Guest Column | July 16, 2019

Microlearning Applied To Laser Safety

By Ken Barat, CLSO, Laser Safety Solutions

Employee Training

An effective industry is one that continuously reevaluates its learning techniques for the work force. Toward this end, across various industries, the approach known as “microlearning” has received a great deal of attention. This article explains the concept and demonstrates how it can be applied in laser use settings to the advantage of staff, researchers, and management.

Principles and Practice

Microlearning is concept of teaching and delivering content in small, discreet bursts that learners can comprehend in a short amount time. Three to five minutes is the suggested time frame for each burst, if delivered in an e-format, and 10 minutes is the suggested time frame with a live instructor.

Microlearning most often is delivered online via smartphone, tablet, or some other electronic media. In the laser application setting, microlearning can be effectively performed in the electronic format, as well as through individual or small-group settings.

It is easier for adults to learn and retain information given in a limited time frame, compared to content presented over hours or days, which is the common training approach — attention wanders, no matter how good the instructor (“death by PowerPoint” is real). Some studies suggest that 30 days after a typical training session, 90 percent of presented material is forgotten.

Additionally, microlearning can be an effective way to fill perceived “skill gaps” present among inexperienced staff. This approach allows trainees to concentrate on a select skill set, without being distracted by other training goals, which may be irrelevant to those employees’ day-to-day responsibilities. In this respect, microlearning is somewhat like the “Qual Card” approach used in some high-tech operations. Therefore, microlearning can be understood to aid in enhancing the skill level of staff, as well as help with employees’ understanding of modifications to equipment and procedures.

While some managers may feel microlearning conducted in-person adds to down time, the value of effective learning and the application of trainees’ enhanced skills is well worth the investment for organizations. That said, every manager needs to ask him or herself, “Am I looking for training compliance, thinking of regulatory compliance, or am I looking for training competency?” Managers simply looking to indemnify themselves in terms of regulatory compliance should not be surprised at the presence of accidents and poor work quality.

Applications in Laser Safety

So, how can we take this learning technique and apply it to laser safety with the goal of enhancing the learning experience? What topics work well within this short-burst training approach?

Before those questions can be answered, three elements of laser safety — applicable to all settings — must be evaluated and understood:

  1. Are we safe? — Specifically, “am I safe from a laser or related hazard in doing my assigned activity?” Rarely have I found a setup where I felt unsafe just being in the area. If the user is not safe, well, it’s time to establish control measures to achieve safe operation. It is the responsibility of laser safety officers (LSOs) to ensure laser safety in the workplace.
  2. Is there a perception of risk? — Specifically, would someone passing by a setup or working nearby feel a risk is present? This perception can easily occur if, say, one has diffuse green scatter. In such situations, one MUST act as if a real hazard is present, even if no actual hazard exists: the work of a staff that feels uncomfortable in their workspace is likely to suffer and, if the situation remains unaddressed for any amount of time, management is inviting worker complaints to a regulatory body or union representative.
  3. Does documentation exist? — It is critical to create a paper (or electronic) trail tracking all safety training and safety related decisions. The saying remains as true today as ever: “not documented, not done.”

Further, it is worth noting that microlearning-based training can repeat and reinforce items from initial training; fine detail explanation works well within this quick style training. Additionally, many organizations face an experience gap, where seasoned staff are retiring and new employees are asked to fill in. Many experienced staff wish to pass on their knowledge, but may feel new folks are not receptive to their stories. Offer these experienced staffers the chance to help develop these short topic presentations — if not in-person, then perhaps in YouTube-like videos.

In my mind, the proper approach depends on the workforce one is trying to reach. The electronic format works well in manufacturing, medical, or fabrication settings, while I see the live instructor approach working best in academic and research settings. The key rationale is that in-person microlearning allows for trainees to ask questions, highlight problem areas, and weigh in with suggestions. In manufacturing, medical, and fabrication settings, the electronic approach can work effectively because the material is available to staff when time allows for such training.

Microlearning enables lesson customization based on language and/or the traineee’s experience level. Constructing lessons in the format of a game, where points are awarded, has been found to motivate staff, especially if there is a means to show which person has the most points for a set number of common lessons.

Specific to our industry, microlearning excels in preparing staff for short-duration laser activities. Concise, focused lessons can really drive home points of emphasis and prevent misunderstandings, ensuring staff understand the required work and do not count on “I did something like this before; guess we can figure it out.”

Consider the following examples where microlearning can prove effective in teaching or reinforcing lessons relevant to laser work and laser safety:

  • Demonstrating the concept of visible light transmission of eyewear — For example, how sometimes glass eyewear, while heavier and more expensive, might be a better solution than a lightweight plastic lens for visibility in some work settings.
  • Reviewing controls for service conditions/safety steps during preventive maintenance — Many times, “service” means bypassing control measures. Reviewing such controls and how/why employees should respect those controls is critical to real-world safety.
  • Reinforcing product label meaning — Product labels and classification can sometimes seem to give conflicting messages.
  • Explaining the reflectivity of mirrors and enclosures — Detail how reflectivity is based on the size of the wavelength versus surface imperfections, not color. Dispelling the myth that black absorbs every wavelength.
  • Positioning of CCD cameras — particularly relevant when dealing with hard-to-reach locations
  • Hazards from periscope optics
  • How to conduct and document interlock checks
  • Explaining critical bending of fiber optics, as well as critical bend angle
  • Explaining why swimmer-type goggles are better for protecting patients’ eyes than gauze (medtech)
  • Understanding hazards from broken fibers
  • Protection from viewing windows and optics

An additional innovation for on-the-spot microlearning is the use of QR codes at worksites, each containing pertinent information, ranging from SOPs and operational steps to safety reminders. These codes can be scanned by an employee’s smartphone, if the work environment provides internet access; if internet access is not an option, interactive tablets in the or in-person discussion may present a more viable option.


Microlearning is among the techniques organizations should consider in their constant quest to keep people safe, expand skills, and build a culture that does not see safety or training as a chore, but rather an integral and necessary part of the workplace environment.

Precision Resources, Walmart, and Merck are among the notable firms using this technique with positive results. It does take effort and desire to start down this road, but a progressive management can see this approach’s advantages beyond the initial concept of safety.  

About The Author

Ken Barat, CLSO, is the principal consultant at Laser Safety Solutions. He is the former Laser Safety Officer for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Ignition Facility. He is the author of several text books on laser safety. He has served as the laser safety adviser for Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory, ELI, and Allen Institute, among others. Laser Institute of America Fellow, Rockwell award winner and senior member IEEE & SPIE. Part of “Ask the expert” team for the Health Physics Society. The organizer and executive director of the first seven LSO Workshops.