Excerpt from the OH&S Canada Magazine
By Jason Contant
An air ambulance pilot who suffered retinal damage after being blinded by a laser pointer remained off work almost two months following the incident.
In September, a Canadian Helicopters Ltd. pilot was transferring a patient to an Ottawa hospital when he was targeted, just one of 52 such incidents reported in Canada from last January to mid-October, says Transport Canada spokesperson Deborah Baxter. That compares with 56 incidents in 2008, 21 in 2007 and three each in 2006 and 2005.
While these occurrences are infrequent, “it’s something that we are very concerned about,” says Rob Blakely, vice-president of EMS operations with Canadian Helicopters, a transportation services company with offices in Quebec and Alberta. “Having a pilot temporarily blinded by a laser… could result in us having to pull an active aircraft from service, which could be detrimental to a patient we are transporting,” Blakely cautions. It could also put at risk the safety of paramedics and pilots on board, he says.
Baxter points out that the “safety risk of a laser directed at an aircraft cockpit is greatest when the exposure comes during a time of high workload, such as take-off, a critical or emergency manoeuvre and landing.”
Captain Barry Wiszniowski, chair of the technical and safety division of the Air Canada Pilots Association, based in Mississauga, Ontario, agrees, saying that landings for example, are “a critical phase of flight and it’s a horrible time to be having two professional pilots distracted.”
Hand-held laser pointers with green light are more popular than the red-light version since they are about 35 times brighter, Wiszniowski reports. The green pointers have been used in 86 per cent of Canada’s reported incidents as of late last October, including the one in Ottawa. Depending on the pointer’s strength, he notes, laser beams can be seen from hundreds of feet to several miles away.
There are three main potential effects associated with laser pointing, Wiszniowski says: glare — obscuring an object in the person’s field of vision; afterimage — a shadow image left after exposure to bright light that may persist for several seconds to several minutes; and flashblindness — a visual interference effect that lingers after the source of illumination has ceased, such as is the case with a camera flash. With the last, he notes, “you’re actually going to see nothing. You’re going to be blinded for a duration of time.”
If convicted of directing a light source at an aircraft, an offender could face the $100,000 top fine under the Aeronautics Act, imprisonment of up to five years, or both,” Baxter says. In the case of a summary conviction, an offender could be fined $25,000 or be sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.
Courts must “understand the severity of the consequences,” Wiszniowski argues. “It would be catastrophic if a pilot was impaired by a laser and lost all situational awareness.”
The laser pointers, I thought, were a problem of the past. I guess I was wrong. All pilots have to be protected from this sort of incident as a crash from this would be catastrophic.
Remember — In Ontario, “ALL Accidents are Preventable”
‘Work’ and ‘Play’ safe.
Daniel L. Beal
CHSEP – Foundation Level
VP & Senior Trainer