Why are the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) calling for a ban on Laser Pens or Laser Pointers? What do they actually mean by a ‘Laser Pointer’?
How long before a serious accident resulting from Laser Pointer misuse?
Just what is the problem with Laser Pointers?
Laser safety can be a complex issue
The problem lies with the power of the laser and it’s potential for damage to the eyes.
In the UK, all laser devices should be categorised and clearly labelled to BS EN 60825-1:2014 Safety of laser products.
Two Different Laser Categorisation Systems
However, globally Lasers are categorised under 2 systems, giving some considerable scope for confusion.
The original system, introduced in the 1970s, consists of 4 categories, but for some reason used Roman Numerals in America (I – IV) and Arabic Numerals (1-4) in Europe, with the rest of the world falling into one camp or the other.
The newer system, introduced in 2002 in recognition of a greater understanding of the subject and incorporated into BS EN 60825-1, uses Arabic 1-4 in all jurisdictions; yet the old system remains in concurrent use in the USA. Both systems have some sub-categories.
The safety of a laser depends on it’s power and it’s light wavelength; it’s an unfortunate fact that dual categorisation systems and slapdash use of alphabets has resulted in some very confusing guidance documents.
Aside from the multitude of workplace uses, from supermarket checkout to surgical procedures, Public Health England have found that Classes up to 3R can have legitimate use as laser pointers, though 3R users should have safety training, since 3R has a greater potential for eye damage. A 3R is up to 5mW power; typically laser pointers are Class 1 or 2.
Wildly inaccurate online descriptions
You can also add into the equation that many online sellers advertise their devices as being Cat 1 and ‘1mW’, yet clearly labelled as Class III /100mW. This indicates that the Far East manufacturer has simply hedged their bets and doesn’t know or perhaps care whether it’s a IIIa or IIIb.
The most dangerous factor though, is that it’s easy to find online stores offering Pointers up to 6,000mW. The sellers often proudly announce that they provide ‘Safety Goggles’ with each device; then show publicity videos of their devices illuminating buildings several miles distant.
Such high power hand-held devices serve no purpose other than to appeal to the ‘Grown Ups Toys’ mindset with no regard for the potential danger. The lack of safety information provided to the purchaser only compounds the problem.
UK Legal Position
Several years ago, the UK government urged Trading Standards Authorities to use their existing powers under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 to confiscate laser pointers of higher than Class 2 (as defined in the British Standard) from the general market; since “such devices are too powerful for general use as laser pointers and present an unacceptable risk in the hands of the consumer, because they may cause eye injury in normal reasonably foreseeable use.”
That’s quite a convoluted and ineffectual means to remove such devices from the market place, given their wide availability on the international, online, marketplace.
At the moment, shining any form of light at an aircraft, including a laser pen, is an offence under article 222 of the Air Navigation Order 2009, though if upgraded to reckless endangerment under article 137, could attract 5 years imprisonment and a considerable fine.
Of course, this has little relevance to the prospect of somebody shining such a device at a vehicle on a motorway or perhaps a train driver. The distances involved are far shorter and the potential for serious eye damage far greater. A bus driver doesn’t have a co-pilot available to take over, nor the luxury of an autopilot to provide safe control of the vehicle.
It’s probably time the unnecessary possession of needlessly powerful laser devices was a criminal offence; just as it is with many other items.
Further advice on laser safety and the UK categories can be found at www.gov.uk