Prolonged and repeated contact with vibrating tools, equipment and materials puts workers at risk of developing hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). While it is also referred to as VWF or vibration white finger the medical description is Raynauds Phenomenon. Exposure to hand and arm vibration comes from the use of almost every hand-held power tools (including angle grinders, disc cutters and hammer drills), hand-guided machinery (such as floor polishers, grass and brush cutters and plate compactors) and machines fed by hand (such as pedestal grinders).
Hand arm vibration will affect nerves, joints, muscles, blood vessels or connective tissues in the hand and forearm. The early onset of HAVs will show as:
- Tingling or numbness in the fingers. In severe cases the whole finger down to the knuckles may become white and feeling may be lost.
- Fingers turn white or blue after sudden (but not necessarily large) changes in temperature; fingers rapidly become pale and feeling is lost.
As the syndrome develops these symptoms become more pronounced and there will be significant loss of manual dexterity. Attacks may occur frequently, not only at work, but during leisure activities, such as gardening, car washing or even watching outdoor sports.
The effect of vibration is cumulative and is also irreversible.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. HAVS is preventable and regulations require that employers adopt control measures
- To prevent individual employees being exposed to vibration levels greater than 5.0m/s2 averaged over the working day.
- And where exposure is less than 5.0m/s2 but greater than 2.5m/s2 introduce technical and organisational measures to keep exposure as low as reasonably practicable.
- Provide routine periodic health surveillance for those likely to be exposed to vibration at or above 2.5m/s2. Early identification of the onset of symptoms will allow preventive action and stop their further development.
Employers often overlook the hazard of hand arm vibration failing to spot that quite small, often innocuous, hand tools can cause such significant ill health problems. It’s a hazard that gives the enforcing authorities an easy opening for enforcement action. By the time a significant case is diagnosed uncontrolled exposure will have taken place over a number of years!
Just recently bus and coach builder Alexander Dennis Ltd. was been fined after it ignored multiple warnings about the risk to its workers’ health from overuse of hand-held power tools. For several years the company failed to heed expert advice, specialist reports and complaints from workers of pain, discomfort, numbness and whiteness in their fingers.
Sheffield Crown Court heard that nine workers, at an Alexander Dennis after sales depot in South Yorkshire, were diagnosed with HAVS in 2012. On investigation the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found almost 25 workers with uncontrolled exposure to hand-arm transmitted vibration. They had not been given any information or instruction on how to minimise the risk from vibration and there was no health surveillance programme to check for early signs of HAVS. None of the reasonably practicable control measures such as restricting the type of hand-held power tools or the length of time they used were in place. Some tools were old and worn out which meant that vibration levels were increased.
Imposing a fine of £100,000 plus £18,643 His Honour Judge Gargan described the company’s failings as inexplicable and highly culpable.
Last year, in a very similar case an aerospace engineering firm was prosecuted at Nottingham Crown Court after 24 of its workers were diagnosed with debilitating nerve conditions after being exposed to high levels of vibration. Some of the workers had to undergo operations and some had to be removed from the work they were doing.
The issue came to the Health and Safety Executive’s attention 5 years after employees had first asked the company to carry out a suitable risk assessment for exposure to vibration, and act on the result. In that time there had been an assessment which identified that some, including drills, grinders and hammers, posed a high risk from exposure to vibration. But they remained in service without controls for 4 years until the Health and Safety Executive intervened. Although the company had provided some health surveillance for employees, it was not sufficient to identify symptoms early and refer individuals to occupational health specialists for timely diagnosis and management.
These failures cost the company a £125,000 fine and costs of £65,805. They will also have faced their own legal costs, additional costs of lost opportunity, and can expect future civil claims from each of the employees and an increased insurance premium.
Peninsula BusinessSafe clients will find specific advice and guidance on HAVS, legal requirements and control measures in Guidance Note 5-1 Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome. Similarly Guidance Note 1-7 Occupational Health and Health Surveillance contains a wealth of information and guidance on those subjects.
For more information on any of the issues raised above, call our 24 hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2785 and speak to one our competent qualified business safety consultants.