Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome
Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) can occur as a result of using specific types of equipment or machinery at work. The most likely culprits generally are hand-held or hand-guided power tools. Misuse or overuse of such equipment can lead to severe health problems that can be disabling and painful. These include serious disorders affecting joints, nerves and blood vessels.
Up to 2 million people in UK workplaces may be exposed to disabling health problems as a result of vibrations transmitted through work processes and tools. It’s important to be aware that HAVS is entirely preventable, although its effects can be permanent, and responsible employers will take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and welfare of their workforce.
Health problems associated with HAVS
It is an employer’s responsibility to be mindful of their employees’ risk levels when scheduling work. Employers are also required to be vigilant about dealing promptly with any health issues that arise. Incorrect use of power tools can rob an individual of the ability to undertake work requiring delicate handling (‘fine work’). Overexposure to cold conditions can also cause painful attacks of ‘finger blanching’, where the tips of the fingers become pale and cold.
The types of equipment that can cause HAVS if used incorrectly or for too long include:
- Brush cutters
- Chipping hammers
- Concrete breakers and pokers
- Construction scabblers
- Disc cutters
- Hammer drills
- Hedge trimmers
- Needle guns
- Powered lawnmowers
Remember that you are also at risk if you hold tools or equipment, such as pedestal grinders, for example, which vibrate during processing by powered machinery. It is important that employers display appropriate warning and safety procedure signs where such machinery is in use. These can be customised to exact requirements so that instructions to employees are very clear.
Suitable safety precautions should always be taken in the workplace. In 2005, The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations were introduced to improve protection against HAVS. These regulations set out specific values relating to exposure. For example, employees should be reminded not to operate any tools with a hammer action for more than 15 minutes in a single day. Similarly, there are some rotary or action tools that should not be used for more than approximately one hour per day.
Employers should first ensure that a risk assessment is carried out by a competent individual. This may be someone inside the company or it may be an external advisor with the appropriate level of expertise. The purpose of the risk assessment is to deliver a comprehensive set of guidelines detailing levels of risk associated with different levels of exposure.
The government has set out ways to measure the impact of vibration according to two criteria:
- Daily exposure action value (EAV)
- Daily exposure limit value (ELV)
In the case of exceeding EAV, it is the employer’s responsibility to introduce a programme of controls that will either eliminate risk, or reduce employees’ exposure to as low a level as is practicable. In the case of exceeding ELV, employers must take immediate action to reduce employees’ exposure until it is below the limit value. It may also be possible to do this by substituting a different piece of manufacturing equipment for the power tool that is causing problems. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has a list of useful ideas for substituting equipment in foundries, on construction sites and in heavy steel manufacturing plants.
Early signs and symptoms
If you are worried about long term and permanent risks to your health and you use hand-held or hand-guided power tools regularly, be aware of the early signs that you may have a problem:
Loss of strength in your hands – you may have difficulty picking up or holding heavy objects
- Loss of the ability to feel things with your fingers
- Persistent numbness and tingling in the fingers, which sometimes causes sleep disturbance
- Vibration white finger – the tips of your fingers turn white and then painfully red, especially in cold and wet environments
Permanent problems can result from these symptoms if you continue to use vibrating power tools, such as:
- The strength in your hands may diminish so that it becomes difficult to pick up small objects, such as nails or screws
- Your hands may become permanently numb so that you are unable to feel things at all
- More of your fingers become affected by vibration white finger
Employers who are worried about their employees partial or total exposure to HAVS should make a point of keeping up with current technological advances, as new products that could replace some of the more traditional machinery are in development all the time.
Vibration exposure monitoring
Employers often have questions about monitoring vibration exposure, such as:
- Do I need to monitor all the time?
- Do I need to measure exposure when a worker is actually using a power tool?
- Can I use a log book instead of an electronic monitoring system?
- Are wearable monitors appropriate for employees using power tools?
- How do I use monitoring data?
Visit the government website to access answers to all these questions and other helpful information. In brief, continual monitoring is not necessary. However:
- Monitoring the use of tools in a typical day or week should be undertaken as part of your risk assessment
- Interpreting the data you collect should result in positive actions to ensure employee welfare
- Employees whose exposure gets close to the recommended EAV or ELV should be provided with regular health checks
- You may find that your insurance company will require you keep records at specific intervals
- There is no harm in using electronic devices, however it’s important to check how they are actually functioning as ‘vibration meters’
- Remember that hand-arm vibration monitors must be firmly attached to the vibration tool
- It is strongly recommended by HSE that the data employers collect is compared with similar data from other sources for reasons of clarity and validity
A happy workforce is a productive one and it is in an employer’s best interests to ensure the workforce is also a healthy one. Taking the time to implement the regulations regarding the safe use of power tools will stand any employer in good stead.