Vol. 16, No. 3, Oct-December 2005 




Recent Safety Articles



CDRH Launches Review

Outdoor Shows & The FAA

Past Articles



•  ILDA Advocates Pilot Training

•  Air Safety Worldwide Issue

•  Audience Scanning Can
   Be Done Right

•  International Panel Agrees on
   Audience Scanning Safety

•  The US Safety Variance


For information on the July 5 2008 audience scanning
accident at a Russian rave, see this page.

The U.S. Safety Variance: What's Required
By David Lytle

Professionals who work with lasers know they can dazzle and entertain almost any audience in almost any venue. But in the United States, manufacturers of lasers displays must overcome a hurdle not faced by other lighting suppliers: the buyer’s fear of government required paperwork.
This article examines the regulations faced by a typical U.S. venue installing a laser. Following a few simple rules will not only satisfy federal reporting requirements but make a display safer and more enjoyable.

In the United States, laser products are regulated by the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), a division of the Food and Drug Administration. The CDRH’s duty is to insure that the public is not harmed by lasers that pose an eye hazard (and in some cases a skin hazard). The agency has formulated a straightforward series of rules governing the use of lasers. Following these rules will keep customers from being exposed to uncomfortable and potentially damaging levels of laser light while still allowing an impressive show to go on.

Managers of nightclubs and other venues should first know that lasers emitting less than 5 mW of light—called Class IIIa lasers by the CDRH—do not require any paperwork. Until recently, these Class IIIa lasers were not quite bright enough to satisfy all club patrons. But the recent introduction of low-cost, low-power YAG lasers that produce a lime-green color may change all that. Because the eye perceives YAG-green as much brighter than the red typically found in low-powered lasers, these Class IIIa YAGs allow club owners to bring truly attention-getting laser effects to their site without federal paperwork requirements.As with virtually any laser source, however, you should never shine even a 5 mW beam into the eyes of the audience. CDRH’s safety guidelines require these low-powered beams to remain at least 2.5 meters above the floor at all times to prevent eye exposure (higher-powered lasers must stay at least 3 meters above the floor).

Moving up to lasers above 5 mW, there are two documents that potential operators need to be aware of: a Variance and the Laser Light Show Report. The CDRH grants a variance to use lasers for entertainment purposes in return for the user’s pledge to follow safety guidelines. The Laser Light Show report is more specific—it details how the laser installed at a venue complies with federal safety rules. Unless you are experienced with laser equipment, it’s best to let a professional handle the initial paperwork.

Some companies process a purchaser’s variance application without charge, while others may charge $500-$2,000, depending on the complexity of the display. Purchasers should investigate their options before buying to determine what paperwork is included and what type of training a vendor offers. The end user should receive basic training about federal safety rules. Venues, for example, must designate which employee is their “safety officer” and file a brief annual report with the CDRH. The laser vendor should make the purchaser aware of these and other simple requirements. After learning the basics, compliance with CDRH rules should become a matter of routine.

Once a variance application has been submitted to the CDRH, it takes approximately 6-8 weeks to receive the variance. Users should keep this lead-time in mind; without a variance, a laser can’t be used.

Potential laser users should read the CDRH handbook, “Laser Light Shows: Who’s Responsible,” a layperson’s overview of safety, which can be downloaded at
Other CDRH documents of available for download, including reporting guides and annual reports, can be found at