LVR Optical - Laser & Optical Radiation Safety

BLOG: Audience Scanning in the UK - Legal Status

Audience laser scanningAudience scanning can be an emotive topic and sometimes controversial with polarised views on whether it should be allowed or not, and confusion over the legal status.

In this article I’ll explain the current status of using lasers to perform audience scanning at events.

What is audience scanning?

Firstly we should clarify what audience scanning actually is. Any laser light that enters areas where the public may be present, is considered to be audience scanning. There is no distinction between how the light gets to the audience; it may be through direct galvanometer scanning, mirror ball reflection, or the use of diffraction grating effects. In each case however, as the light makes contact with the audience, it is considered audience scanning or audience exposure.

What are the concerns?

The principal concern that safety experts have is that exposure to laser light may cause damage to the eyesight of those being directly exposed to the laser effect, particularly if the laser radiation used in the effect exceeds the permitted safe exposure limits. The majority of lasers used for lightshow applications have the potential to exceed the safety limits, therefore increasing the risk of harm to those being exposed. Over the years there have been a number of laser installations and incidents where excessive laser light has been used for audience scanning.

Establishing how much light is safe, how much is actually being emitted, and what could happen in the case of a reasonably foreseeable fault condition, are all topics that require attention when considering an audience exposure application. It’s not always a straightforward task to undertake the assessment required, and there have been numerous accounts of installations not bothering, or not getting things right, allowing excessive exposure to occur. The difficulties in the assessment process, issues over equipment reliability, operator competence (and trustworthiness) have lead to the default position in the UK that audience scanning is something that should not routinely take place.

Why the attraction?

If exposure to the light carries a risk of harming those viewing it, why bother taking the risk? Many would say that the sight of vivid structures of light sweeping in close proximity and directly into an audience is a visually stunning effect, unable to be created by other types of light. Laser light therefore has an appeal as being a different type of special effect lighting.

Is it legal? - Local Authority Involvement: Venue Licence Requirements

At virtually all places where lasers are used for entertainment the venue itself is required to have a Premises Licence, granted by the Local Authority. The use of laser light shows themselves is not a licensable activity, but the provision of other activities that normally take place at entertainment venues usually are. The primary examples being the serving of alcohol, provision of music and dancing, late hours, etc. In considering any Premises Licence application and operation the Local Authority has four key objectives:

  1. The Prevention of Crime and Disorder
  2. Public Safety
  3. The Prevention of Public Nuisance
  4. The Protection of Children from Harm

It’s with the public safety objective in mind that Local Authorities can place requirements on the venue’s Premises Licence to help ensure that members of the public are not harmed by the activities carried out at the venue. Local Authorities across the UK manage the use of lasers and other special effects in differing ways. Normally the more ‘aware’ Local Authorities, (either through having a bad experience with one or more laser suppliers in the past, or by the fact that they have major entertainment venues within their geographical area that regularly use lasers), will appear to place more stringent requirements on the venue operator to ensure public safety. Premises Licences in such places may have a written requirement for a safety check to be carried out by a qualified third party prior to use, or for the laser installation documentation to be sent to the Local Authority for consideration. In the case of audience scanning, some Local Authorities may specify additional control measures that have to be implemented in order help ensure public safety. These can include requesting that the use of lasers exposing the audience is monitored by a third party safety specialist during performance, and will be stopped if the levels change from those previously agreed during the installation.

If there are concerns that the public may be put at risk by something the venue is doing, or allow to happen, then the Local Authority can request that an activity does not take place. The request can be an informal one, after the documentation is first submitted through the venue. In more serious instances when the Local Authority has evidence that something is already putting the audience at risk, they can take enforcement action through an Improvement Notice or a Prohibition Notice.

Some of this may sound negative, but over the years Local Authorities have had what they would consider to be good reason to not routinely allow audience scanning.

Is it Legal? - Workplace Exposure Limits

Separate to any Local Authority interest/intervention is health and safety legislation that sets the minimum requirements for how laser safety should be managed. Since April 2010 the maximum amount of laser light that workers may be exposed, (MPE), has been regulated. The UK regulations set the MPE limits defined in EC Directive 2006/25/EC as being mandatory. i.e. it is a criminal offence to allow worker exposure to laser light in excess of these limits.

But the limits just cover workers, so what about the public? In a nightclub, arena, or festival, employees, such as stewards, security, bar staff, etc., will almost certainly be working in areas where the public are present. It is therefore a requirement of the laser effects provider to ensure the levels are kept below the exposure limits.

Venue Requirements

Venue operators, too, also have a duty of care to not harm visitors to their establishment. There are moral and financial reasons for not wanting to gain a reputation of putting visitors at risk. So, in addition to the minimum requirements set by legislation, and accepted guidance, the venue operator may have its own ‘house rules’ over the use of lasers, which can specify how any laser effects should be used.


Although not routinely allowed, if a strong enough safety case can be presented for an installation that exposes an audience to laser light, with sufficient care these types of effects have been, and can be, used without breaking any laws or harming people.

  • There is no formal laser licence required to perform laser shows or produce audience scanning/exposure effect.
  • Due to the difficulties in ensuring laser effects are suitable for audience scanning, and will be maintained during the performance, the default position of most venues and Local Authorities is to not routinely permit lasers to expose the audience.
  • To help ensure public safety, Local Authorities may place formal obligations on the Premises Licence holder (the venue). This may include specifying the process for using lasers at the venue and how the safety checks must be conducted.
  • For this reason permission to audience scan should be sought from the licence holder, i.e. the venue.
  • Normally the laser installer/operator will have to provide evidence of how any laser effects will be installed and used. If audience exposure is planned, then details of how levels will be assessed and maintained below the safety limits must be provided.
  • Some Local Authorities and venues may require audience exposure to be monitored by a third party during the performance.
  • Local Authorities act autonomously across the UK, so the approach to how lasers are used in entertainment venues varies, ranging not knowing about laser use, through to carrying out the checks themselves.
  • Irrespective of Local Authority involvement, there is specific workplace safety legislation that specifies how lasers should be managed, and sets the limits for the maximum amount of light that workers (e.g. venue staff / performers) may be exposed.
  • Venues and Local Authorities expect to see competent and knowledgeable laser operators at venues. This is even more so if the laser provider wants to perform audience scanning/exposure.

A further document from our Blog series on Audience scanning myths can be found here.

For further indepth information, LVR offer a 1 day training course "Advanced Laser Show Designers Workshop". A unique hands-on practical workshop for designers and operators of laser effects wanting to produce effects that create safe exposure levels for audience illumination.

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