Section: 16 | Laser Hazards in the Laboratory |
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John R. Rumble, ed., CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 102nd Edition (Internet Version 2021), CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton, FL.
If a specific table is cited, use the format: "Physical Constants of Organic Compounds," in CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 102nd Edition (Internet Version 2021), John R. Rumble, ed., CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton, FL.

LASER HAZARDS IN THE LABORATORY

Thomas J. Bruno and Paris D. N. Svoronos

Lasers are commonly used in the laboratory, although in many instruments, most lasers are embedded in instrumentation and are therefore shielded or protected by optical barriers and interlocks that, when functioning properly, prevent accidental exposure. Care must be exercised when performing maintenance or when changing samples in such instruments. In this section we provide basic information on laser safety and hazards (Refs. 1 to 3). This is by no means exhaustive nor is it meant to substitute for an understanding of the specific safety requirements of instrumentation, or applicable law or regulations. The special case of common laser pointers has received considerable attention recently and is treated separately (Ref. 4). We note that as of 2007, the general practice in the United States is to use the IEC definitions.

References

  1. American National Standard for Safe Use of Lasers, American National Standards Institute, ANSI Z136.1, 2007
  2. Safety of Laser Products – Part 1: Equipment Classification and Requirements, International Electrotechnical Commission, IEC 60825-1, 2nd Ed., 2007.
  3. Bruno, T. J., and Svoronos, P. D. N., CRC Handbook of Basic Tables for Chemical Analysis, Third. Edition, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2011. [https://doi.org/10.1201/b10385]
  4. Hadler, J., and Dowell, M., Accurate, Inexpensive Testing of Laser Pointer Power for Safe Operation, Meas. Sci. Technol. 24, 1, 2013. [https://doi.org/10.1088/0957-0233/24/4/045202]

Classes of Lasers

The following is a summary for the laser classes following the ANSI guidelines used in the United States:

Class I

Class I lasers are inherently safe with no possibility of eye damage under conditions of normal use. The safety can result from a low output power (in which case eye damage is impossible even after prolonged exposure), or due to an enclosure preventing user access to the laser beam during normal operation, such as in CD players, laser printers, surveying transits, or measurement instruments.

Class II

The blink reflex of the human eye will prevent eye damage, unless the person deliberately stares into the beam for an extended period. Thus, a Class II laser can cause some eye damage if this is done. Output power may be up to 1 mW. This class includes only lasers that emit visible light. Some laser pointers are in this category.

Class IIIa

Lasers in this class are mostly dangerous in combination with certain optical instruments that change the beam diameter or power density. Output power does not exceed 5 mW. Beam power density may not exceed 2.5 mW cm-2. Many laser sights for firearms and some laser pointers are included in this category.

Class IIIb

Lasers in this class may cause damage if the beam enters the eye directly. This generally applies to lasers powered from 5 mW to 500 mW. Lasers in this category can cause permanent eye damage with exposures of 1/100th of a second or less depending on the strength of the laser. A diffuse reflection (on paper or from a matte surface) is generally not hazardous but a specular reflection from a highly reflective surface can be just as dangerous as direct exposure. Protective eyewear is recommended when direct beam viewing of Class IIIb lasers may occur. Lasers at the high power end of this class may also present a fire hazard and can lightly burn skin.

Class IV

Lasers in this class have output powers of more than 500 mW in the beam and may cause severe, permanent damage to eye or skin without being magnified by optics of eye or instrumentation. Diffuse reflections of the laser beam can be hazardous to skin or eye within the Nominal Hazard Zone. Many industrial, scientific, military, and medical lasers are in this category.

The following is a summary of the laser classes following the IEC guidelines:

Class 1

A Class 1 laser is safe under all conditions of normal use, with no known biological hazard present. This class includes high-power lasers within an enclosure that prevents exposure to the radiation and that cannot be opened without shutting down the laser. This typically requires an interlocking.

Class 1M

A Class 1M laser is safe for all conditions of normal use except when passed through magnifying optics such as microscopes, telescopes, or on optical benches. Class 1M lasers typically produce large-diameter beams, or beams that are divergent. The classification of a Class 1M laser must be changed if the emergent light is refocused.

Class 2

A Class 2 laser is safe for all conditions of normal use because the blink reflex will limit the exposure to no more than 0.25 seconds. It only applies to visible-light lasers (400 nm to 700 nm) limited to 1 mW continuous wave, or more if the emission time is less than 0.25 s or if the light is not spatially coherent. Intentional suppression of the blink reflex could lead to eye injury. Many laser pointers are Class 2.

Class 2M

A Class 2M laser is similar to a Class 2, but it is used in an instrument that may focus the beam. This laser is safe because of the blink reflex provided the beam is not viewed through optical instruments as described above for Class 1M.

Class 3R

A Class 3R laser is considered safe if handled carefully, with restricted beam viewing. These lasers can be hazardous to the human eye if the beam is viewed for extended periods of time or under fixated conditions. Continuous beam Class 3R lasers operating in the visible region are limited in power output to 5 mW. For other wavelengths and for pulsed lasers, other limits will apply.

Class 3B

A Class 3B laser is hazardous if the eye is exposed directly, but diffuse reflections such as from paper surfaces are not harmful. Continuous lasers in the wavelength range from 315 nm to the far infrared are limited in power output to 0.5 W. For pulsed lasers between 400 nm and 700 nm, the limit is 30 mJ. Other limits apply to other wavelengths and to short pulse lasers. Protective eyewear is typically required where direct viewing of a class 3B laser beam may occur. Class 3B lasers must be equipped with a key switch and a safety interlock.

Class 4

Class 4 lasers include all lasers with beam power greater than those covered in class 3B. By definition, a Class 4 laser can burn the skin, in addition to causing severe and permanent eye damage. This eye damage can result from of direct or diffuse beam viewing. These lasers may ignite combustible materials, and thus may represent a fire risk. Class 4 lasers must be equipped with a key switch and a safety interlock. Many industrial, scientific, military, and medical lasers are in this category.

Laser Pointers

Laser pointers, ubiquitous at meetings, shows, and in the classroom, deserve separate consideration because of recent work on actual observed power output. For purposes of classification into the levels discussed above, the typical laser pointer is classified as 3R. The human light aversion response can generally protect against 3R lasers; however, this response is less sensitive in the near infrared range (700 nm to 1400 nm). Thus, to prevent retinal burns, laser pointers must not emit hazardous levels of infrared, and must be Class 1 compliant in terms of accessible emission level (AEL) in that wavelength range. In a testing program undertaken at NIST, cited in Ref. 4, it was found that of the laser pointers randomly chosen and tested, all but two pointers failed to comply by more than 15% of the specified AEL, and 48% emitted more than twice the specified AEL at one or more specified wavelength. This indicates a risk of 3B exposure from these devices that are nominally classified as 3R.

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