A Career in Laser Safety

Ken Barat photo

Ken Barat

Lasers have enabled countless innovations and scientific advancements since their invention in 1960. But if not handled properly, they can pose a serious danger to skin and eyes (see “Lasers & the Human Eye,” OPN, October 2022).

Ken Barat is an award-winning laser safety consultant based in Arizona, USA. OPN chatted with Barat—who has published 12 textbooks, including Laser Safety: Practical Knowledge and Solutions—to learn more about making a career in the safety field and how scientists can protect themselves in the lab.

How did you get into laser safety?

I got my start as an inorganic chemist but soon realized I could better contribute in a different field, so I pivoted to nuclear medicine and radiopharmaceuticals. There, I saw the need for radiation safety and pivoted once more.

While working at the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, where I performed X-ray inspections, an opportunity came up to work for a non-ionizing radiation program. I had worked with ionizing radiation for many years, but thinking that lasers were the future, I decided to take the new role, and started my journey to becoming a laser safety officer.

The most important step in my career was when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) approached me to take over their laser/non-ionizing radiation program. Following a US Department of Energy audit, LBNL was looking for someone to develop its laser safety program who could appreciate and be accepted by the user community. After a two-month trial period, the lab felt it had found the person it needed and I felt I had found the home I had been looking for.

Deciding to work at LBNL was one of the best career decisions I made. I do not think I would have had the success I have had without the experience I got and the people I met there.

What was your role as a laser safety officer?

“I listened to what researchers wanted to do and helped develop safety solutions that would allow them to achieve their goals.” —Ken Barat

I listened to what researchers wanted to do and helped develop safety solutions that would allow them to achieve their goals. I was not there to tell them how to do their science, but rather to give them options for how to achieve laser safety that supported our mutual objectives.

This cooperation allowed me to have a small role in some of the biggest science projects and facilities of the last 30 years, such as the Human Genome Project, National Ignition Facility, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), Spallation Neutron Source, Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) Beamlines and Advanced Light Source, among many others.

What did your typical work day look like?

A typical day at LBNL would consist of visiting a number of laser labs and the Advanced Light Source beamlines and observing setups and people’s actions for potential safety problems. I would also answer safety questions from users, on site or via email, and see if there are safety or paperwork issues I could resolve for folks.

What skills do you think are the most important to be successful in the safety field?

At the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu, I came across the motto of its Environmental Health & Safety Department: “Managing safety through cooperation.” For laser safety, this approach is critical.

“Laser safety professionals must not be police officers.” —Ken Barat

Laser safety professionals must not be police officers. Rather, they need to work with the users to develop safety controls and procedures while allowing laser work to take place. I think the fact than I did not go to school to study safety gave me a real-world worker perspective on how to approach safety with laser users.

The laser safety officers should be able to listen and think creatively, as well as give users options. One size does not fit all laser setups. Never stop learning, as so much keeps changing in optics and photonics. One must actively strive to expand one’s knowledge.

How should laser safety be practiced over the course of a career?

There are three phases of laser safety during one’s career. First, there is on-the-job training—learning how to work with lasers and optics in a safe way. This is when users pick up the skills and techniques that will carry them forward. The challenge is to receive that training from someone who respects safety and doesn’t pass on bad habits.

The next phase is obtaining more experience and learning how to best practice laser safety. The last phase is mentoring others—instilling a respect for laser safety and not teaching poor behaviors and risky work-arounds.

Why do laser accidents still occur?

“People need to realize the level of risk they place themselves at with such actions—it only takes one accident to cause serious harm.” —Ken Barat

Two simple reasons. One is that laser users are used to violating safety rules and not having anything bad happen to them. Basically, there are often no negative consequences to their actions. If we got a ticket each time we sped in our cars, drivers would stop speeding. But every time one lifts up their laser-safety glasses and nothing happens, it just reinforces the action. People need to realize the level of risk they place themselves at with such actions—it only takes one accident to cause serious harm. Otherwise, accidents will continue.

The other reason is poor or no on-the-job training or bad mentoring.

What tips do you have for aspiring or current laser safety officers?

For laser safety folks, if your local user community has group meetings, attend. First, you will be the only safety person to do that. Second, it will give you insights into what the group is doing and what challenges it has. Lastly, it will break down barriers. It’s no longer you versus them or vice versa; you’re all on the same team.

Outside your institution, see if there are local professional society chapters. If so, join and attend meetings, in addition to signing up for standards committees. Those will give you an understanding of control measures and how they are developed.

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