial sale. The manufacturer will sell me a laser with all the CDRH requirements met, what I do with it after that point is my business, as long as I do not resell it as a commercial product.

    If someone wants to send his prototype laser to the USA, he can do it legally provided: (1) the receiver and he fill out a bonding document that says its not compliant, coming in for test, be held by the receiver as if it were under customs bond, tested by the receiver, then it is leaving to go back where it came. It will be tracked by Customs and CDRH and fees may need to be paid. It may not be used as a public display device during this period. It's here for technical test and evaluation, period!

    Or he may simply register as a manufacturer, file the paperwork certifying he's built the unit to 21 CFR 1040 (CFR = code of federal regulations) compliance specs, then assign it a serial number, keep the required records and sell it as a laser product. It takes about 3 to 6 months for the paperwork, but actually just costs the postage to get the forms and send in the documents. He can then sell as many as he likes, provided he does the documentation. If after introduction to sale, it is inspected and a fault is found, then he needs to declare his customer list and provide a scheme to modify it, retrofit it, or recall it. The paperwork isn't that bad, it just takes a bit of time for a tiny overworked federal agency to do its duties. Once you get a compliance or registration number based on your documentation proving you meet the rules, you can start selling.

    If you already have a unit that has a compliance or registration number, you're fine. All other units are supposed to have a OEM sticker on them, saying its intended for use in a approved application device only. Possession of those for private experiments is not a issue.

    When you sell a used unit or advertise it for sale, you are required to include a copy of the warning sticker in your brochure or Web site, even for class I or class II lasers, and warn the potential buyer of its hazards in writing, and include any manuals or other safety related gear that was manufactured for that laser.

    You're also supposed to inspect your units for CDRH compliance at least once a year or when you buy it, and correct any problems you find, but you don't have to report doing that.

    So basically no rules about anything that is not medical, military or foreign.

    NOW, where the crap hits the fan is at the state level. New York records the serial number of all lasers and requires licensed operators, transferring a laser in NY above class II to another citizen of NY without reregistering the unit is an offense. Transporting a laser through NY or selling it out of state from NY is not however a offense. Texas and Arizona have user fees to pay for their states radiologic safety programs, etc. I'm told by a friend that AZs fees are quite steep, on the order of $1,500 a year for large industrial lasers and that AZ inspects laser shows rather thoroughly. Other states may vary, but generally unless they have made misuse of pointers a issue, there are no worries except in NY and AZ. Possession is not illegal and they don't deny permits to register in those states. However, they may disqualify a person who fails to pass the test.

    As far as the national fire code goes, there is one line in the code requiring a evaluation of the system so the beam doesn't terminate on anything that could cause a building fire.

    I'm sure a few other states have rules, but most don't, and law enforcement types have much better things to do with their time unless its medical and misused or malfunctioning, misused as a weapon or in a unsafe manner in public or the workplace, used in a outdoor laser show going into airspace, or exported to a foreign country where it would enhance their military or technology programs.

    In all fairness, New York's licensing system includes one heck of a safety program, including retinal photos of high power laser operators as part of an ongoing safety study. I doubt they care about what you do in your basement, provided you're the only one who can be exposed to laser energy.

    As long as you don't use the laser for public displays or shows, put it where the general public can access more then the Class I exposure limits, don't do anything that risks illuminating an aircraft or other vehicle and don't practice medicine (including general surgery and dentistry!) with it, the sky is the limit. You can legally use some Class II lasers and some Class IIIa lasers in public, as long as you comply with the safety instructions that came with the device. This is for the US. However, if you wish to do laser shows, other rules apply. See the sections starting with: Some Basic Info on Light Show Lasers for more info.

    So have fun and don't worry, unless your aiming it outside or doing public laser shows or playing doctor or are exporting.

    Regulations for Manufacturers of Lasers and Laser Based Equipment

    Where you plan to offer a product commercially, there are very specific requirements - and equally severe penalties for non-compliance!

    (From: Steve Roberts (

    "CDRH has fangs and will use them. I have a friend who sold helium-neon laser power supply kits without stickers, certification, and registering. His legal bills alone were $8,000, not to mention the hefty fine his company paid."

    CDRH will gladly send out a complete copy of the guidelines for manufacturing laser systems free of charge if you request it. Ask them to throw in the laser show stuff as it makes even more interesting reading. The hardcopy from CDRH will include the exposure tables and how to calculate MPEs, etc. It's free to all US citizens and probably free to overseas corporations as well.

    Many if not all of these documents are now available on-line (although some are just the scanned paper documents in .pdf format). Go to the CDRH Guidance on Electronic Products which Emit Radiation page. This has all the categories of radiation emitting devices and some of the detours may prove interesting. If you have enough discipline to ignore them, click on "Lasers, Including Light Shows" which takes you to the Laser Products, Including Laser Light Shows and Displays page with its list of available documents. The one you probably want to begin with is: Performance Standards for Light Emitting Products. This includes the always very popular detailed information on laser classifiactions! :) Various forms can be found at the FDA Forms Distribution Page for CDRH along with a contact for each - in most cases an actual person (yes, a real living human being!).

    For a more interactive experience, spend an afternoon (more or less) starting at the CDRH Device Advice page. According to their blurb: "Device Advice is set up with pages that describe these procedures and link you to the appropriate documents on the CDRH Homepage such as guidance documents, databases, and manuals that will both assist in meeting marketing requirements and answer many questions you may have."

    Also see the other laser safety links in the chapter: Laser Information Resources of this document.

    CDRH Clarification of CDRH Regulations

    Here are some answers from CDRH to common questions about laser safety regulations, particularly with respect to public laser shows and classroom demonstration. However, although these may be thought of being from the horse's mouth, you should take them with a grain of laser crystal. In the end, verbal statements aren't going to hold much weight and you may indeed be held responsible should the information turn out not to be entirely accurate.

    (The following was first posted to the USENET newsgroup: alt.lasers.)

    (From: Adam Burns (

    Disclaimer: Long-winded post follows. I do not work for the CDRH. I have no hidden agenda to either praise or pan the government. I am not a laser expert. Do not read post while operating heavy machinery. Not intended for children under the age of 3. no deposit, no return.

    With all the discussion about CDRH rules concerning lasers in schools, laser shows for demonstration purposes, etc., I decided to try calling the CDRH directly. (Insert ominous music here!) I called 1-800-638-2041 and got transferred to Walter Snefko at extension 120. Unfortunately, he was unclear on several of my questions, and admitted that the real laser device gurus were only reachable by dialing the non-toll-free number. (Figures!)

    So with no concern for daytime long distance rates I took his suggestion and dialed 1-240-276-0120. Having been primed with information from Walter, I then asked for Jerry Dennis at extension 135. Jerry was available, and was *AMAZINGLY* helpful. We spoke for about 15 minutes, and he encouraged me to call again if I had further questions. He also said that two others in the office, Dale Smith (extension 147) and Frank Mackson (extension 145) were even more familiar with CDRH rules as they applied to laser shows. He said that Dale Smith, in particular, was a very valuable resource.

    OK, here's what I asked:

    1. Question: If a laser show has less than 5 mW output power, do you have to have a variance? (I know, we've talked about it here before, but since I was at the horse's mouth already it seemed a good time to ask!)

      Answer: No. If you are under 5 mW you do NOT need a variance and you can do whatever you want. (This was correctly pointed out by others here on alt.lasers before. I was really just warming up with this question.) However, he *DID* caution me to remember that 5 mW can still be an eye hazard. Basically he said to avoid sending static beams into the audience. I pressed him about scanned beams and the like, and he temporized. I gather that he knew that they really don't have jurisdiction here because of the power level, but he wanted to discourage blatantly stupid behavior nonetheless.

    2. Question: If a laser puts out more than 5 mw, but through the use of a beamsplitter, diffraction grating, filter, or other device the resulting beams that exit the projector are EACH less than 5 mw, is the show still considered "under 5 mw" and thus exempt from a variance?

      Answer: Yes. As long as the beams that exit the device (projector, housing, etc) are each less than 5 mw, and the beams are separated far enough apart such that it is not possible for multiple beams to enter the same pupil, then the entire device is exempt. Thus, you can have a 20 mw laser putting out, say, 8 beams from a diffraction grating, and as long as none of the beams are over 5 mw the entire setup is exempt.

      As an aside, he went into considerable detail as to how these beams would be measured for intensity. The basic standard is to use the standardized pupil diameter (listed in the CDRH main document - I forgot to write it down) and measure the power at a minimum distance of 20 centimeters (!) from the apparent source of the laser light. (i.e., the window on the projector housing, the aperture of the scan head, or the output coupler of the laser if the other two do not apply.) The pupil size used for the calculation changes if the environment is such that it would be likely that audience members would be using binoculars. Binoculars?!? I asked?: "Yeah, like in a large arena - folks typically bring a set to make it easier to see the stage." He floored me with that one, but it makes sense if you think about it.

    3. Question: How are laser demonstrations - especially in classrooms - handled? Are they subject to CDRH rules?

      Answer: No. The CDRH deals with commercial products only: either laser systems that are assembled to be sold to the public, or laser shows that are created (designed) to be "sold" as a "product" to an audience. Laser shows that are not part of a commercial endeavor are NOT subject to CDRH rules, no matter what power levels are involved. This was AMAZING to hear as it runs counter to just about everything I've read here and elsewhere, so I questioned Jerry at length about it.

    Basically, he said that there are white areas, black areas, and grey areas. The white would be what you do in your basement for you and your family, friends, or neighbors. This includes classrooms (see below). The black would be when you set up a show at a local auditorium and charge admission. The grey area is when you have a show that could be considered commercial in nature, even if you choose not to charge admission. Examples include doing a laser show for free at some other event, when it would normally be customary to pay to gain admittance to that event. However, he did make it clear that in order for the CDRH to have legal authority, the situation must involve COMMERCE of some sort. Thus, volunteering to show off your Class IV lasers in the church basement after the service is over (call it your Sunday afternoon laser club?) would be an exempted laser show.

    Displays in a classroom were one case that I specifically asked about. I asked about the case of a private citizen volunteering to do a display for the class, as well as the case of a teacher doing a demonstration for his class. In either case, because there is no commerce involved, the CDRH does not have jurisdiction and a variance is not required NO MATTER WHAT POWER LEVEL LASER IS USED.

    Now, before you start thinking that this is a gaping legal loophole, Jerry did inform me that there is an entirely different set of guidelines that are normally applied to classrooms.

    The American National Standards Institute has released a document dealing with what are considered acceptable practices for using lasers in school environments. The standard is ANSI Z 136.5, and evidently it is available from the Laser Institute of America for a nominal fee. (No, I haven't checked yet.) Nearly all college environments dealing with class 3B and Class IV lasers are expected to adhere to this standard according to Jerry.

    He also pointed out that compliance with the ANSI standard is not required by the CDRH. (Though it might well be required by the school district, as well as local or state laws dealing with lasers) It is simply an example of what a legal court of law would accept as a "reasonable standard of conduct" for the safe operation of a laser in a classroom environment. (Translation: if you do not follow the standard, no one from the CDRH will shut you down, fine you, or take you to jail, but if anyone ever gets hurt at your show and decides to sue you, they have a better chance of winning if you failed to follow the guidelines set down in the standard.) Short answer is that I'm going to at least have a look at that standard before I consider taking any of my lasers into a classroom.

    I have to admit that I was a bit concerned about calling the CDRH. I wondered if they would take the time to talk to an "enthusiast" that really didn't have much intention of ever going commercial. I was afraid I'd be accused of wasting their time. I was also a little afraid that they would read me the riot act for even asking some of these questions.

    What I found out is that the folks there are VERY helpful. I'm not kidding, this Jerry Dennis fellow sounds like a great guy! He took the time to answer my questions at great length, and always pointed out that even if certain circumstances were not under CDRH control it would still be foolish to ignore the safety precautions they promote. He really was easy to talk to, and was quite supportive of my hobby. Despite the fact that he was clearly used to speaking to engineers and Ph.D.s about laser physics, he was able to speak at my level about everything we talked about. He also had some good information about laser safety. (Hey, how about that? A government employee that actually gives great customer service!) I'll probably call him (or maybe Dale Smith) again in the future.

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