This section discusses fiber optic communication systems. It does not refer to fiber optic power delivery systems.
Fiber optic laser safety is characterized by the fact that in normal operation the light beam is inaccessible, so something has to be unplugged or broken for it to be become accessible. The resultant exit beam is quite divergent, so eye safety is highly dependent on distance, and if a magnifying device is used.
In practice, accidental exposure to the large majority of installed systems, is unlikely to have any health impact, since power levels are usually infra-red and below 1 mW, e.g. Class 1. However there are a few significant exceptions.
Most single mode / multi mode fiber systems actually use infra-red light, invisible to the human eye. In this case, there is no 'eye aversion response". A special case is systems operating at 670–1000 nm, where the beam may appear to be a dull red, even if the light beam is actually very intense. Technicians may also use red lasers for fault finding at around 628–670 nm. These can create a significant hazard if viewed incorrectly, particularly if they are abnormally high power. Such visible fault finders are usually classified as Class 2 up to 1 mW, and Class 2M up to 10 mW.
High power optical amplifiers are used in long distance systems. They use internal pump lasers with power levels up a few watts, which is a major hazard. However these power levels are contained within the amplifier module. Any system employing typical optical connectors (e.g. not expanded beam) can not typically exceed about 100 mW, above which power level single mode connectors become unreliable, so if there is a single mode connector in the system, the design power level will always be below this level, even if no other details are known. An additional factor with these systems, is that light around the 1550 nm wavelength band (common for optical amplifiers) is regarded as relatively low risk, since the eye does not absorb it very much. This tends to reduce the overall risk factor of such systems.
Optical microscopes and magnifying devices also present unique safety challenges. If any optical power is present, and a simple magnifying device is used to examine the fiber end, then the user is no longer protected by beam divergence, since the entire beam may be imaged onto the eye. Therefore, simple magnifying devices should never be used in such situations. Optical connector inspection microscopes are available which incorporate blocking filters, thus greatly improving eye safety. The most recent such design also incorporates protection against red fault locating lasers.
Non-beam hazards – electrical and other
While most of the danger of lasers comes from the beam itself, there are certain non-beam hazards that are often associated with use of laser systems. Many lasers are high voltage devices, typically 400 V upward for a small 5 mJ pulsed laser, and exceeding many kilovolts in higher powered lasers. This, coupled with high pressure water for cooling the laser and other associated electrical equipment can create a greater hazard than the laser beam itself.
Electric equipment should generally be installed at least 250 mm / 10 inches above the floor to reduce electric risk in the case of flooding. Optical tables, lasers, and other equipment should be well grounded. Enclosure interlocks should be respected and special precautions taken during troubleshooting.
In addition to the electrical hazards, lasers may create chemical, mechanical, and other hazards specific to particular installations. Chemical hazards may include materials intrinsic to the laser, such as beryllium oxide in argon ion laser tubes, halogens in excimer lasers, organic dyes dissolved in toxic or flammable solvents in dye lasers, and heavy metal vapors and asbestos insulation in helium cadmium lasers. They may also include materials released during laser processing, such as metal fumes from cutting or surface treatments of metals or the complex mix of decomposition products produced in the high energy plasma of a laser cutting plastics.
Mechanical hazards may include moving parts in vacuum and pressure pumps; implosion or explosion of flashlamps, plasma tubes, water jackets, and gas handling equipment.
High temperatures and fire hazards may also result from the operation of high-powered Class IIIB or any Class IV Laser.
In commercial laser systems, hazard mitigations such as the presence of fusible plugs, thermal interrupters, and pressure relief valves reduce the hazard of, for example, a steam explosion arising from an obstructed water cooling jacket. Interlocks, shutters, and warning lights are often critical elements of modern commercial installations. In older lasers, experimental and hobby systems, and those removed from other equipment (OEM units) special care must be taken to anticipate and reduce the consequences of misuse as well as various failure modes.