Containing Multitudes: Laser Safety Edition

Most of you found me as the ridiculous coffee & steins guy. Some think of me as the radiation safety man who knows way too much history and is an embodiment of Institutional Memory (this would definitely be the point of view from the researchers and students I wrangle). To others, I am the crazy coin ranter…who knows way too much history.

But last year, a whole new part of the internet found me and, often, decided they didn’t like what I had to say as I revealed I am the laser safety guy who isn’t a big fan of some aspects of maker & founder culture. I wrote a bit of a rant on a product whose existence I found infuriating as it, from start to finish, embodied those bits of culture that drive me crazy. This also caused the parts of the internet I didn’t piss off to send me a steady stream of things to see if they were bad too or, in most cases, in hopes of raising my blood pressure. I took home some lessons from all this I’d like to share with you:

  1. In the last couple years, something happened that caused a wave of cheap 405nm (deep violet) and 450nm (blue) laser diodes to come onto the market. Since shorter wavelength means more energy per photon, this was what the market has been waiting for to make small, cheap laser cutter/engravers. Cubiio was only one of dozens of different versions of similar systems.
  2. The FDA Center for Device and Radiologic Health (CDRH) are aware of these systems, or at least becomes so as soon as someone tells them. There are so many and they so understaffed that they don’t actively hunt them, merely address those that are directly reported to them or are revealed in the course of an accident investigation. There is some despair of ever getting ahead of the wave at this point. The days of a few large and responsible laser manufacturers to wrangle, who reliably file paperwork before selling products, are long gone.
  3. Amazon and eBay are oh so very complicit in the illegal importation and sale of laser systems that aren’t FDA compliant. Their hosting of third party sales without much (if any) vetting of what is being sold through their marketplace is a gushing pipeline of gray/black market items to America. When told to suspend sale of an item by the CDRH, they will very diligently remove that specific listing from that particular seller. If you heard a bit of sarcastic tone in your head there, good. Nothing prevents a different seller from selling the same item or the original seller for listing a substantially similar one, just different enough to evade the CDRH take down. Since listings are automated and fees are generated by listing and sale, there is no incentive for Amazon & eBay to do so self-policing. And then there’s Alibaba…
  4. USPS/Customs Enforcement stop what they are specifically told to stop. They haven’t been given much direction about lasers and, much like CDRH, they don’t have much hope against the wave. I can personally attest to my two Not At All Okay handheld lasers, purchased via 3rd party seller on Amazon, that were shipped direct from China and sailed through Customs. The Mail Cops’ focus is trying to interdict weapons and illegal drugs, so this is one of those eye-rolling “Sure, yeah, we’ll get right on that in our copious free time” situations.
  5. The intentionally reactive, rather than preventive, nature of control in the sale of laser products means we are way deep into whackadoo laser quackery on the market and have been for a while. It’s reminding me a lot of where we were with radioactive materials and x-rays, circa 1920. As an example, laser physiotherapy treatment, my entire ass. You are quite successfully selling a glorified heat lamp from China at a 100000% markup to overfunded sports programs. That piece of crap shouldn’t cost $100, much less $250k.

So, let me tell you how I got to this point in my life, or rather how I got back to it. Once upon a time, my first job out of college was working at one of the large industrial & scientific laser manufacturers in Silicon Valley. I began in production, building pretty much every laser they had on the market at the time. In short order I moved to service and then, thanks to having picked up all the safety roles for my division out of boredom and no one else wanted them, to the Environmental Health & Safety department when a layoff happened. By attrition, I was eventually the only person left in the EH&S department and I was the corporate laser safety officer (LSO) for the entire company. I was burnt out and desperately wanted out of there as management gave zero shits about their employees. After a particularly bad day at work, I discovered that it was possible to get a job working in Antarctica and submitted a resume.

Two years later, Raytheon Polar Services Corporation hired me to be a cryogenics/science technician to serve as a winterover at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It was, however, a very last minute hire before deployment. From the time a verbal offer was made to the when a same day FedEx letter with paper contract and plane tickets to Denver to attend fire school arrived at my office was 7 hours. Because it was so late in the day, my boss who I loathed was already gone when it arrived. Which meant that before I finished for the day, I had placed a resignation letter in his box, giving two weeks notice and informing him that the first week would be spent on vacation as I learned to be a firefighter in Colorado. I also cleared out my more important items from my office and locked down all relevant things on my computer. It’s fair to say that I burnt that bridge very effectively and scattered the ashes to the wind.

However, as corporate laser safety officer for this company I’d had a prominent voice in the safety community despite being in my 20s. The collective laser safety officers of the San Francisco Bay Area pushed the issue that we needed to make some kind of certification for our field, that there was a bit of a difference between being the person wrangling the one welding laser in the shop and being responsible for an entire university worth of lasers. And so the Board of Laser Safety was formed and the very first Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO) examination was organized for October 12, 2002. By the time this date rolled around though, I’d left my job at $LASER_COMPANY and was no longer a practicing laser safety officer. But, I’d paid the money, so I figured what the hell, take the test and maybe it would be something good for the resume when I got back.

The CLSO exam is supposed to be a three hour exam; I was the first one done in 73 minutes. I know this because the proctor showed me his stopwatch and wanted to make sure I was actually done and didn’t want to take more time checking it over. I said no, walked out of the testing room at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and drove all the way back down to my parents’ hose in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I then finished packing my giant bodybag sized duffles and went to sleep. The next morning my dad drove me to San Jose airport to catch the first leg of my very long and delay prone flight to the South Pole.

Several months later, now trapped at Pole with no escape flights coming for the next nine months, my dad let me know that they’d received a giant envelope from the Board of Laser Safety. I asked him to open it. Inside was this certificate which he sent me a picture of.

My original Board of Laser Safety CLSO certificate.

Note the certification number: G1006. The first five certification numbers, G1001-G1005, were held by the members of the Board of Laser Safety. Because I’d finished the test first, I was the sixth. The members of the Board never revealed to me who Number One was, but I was Number Six. Yes, I have been making Prisoner jokes about this for 15 years.

You will also note there is a renewal date on that certificate of January 1, 2006. I spent most of 2003 at the South Pole where the need for laser knowledge was minimal other than telling people “Don’t stand under the dancing laser speckles on the ice from the Atmospheric Research Observatory’s lasers. That’s actually bad. Try not to go blind, I’ll see you in the bar.” Most of 2004 I was unemployed or temping for the water district doing groundwater flow modeling. 2005 was LLNL and they had no need for my mad phat laser sk33lz (well, that’s not true, my knowledge informed other projects I was doing in interesting ways). And so, without continuing education credits, my CLSO lapsed.

Four years ago, I got tapped by a whole bunch of people affiliated with Burning Man as “Hey, I know a guy that knows something about lasers” in the wake of this incident. It kinda rankled that I had to keep giving the caveat of “I am not a CLSO” as I ran people through how to conduct an accident investigation and create policies for control of lasers in a place that believes in Safety Third. Oh, the fun I have with people who try to bring that mentality to places I’m actually responsible for.

Two years ago, I was asked if I was willing to serve as the deputy LSO for UC Berkeley in addition to my other duties. I said yes and somewhat sarcastically replied “You mean formally, as opposed to what I’ve been doing in the hallways for the last eight years? You finally ready my resume I gather.”

Last year, the tsunami of shitty laser product as discussed earlier hit me. I snapped and decided I needed to re-certify so that I could complain with authority. The weird long BBotE production window in May was because I spent a week in Rochester, NY taking that exam and attending the DOE Laser Safety Conference.

Yesterday, I was contacted directly by the Board of Laser Safety to inform me that I’d passed and was re-certified.

In conclusion…

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