For individuals and businesses alike, the start of the new year is a time for creating plans, setting goals and, of course, making resolutions to do better in the months ahead. So, as the industry eases into 2023, now is the perfect time to revisit the safety measures that must be considered for manufacturers and fabricators that employ industrial lasers on their shop floors.
Serious about safety
It’s hard to remember a time when high-power lasers weren’t considered a common tool for the metal fabrication industry. Even in the 1990s, there were plenty of fabricators that relied on CO2 lasers for cutting and marking. Back then, however, the tool was a relatively new addition to the shop floor, so serious reverence was given to these powerful pieces of equipment in the name of safety. Fast-forward 30 years, and it’s hard to find a sheet metal shop that doesn’t have a laser or isn’t, at least, considering buying one.
No matter the make or model or if it’s cutting, welding, marking or otherwise manipulating sheet metal, equipment manufacturers produce their machines with safety in mind. In regard to laser equipment, which often houses the highest power lasers found on a shop floor, processing areas are held within safety enclosures that aren’t accessible during operation, and special safety glass is used to protect operators’ eyes during use. Regardless, it’s still essential for a fabricator to take laser safety seriously. To help with that effort, OSHA has created a series of control measures designed to keep workers safe.
These controls are divided into four categories: 1) engineering controls, 2) PPE, 3) administrative and procedural controls, and 4) special controls. According to OSHA, no matter which of the controls is being addressed, it’s important to create a distinction between the functions of operation, maintenance and service.
“Maintenance is defined as those tasks specified in the user instructions for assuring the performance of the product and may include items such as routine cleaning or replenishment of expendables,” OSHA states. “Service functions are usually performed with far less frequency than maintenance functions (e.g., replacing the laser resonator mirrors or repair of faulty components) and often require access to the laser beam by those performing the service functions. The safety procedures required for such beam access during service functions should be clearly delineated in the laser product’s service manual.”
For the purpose of this article, the service of the laser beam is not addressed, considering this type of interaction with the laser equipment is carried out with far less frequency than standard maintenance tasks. Furthermore, it’s typically carried out by a service technician versus a company employee. The main goal with this article and for fabricators wanting to focus on safety in 2023 is to reignite safety initiatives for company employees as related to laser operations.
First things first
Before getting too deep into the weeds, any company that wants to take laser safety seriously in 2023 needs to, first and foremost, appoint a laser safety officer (LSO). As mentioned in a previous Shop Floor Lasers’ article dedicated to the selection and duties of an LSO, “while many lasers in use are classified as nonhazardous, most organizations need a person in charge of monitoring the impact that lasers have on worker safety.”
The article explains that the LSO is responsible for evaluating and controlling laser hazards, monitoring and enforcing hazard controls, and, perhaps most importantly, creating a laser safety program. The article also mentions the LSO as the person responsible for classifying a company’s lasers and laser systems.
For all intents and purposes, fabricators and manufacturers will deal with Class 3a and 4 laser systems, as defined by the Laser Institute of America’s (LIA) system of laser hazard categories or classifications. These systems, as defined in another previously published Shop Floor Lasers article, are “a hazard to the eye and skin from the direct beam, may pose a diffuse reflection or fire hazard, and may also produce laser generated air-born contaminants and hazardous plasma radiation.”
The article also states “some classes of lasers require the appointment of a laser safety officer. Others don’t. Likewise, some classes of lasers dictate that certain types of safety equipment must be used while others do not. Therefore, it’s easy to understand that identifying the laser class should come first – making safety equipment purchases will then follow accordingly.”
Another good resource to determine a laser’s classification and the precautions that should be considered is ANSI’s Z136.1 Standard for Safe Use of Lasers, which is the parent standard for the organization’s full range of laser safety guidelines, including the Z136.9 standard regulating laser use in manufacturing environments. For quick reference, the LIA offers the full list of ANSI laser safety standards on its website.
Once an LSO and the laser classification have been established, the LIA continues to be a go-to resource for further training, which undoubtably will help the LSO find success in their role. Classes are incredibly practical in nature, offering a deeper understanding of the hazards involved, how to control those hazards, the PPE to invest in and how to best disseminate that information to other employees within a formalized safety program.
Upcoming LIA courses are scheduled throughout the year and in multiple locations across the United States. Online courses are also available for a nominal fee as low as $200. To receive even further, personalized assistance, the LIA offers on-site laser safety training. According to the LIA website, benefits of the in-house sessions include:
- Setting a higher safety standard by training staff at one time, providing an enhanced level of consistency and compliance.
- Enhancing the training efficacy with customized content to fit specific needs.
- Avoiding disruptions to work schedules by selecting a convenient training time – weekend programs available.
- Ensuring staff’s complete safety by having the laser system set up, reviewed and inspected by leading experts in the field of laser safety.
- Saving money on registration fees and travel expenses.
Unsurprisingly, laser equipment manufacturers are also a great resource to rely on when it comes to safety. All of the major players have plenty of safety information available on their websites and embed safety education into their training and support services. If an equipment manufacturer is hesitant to answer a fabricator’s safety questions, it’s safe to say (pun intended) that they may not be a reputable company with which to work.
In terms of the safety precautions that should be employed when performing routine maintenance on a machine, that, too, has been fully considered and disseminated by reputable equipment providers. On top of that, most modern equipment manufacturers offer a host of fully automatic maintenance features, removing safety concerns – and the time involved – to perform them.