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US: Burning Man desert event bans handheld lasers after 2014 accident

Organizers of the Burning Man event, held each year in the Nevada desert, have banned handheld lasers. The April 15 2015 announcement by Black Rock City, LLC comes after paid and volunteer staff “reported feeling unsafe because they were repeatedly flashed by handheld lasers” at the August 2014 event.

In addition, volunteer Kelli Halston Hoversten suffered two permanent eye injuries during the climactic “Man Burn” in 2014. Her left eye was permanently blinded by a handheld laser, and her right eye was partially blinded by a vehicle-mounted laser. (The injuries significantly affected her. Hoversten “lost her job as an arborist because they can’t insure her now” and she no longer rock climbs or ice climbs recreationally due to the loss of depth perception. She is allowed to drive but “just barely” since her central vision is blocked.)

According to an article about the policy change in the Reno Gazette-Journal, Hoversten will attend the 2015 Burning Man event, in part because of the new laser policy.

The Burning Man ban on handheld lasers applies even to low-powered laser pointers less than 5 mW in power. In a separate blog post comment, Burning Man press official Will Chase wrote: “Because of the difficulty in discerning the difference between dangerous and non-dangerous handheld lasers — and because you don’t want to be wrong — it’s been decided to prohibit all handheld lasers.”

The new webpage with the laser policy also noted that the restriction on handheld lasers “is in line with nearly all major festivals and events in the United States and Europe.”

Non-handheld lasers are still allowed at Burning Man if they are on art installations, “DMV Mutant Vehicles,” or are in theme camps. Such lasers must be disclosed on the art, vehicle or camp application. An Event Safety Officer will review the applications; only safe uses will be allowed.
The laser page at the Burning Man website includes these points:

  • Follow industry guidelines. (Links are provided to pages from the International Laser Display Association on overall safety, federal laws, and audience scanning.)
  • Treat laser operations as a serious safety matter.
  • Ensure all operators are sober.
  • Designate someone to monitor the laser to make sure it is operated safely.
  • If your laser operates automatically or without an operator, have someone monitor the system so they can shut it down if necessary.

The page concludes “… if you are unsure about laser safety, please include a professional laser operator in the planning and execution of your laser activity. Unsafe laser installations will not be permitted to operate.”


The Burning Man policy change is especially significant because of the event’s traditional antipathy towards rules and restrictions.

In the separate blog post about the announcement, a Burning Man representative began by writing “While the list of things you can do at Burning Man is about as long as your imagination, the list of things you can’t do at Burning Man is very, very short…. We firmly believe that people should exercise their own personal responsibility when it comes to their entertainment and personal safety. The Burning Man organization has long resisted establishing rules when we could instead establish community guidelines that would accomplish the same thing.”

The blog post went on to say, “We didn’t know of any other incidents like this one in the 30 years of our event, but once her [Hoversten’s] story went out on the airwaves, we started hearing from other folks who’d been hit by lasers but had not reported anything to us.”

As of April 17 2015 the majority of commenters on the blog post who expressed an opinion were favorable towards the change, both for safety reasons and aesthetic ones. For example: “Perfect. I cannot tell you how annoyed people around me were that every nighttime art display was covered with jiggly dots. Good Call!”

From BurningMan.org”s Black Rock City Guide laser policy webpage, and a ”Voices of Burning Man” blog post explaining the new policy. An article about the policy change appeared April 17 2015 in the Reno Gazette-Journal. LaserPointerSafety.com had an article in September 2014 about Hoversten’s eye injury.