Hazards of Handheld Scanners

By Shea Laverty

A woman using a hand held scanner.
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While obviously less powerful or cool than those in science fiction, the lasers in commercial handheld scanners can still pose safety risks. Eye injury is by far the most common hazard, and the only one serious enough to warrant a warning label on all Class II laser devices by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding staring into the beam. Fortunately, most injuries resulting from handheld scanners are minor, temporary and easy to prevent.

Temporary Flash Blindness

The most common injury that can occur using handheld scanners is temporary flash blindness. Anyone who's ever endured a camera flash right in the eyes knows what it feels like to look into a bar code scanner -- temporary blindness and potentially eye pain and headache. Fortunately, just like those from a camera flash, these symptoms are very short-lived and should clear up within a minute or two with no lasting damage. Unless you're trying to price-check your irises, the likelihood of sustaining this injury is fairly slim, especially if you handle your scanner with care.

Secondary Accidents

The real hazard from handheld scanners comes as a result of secondary injury during temporary flash blindness. When experiencing flash blindness, moving around too much could easily leave you blundering into something else, sustaining a worse injury than just a little flash headache. Depending on what's going on around you, a secondary incident caused by temporary flash blindness could be very dangerous -- it might even get you killed. If you suffer from flash blindness from your scanner, try to stay still and wait for your sight to return.

Retinal Burn

An extremely unlikely, but still possible, injury is retinal burn. The lasers in handheld scanners emit radiation which can burn your retina due to prolonged exposure, much like staring at the sun for too long. This injury won't happen to most people, as you'll instinctively look away from intense light in order to protect your eyes from damage. So long as you aren't dedicated to the painfully bizarre concept of staring into the laser for as long as possible, it's unlikely you'll suffer this injury.

Handheld Document Scanners

If you're using a scanner designed to read documents instead of bar codes, most of the same rules apply. Both devices fill very different roles in different ways, but they pose the same risk of eye injury. Document scanners have to illuminate the document so the reader can detect what's on the surface. The bright lights used to used in these scanners can injure your eyes in much the same fashion as the lasers in a bar code scanner can. These injuries are even more unlikely however, as the scanner and illumination are almost always pressed face down into the document. Realistically the only way these scanners could injure your eyes is if you hold the scanning surface up to them, which obviously is something you should avoid doing.

Repetitive Stress Injury

Another potential injury that can occur is repetitive stress injury, resulting from repeating the same motion over and over. Most handheld bar code scanners require you to pull a trigger to activate the scanning laser, a motion that after hundreds and thousands of repetitions can lead to strain in the fingers and hands. Over time, this strain can lead to considerable pain and may even make the motion difficult or impossible to repeat for a long time. To prevent this strain, be sure to stretch your hands and fingers whenever they begin to feel stiff. You can also mitigate the strain some by switching hands periodically when one hand needs a break.