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How to Develop a Laser Safety Culture

Antonio Triventi, CHP, CLSO National Institute for laser safety officers and health physicists

What is the most important measure of a laser safety program’s success? Developing a true culture of laser safety is the ultimate goal of any serious laser safety officer.

The art of inspiring and coordinating people’s activities beyond the enforcement dictated by rules and regulations translates into a cultural asset that leads to tangible performance excellence. A laser safety program, with all its participating parties, is the perfect ground for organizational team play, and the laser safety officer (LSO) becomes a leader who can motivate, involve and integrate personnel to achieve common and shared goals within the organization.

Laser safety leaders are facilitators and orchestrators. They communicate purposes and have their teams internalize what they want the members to do. They must be explicit about their intentions, plans and expectations, and they must ask questions to probe whether the teams understand what they are saying.

In this scenario, trust is an essential component. Trust means not being afraid even if we feel vulnerable and weak. The laser safety leader must take responsibility for errors and not blame team members. Trusting acts create the potential for mutual benefit. If you are appointed LSO for a large and complex research facility or medical institution, don’t worry about looking vulnerable or weak if you don’t immediately have all the solutions and answers. Be willing to learn and create knowledge; be passionate and show commitment.


The seventh annual US Department of Energy Laser Safety Officer Workshop, held at MIT in August 2011. Images courtesy of Antonio Triventi.


How? Ask questions – ask a lot of questions. Think of yourself as a student of daily life, extracting useful information and lessons from situations around you. And you must never give up, ever! You must be inspired to inspire others, and your passion will be the major source of inspiration for others.

Obviously, laser safety leaders must have a suitable set of skills in their arsenals; to put it simply, they must be competent. But rank, position and authority don’t contribute to effective laser safety leadership. If you are appointed laser safety officer, pursue “leadership by commitment” instead of “leadership by compliance.” Don’t be diverted by the word “officer” in your professional title; you are not the “photon cop”!

Leadership by compliance is exerting formal power and being the boss. Strictly using codes and regulations to force others to do what you want is easy to set up, but it is energy-depleting for everyone involved. This approach gives you only what you have asked for and makes personnel comply with the letter of the policy but not with its spirit. That kind of laser safety leadership houses subtle sabotage; worse, it is inefficient because you have to always be present to ensure compliance.

Leadership by commitment, however, means that your team members internalize what you want them to do and, ultimately, they will follow your game plan because they want to stay safe. This way, your influence is kept alive even when you are not around, and you can get the outcomes you want even if you are not physically on site. To quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

This leadership style is energy-expanding and enhances your professional achievements: It allows you to creatively strive to reach shared purposes and work in the best interests of the organization. It also facilitates the establishment of sound laser safety.


Antonio Triventi CHP, CLSO


So personnel involvement is crucial. Workers involved feel that the laser safety program is their own and not imposed on them by you. They see your requirements and recommendations as long-term enhancement of their workplace. But be sure to set realistic expectations without overselling values and ideals, and keep the laser safety program open to revision and reconsideration if events indicate that modifications are needed.

Give before you are asked. In other words, create and develop interactive systems. For example, face-to-face communication and regular laser safety audits and meetings foster open dialogue and trust beyond conventional, rigid reporting tools or checklists. As I said earlier, organizational attention and learning rely on the direct involvement of participants: The personnel involved gain commitment for cultural change and its effective implementation.

Another aspect of interactive systems is the ability of the laser safety leader to identify whose support will be required for the systems to succeed and to create or develop political coalitions and cohesion among different layers of the organization. Useful and productive support can come from subordinates, peers, supervisors, line managers, safety designates, operators, scientists, engineers, executives and top management. If your team members have an idea, then they want it to be heard – they want to have a voice.

Imagine that everyone would like to have input in your program. Create an atmosphere of psychological safety by listening, and your team will feel safe to contribute. This approach enhances the performance of your team members and makes it more effective in the execution of your game plan. Give them responsibility, and delegate things to them. Consider yourself the director of the laser safety program who is helped by numerous laser safety project managers; personnel will feel like they are “in charge.”

The key here is to identify who is responsible for what as you work on addressing obstacles and issues. Then, set a timetable and deadlines for tasks’ completion. But remember, interactive systems require strong commitment.

To develop a safety culture, we laser safety officers must treat our safety programs as social activities. We must think about ourselves as coaches of extraordinary teams. We must think not only about what we do but also what our team members do. We must pay attention to the tasks and the people because one without the other is ineffective.

As laser safety leaders, we must push people to accomplish our tasks, but we must sincerely care about our people, too. We must be supportive and praise them, but then we must push them to do more. This is “tough love”: People will not appreciate us pushing them until they see the end results of our pushing – for instance, a clear/clean report from state inspectors or federal auditors. We may encounter resistance, but we must keep pushing and caring.

Albert Einstein is considered to be one of the most influential leaders of all time. Louis de Broglie, the 1929 Nobel Prize winner in physics, wrote this about Einstein in his 1962 book New Perspectives in Physics: “I was particularly won over by his sweet disposition, by his general kindness, by his simplicity, and by his friendliness. Occasionally, gaiety would gain the upper hand and he would strike a more personal note and even disclose some detail of his day-to-day life. Then again, reverting to his characteristic mood of reflection and meditation, he would launch into a profound and original discussion of a variety of scientific and other problems. I shall always remember the enchantment of all those meetings, from which I carried away an indelible impression of Einstein’s great human qualities.”

Our ultimate goal is to develop people’s skills so that they can perform on their own and contribute to the success of the program. And we will share the success and even form stronger bonds through celebrating victories. As laser safety leaders, we must see a better world and use our own human qualities to help other people see it, too.

Meet the author

Antonio Triventi is a health physicist and LSO at Northwestern University as well as president of the National Institute for Laser Safety Officers and Health Physicists (www.nilsohp.org). He is a member of the American Academy of Health Physics, the Health Physics Society, the Laser Institute of America and the ANSI Accredited Standards Committee Z136. He also is a licensed Italian professional engineer, a certified health physicist (CHP) through the American Board of Health Physics, and a certified laser safety officer (CLSO) through the Board of Laser Safety; email: antonio@nilsohp.org.



How to Ensure Laser Safety Success

• Inspire trust.

• Ask questions.

• Pursue leadership by commitment.

• Develop interactive systems.

• Push people – but care about them.



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