Entertainment Event Laser Safety Considerations

By Roberta L McHatton, LSO, Owner/Consultant, Laser Safety Services LLC

Congratulations on deciding to add lasers to your next event!!! Laser effects will bring excitement, pizzazz, and class to your special event in a multitude of ways. Laser light can be defined as ‘beam’ work with choreographed sweeping, dancing laser beam sequences that reach out and embrace your audience in a way that no other lighting effects can do and/or laser light can bring neon-like bright light to your client’s logos and/or graphics that will make an audience gasp with delight. When used properly lasers add the kind of magic to events/productions that viewers will long remember.  

Fun Fact: Did you know the word laser is an acronym?

Light Amplified by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation = LASER

A Bit of History:

It was Albert Einstein who first imagined the concept of the electromagnetic spectrum which include light waves and coined the word ‘laser’. But it was not until on May 16, 1960 when the first laser was invented by Theodore H. Maiman, a physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., who constructed the first laser using a cylinder of synthetic ruby 1 cm in diameter and 2 cm long. That laser emitted a lovely red-light beam. The laser was an invention that needed an application.

What do you think the first application of lasers were? Was it used for medical purposes, industrial, military or……for artistic purposes? As it happened that beautiful laser light had immediate appeal to artists worldwide. While the scientific community floundered for ‘practical’ uses of laser light the artistic community embraced this new, exciting very unusual medium with enthusiasm. The public was introduced to lasers via art, sculpture and holography exhibitions long before we humans used lasers on Mars to analyze that planet for potential life forms or for communication purposes or for medical purposes.

Fun Fact: Why is it ironic that one of the most common medical uses for lasers is known as LASIK eye surgery? Because the greatest safety concern when using lasers is the biological hazard laser light presents to the eye.  

Safety Concerns:

What is the big deal about using lasers for entertainment purposes anyway?

Fun Fact: Did you know that when using lasers for entertainment/display in the USA that a laser show company is required to apply for a ‘variance’ from the Food and Drug Administration? Here is the FDA website about Laser Light Shows:


More on this later.

Because of laser light physical properties – it is monochromatic, coherent and directional – laser light can deliver a great deal of energy in a very small area. In order for us to ‘see’ laser light for entertainment purposes we are often using Class 3B and Class 4 lasers. Lasers are classified to indicate the degree of risk; the ability of the beam to cause damage to the eye or skin.  Class 4 lasers are high powered lasers (>500mW) which are hazardous to the eye when viewed directly or diffusely. In addition to potential to biological hazards (eye and skin) Class 4 lasers present a potential fire hazard The problem is that entertainment laser effects are so beautiful that we often forget there are hazards associated with them.

Fun Fact: Do not look into the laser beam with your remaining eye!!! Check out this video: Dumb Ways to Blind Yourself on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6ejwtuOf-0

This really is no joke! While the eye is the most regenerative organ in the human body by directly viewing a laser beam the lens of your eye becomes a magnifying glass – with an optical gain of 100,000! The result is that laser light will cause a permanent burn spot (scotoma) by exploding the rods and cones lining the retina. One can actually hear them ‘pop’ – which sound like a volcano in your head! Know that you cannot blink fast enough (called the human aversion response) to protect yourself from a Class 4 exposure.

Ok so this is an extreme example – technicians who are working on a laser projector with the protective cover off are the most likely to incur this sort of injury. There are very simple basic steps (procedures) a trained operator must follow to prevent the risks associated with lasers. Read on for more information on laser safety but first….

What do you need to know if you are considering hiring a laser company?

First and foremost, for shows in the USA ask to see the laser show company’s variance. A variance is formal permission from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to deviate from a requirement of the regulations. Think of a variance as a license issued by the Federal government that ‘allows’ Class 3B and Class 4 lasers to be operated before the general public for entertainment purposes. Because the beam path of these lasers is not ‘enclosed’ there are potential risks to public safety. Therefore, if you are hiring a laser show company it is imperative that you ask to see their variance. The FDA can hold event promoters accountable for hiring non-varianced laser companies.

Fun Fact: What if the variance a laser show company shows you is expired? Ask to see the laser show company’s acknowledgement receipt from FDA for their most recent annual report. In 2007 the FDA issued Laser Notice 55 permitting automatic renewal of certain laser light show variances if required annual reporting requirements are met.

Venues: Indoor or Outdoor, terminated or unterminated?

Professional laser show companies will need to know about your venue. Is the venue indoors or outdoors? If outdoors it is always best if lasers can be terminated rather than shooting into airspace. The reason is that laser light may be bright enough to cause distraction, glare, or temporary flash blindness to pilots; especially during critical flight phases such as landing and takeoff.

Fun Fact: As of June 2016, the FAA no longer requires laser companies to notify for terminated outdoor laser activity. But what exactly qualifies as ‘terminated’?

How about that building across the street behind your audience or how about those trees? Does that building have windows? If so will there be anyone who has access to that building during the laser part of your event? And those trees – even if they are abundant such as a thick forest of fir trees they are not generally considered an adequate termination surface. And about that building 3 to 4 blocks away with no windows – is it possible a helicopter might drop down into the beam path?

That is not to say you cannot have outdoor unterminated lasers! It just means the laser show company is legally obliged to notify the FAA of proposed activity. The FAA will conduct an aeronautical study and determine if they object or not.

If your venue is indoors then you have nothing to be concerned about, right? That depends on what sort of reflective surfaces exist and where they are located. Old theaters tend to have crystal chandeliers and/or mirror ceiling tiles. Class 3B and Class 4 laser reflections can be just as dangerous as when viewed directly!!! There are 2 types of reflection a laser operator needs to be aware of – specular and diffuse. Specular is mirror like, diffuse is ‘fuzzy’ such as laser light reflected off crumbled ‘brushed’ side of aluminum foil. We will discuss what control measures a laser operator will consider to avoid unwanted reflections in a bit.

Fun Fact: It is always better to have more powerful lasers, right?

Wrong – Not only can the higher the power lasers offer greater the risk but they have limited artistic appeal. Just because one company can offer ‘high powered’ lasers does not mean you will get a better show. For most theaters 3-5W lasers are adequate. More lasers rather than more powerful lasers will generally be more impressive to your audience. Think about it this way, multiple lasers can provide multiple beam ‘sources’ rather than just the 2-6 V shaped beam patterns from 2-6 lasers. Buyer beware - buying off on ‘high power’ lasers may not get you the ‘best deal’ for your money!

Fun Fact: Not all reflections are the ‘enemy’ of the laser operator! Theatrical smoke/fog produce ‘diffuse’ reflections that give that swirling cloud of color over your audience that add a dreamy effect to your production.

A word of caution – be sure to consult with your laser operator about the possibility of setting off fire alarms. Consult with your building maintenance to see how sensitive the fire/smoke alarms can be. If outdoors using theatrical smoke can be challenging if it is windy but so worth it!

Speaking of reflective surfaces – are you planning on using confetti? If so inform your laser company, especially if it is going to be Mylar material. The operator will need to work with you to avoid lasing the confetti. Also we highly recommend that there be no Mylar balloon vendors at your event or allowed inside the laser arena/area as these are sources of specular reflection.

You need to think about where lasers will be located. If on a stage, how high is the stage off the floor, how high is the ceiling of your venue. Lasers must be at least 3 meters above the heads of your audience. Think about raked audience such as in arenas and balconies. If you have balconies the laser company may consider terminating the balcony façade as long as some security measures are taken to ensure audience cannot access beam path. If lasers are mounted in audience area no person can be closer than 2.5 meters to laser units.

What about performers/artists and crew? These rules do not apply to performers or crew. That said, know that Class 3B and Class 4 lasers are never allowed to actually touch a person. All persons who could access a laser beam must be informed of the hazards and warned to avoid lasers at all times.

A safe laser company will know that lasers must never be mounted at eye level. However, lasers could be mounted on a stage that is say 6 feet above ground level at 4 feet above stage level (thus meet the 3-meter rule for general public) and be well below eye level for performers/crew members. What about instruments – especially those shiny drum kits that are loaded in front of the lasers? Don’t worry – a good laser show company will have cinefoil (black anodized aluminum) on hand to block any area at the aperture thus prevent unwanted lasing of drum kits or any other shiny object in the beam path.

Fun Fact: Do you know when the greatest risk for injury is? Did you guess during show time? Wrong – it is during setup and alignment!

Think about it - setup is when everyone is busy racing against the clock, each person is dedicated to their assigned tasks. It is easy to know where the general public is during the performance – it is not so easy to know where staff is during setup. Even an experienced operator may not see an usher who forgot that he is not suppose to enter the balcony area during alignment, or not realize a drum kit was moved after he has setup and completed zoning. One off events are at more risk that repeated performances at the same venue. New venues offer new challenges – try going from a basic stadium to an old crystal ballroom theater with lots of shiny surfaces.

There are a variety of ways that a laser show company will mitigate risks.

Fun Fact: Did you know that human behavior is the last resort when it comes to safety? Engineered control measures are always the most preferred method of mitigating risk.

Safety, for laser entertainment applications, depend on the operator/technicians more than most any other laser application to implement a quality laser safety program. Laser operators working in entertainment should have laser safety training, be technically competent and professional human beings. These professionals are the ones who must be able to react quickly and effectively if anything happens.

Don’t hesitate to ask your chosen laser company about what sort of training a laser company has provided to their employees. Ask them to provide some sort of documented proof of laser safety training; such as a Laser Safety Officer Certificate of training. While an operator may or may not have an LSO certificate they are required to have laser safety training. If no documentation is available ask them if they are familiar with these topics:

What are the bio hazards related to laser light?

What control measures will used to mitigate risks?

What standard/regulations does a laser show company adhere to? (Such as ANSI Z136, IEC and/or CFR 1040.10 and .11)

See if they know what acronyms M.P.E. (maximum permissible exposure) or N.H.Z (nominal hazard zone) stand for.

It is always a good idea ask for references from other clients they have worked with before and ask to see insurance certificates.

Examples of Control Measures:

Engineering control measures usually refer to projector design. In the US projectors are required to comply to CFR 1040.10 and .11. They must have protective housing, proper labels, an emission indicator light, remote interlock, key switch and/or computer coded access and manual reset are examples of engineering control measures. There has been an influx in recent years of non-compliant laser projectors from other countries; meaning these lasers have not been reported as certified via a product report to the FDA. Ask your laser company to show you the certification label on the lasers they will be using to be sure the laser projectors they use are compliant with 21 CFR 1040.10 and .11 (https://www.fda.gov/downloads/MedicalDevices/DeviceRegulationandGuidance/GuidanceDocuments/UCM095304.pdf)

Fun Fact: Did you know if a laser is automatically activated - turns on - when it ‘hears’ music that this is an ‘illegal’, non-compliant projector? Only an operator can active/turn on a laser. An audio activation card should only enable movement of the laser after an operator has turned on the laser system. If your lasers are imported from China with this feature – return it for a refund!

Procedural control measures are actions taken by the LSO/Operator to ensure risks are mitigated. Examples of procedural control measures are announcing to crew when zoning is about to begin, assigning crew to assist in watching beam path during alignment, knowing where e-Stop buttons are, educating crew on laser hazards, completing safety checklist to verify lasers are mounted securely, verify beam blocks are locked into place, and ‘mask’ around aperture, if needed, to avoid beams hitting unwanted reflective objects.

Event producers are expected to provide administrative support to the laser operator who is the on-site Laser Safety Officer. If the laser operator requests crew to assist them by watching the beam path at any time please provide someone or if the operator requests no one be present during zoning it is imperative that producers support these requests.  

Fun Fact: Is it ever ok to project lasers into audiences? Yes, this effect can be done – BUT in the US a laser company MUST have an audience scanning variance! If they cannot produce an audience scanning variance – which must be renewed every 2-3 years – then they cannot legally provide this effect. Audience scanning variances do not qualify for auto renewal!

Laser show companies that have audience scanning variances are required to take certain precautions and extra measures to ensure this effect is done safely. There several different techniques used – some are as simple as a diffraction grating filter that the laser projects thru; other systems involve special lenses and/or special software that monitor the speed of scanners and power of the laser to ensure safety. Be aware that if the effect is too bright to enjoy then the power may not be adjusted correctly. Ask your laser operator to produce the measurements they are supposed to take at closest area where the audience can be exposed.

Fun Fact: Lasers are so special they should be on all the time and at the same time with other stage lighting, right?

Wrong – lasers used well are often limited to the peak moment of a show or event (rather like pyro) and look best if not competing with other stage lighting. A good lighting designer will want to work closely with a laser show operator/designer to get the most dramatic effect and value for the investment for your production.

Expect the Unexpected: Flying babies, mylar balloons, retracting roofs…oh my!!!

As anyone who works in entertainment knows - expect the unexpected! Having worked in laser entertainment for over 20 years, I have a long list of examples where being alert and vigilant saved the day. I will never forget the time I was an airspace observer watching for planes when out of the corner of my eye I see a father start to toss his baby into 40W beams! The lasers were at the required 3 meters over the audience. He had no idea those beautiful green beams could permanently injure his baby.

Please, please remember to communicate with your laser operator if you are going to use mylar confetti and/or ribbon trapeze artists and/or if anyone will be in the rigging for any reason! I was standing in the wings once when out of the corner of my eye I spot a ribbon artist dropping out of the fly zone; the operator had a clear view of the beam path from front of stage forward but did not know there were going to be ribbon artists dropping from the rafters! It was just lucky I was there and able to catch his eye in time to shutter the lasers!

A last note about safety and entertainment. One of the biggest challenges when producing entertainment is that to provide a safe fun ‘party’ like event for your audience knowing that you and your team are not able to ‘party’ until the last unit is packed up, safely stowed and on the truck. That said, there is nothing like basking in the radiant smiles of a joyful audience that has just experienced the most exciting and memorable event of a lifetime.

For more detailed information on how to use lasers safely for entertainment and/or display purposes we highly recommend these publications and/or resources:

Event Safety Guide – Section 21: Special Effects and Lasers, Other than Pyrotechnics, available at  http://eventsafetyalliance.org/

Essentials of Laser Safety for Entertainment and Display by Roberta McHatton and Ken Barret, send request to: contact@lasersafetyservices.com

International Laser Display Association: Members are professional laser companies: www.ilda.com

Need Laser Safety Officer training? Laser Safety Services offers certified LSO training for those using Lasers in the Entertainment/Display industries. Contact us at: contact@lasersafetyservices.com for description of services/cost.

Shelby Cude