The UK is preparing to implement the 2006 EU Optical Radiation Directive – the last in the series of four so-called “physical agents” Directives – which comes into force in April 2010, setting minimum standards for the prevention and diagnosis of eye and skin damage from optical radiation sources such as lasers and infrared lamps.
Significant numbers of people are exposed to optical radiation as part of their work but the Health and Safety Executive says it receives few reports of illness or injury due to optical radiation, and that “in the great majority of cases, the risk to human health is low.”
Occupational use of optical radiation is diverse, including UVA and UVC fluorescence used in scientific research and engineering, phototherapy in medicine and ophthalmoscopy. While exposure from these sources is likely to be well‑controlled, other exposures – such as glass furnaces and forgery detection instruments in the retail industry – may not be.
A report commissioned by the HSE in 2003 from the then National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB)1 found that around 2.4 million employees could be affected by broadband optical radiation sources at work “to the extent of possibly having to use personal protective equipment or alter their working practices”. Because some of these will already be adequately protected, the NRPB estimated that between 439,000 and 1,309,000 workers might have exposures that need to be controlled in order to comply with the Directive. Although the NRPB estimates that a further 2.1 million work with lasers, in many applications the optical radiation can be controlled at source.
During its negotiation in Europe, the scope of the Directive proved controversial. As adopted, it covers neither x-rays, gamma rays, electromagnetic fields nor natural sources, such as sunlight, and omission of the latter caused considerable debate.