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Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome

Workers who regularly use hand-held machinery that vibrates are potentially at risk of developing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

This widespread industrial disease can be caused by the prolonged use of chainsaws, pneumatic drills, road breakers, powered lawnmowers, grinders, floor polishers, sanders, and many other vibrating tools.

Most sufferers experience the form known as 'vibration white finger' (VWF),  although it can affect the blood vessels, nerves, muscles and joints of the hand, wrist and arm. Injury can occur at frequencies between 5 and 2000 Hz, although the greatest risk is between 50 and 150 Hz. Using a tool that vibrates slightly for a long period can be just as damaging as using a heavily vibrating tool for a short period.

High-risk jobs

Some of the most common jobs to involve regular and frequent exposure to significant vibration are found in industries such as construction and civil work; engineering; forestry; foundries; motor vehicle manufacture and repair; maintenance of parks, gardens, verges, grounds etc; shipbuilding and ship repair; and utilities (e.g. gas, water, telecommunications).

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of HAVS can limit the jobs that sufferers can do as well as their ability to complete normal, everyday tasks and social activities. Specific symptoms include:

  • Tingling, numbness or a 'whiteness' in the fingers due to blood vessels and nerves being affected. In milder cases, only the finger tips are affected but as the condition worsens, the entire finger down to the knuckles may become white and feeling may be lost.
  • Fingers changing colour. When blood vessels are affected, sufferers may experience periodic attacks in which the fingers change colour when they are exposed to cold temperatures. At first the fingers turn pale and lose feeling, but this phase is followed by an intense red flush, which is sometimes preceded by a bluish hue, as blood circulation returns to the fingers – usually along with an uncomfortable throbbing feeling.
  • A loss of manual dexterity, sometimes for up to an hour at a time. Both reduced grip strength and severe pain can be experienced when the nerves and muscles are affected, particularly in cold weather and during outdoor activities whether it is at work or whilst gardening, washing the car, or even watching sports.
  • The effects of the disease are cumulative and, in the most extreme cases, people can eventually lose fingers. When symptoms initially appear they often disappear after a short period of time, but if exposure to hand arm vibrations continues over many months or years the symptoms often worsen and eventually never go away.

Minimising the risks

There are many ways in which you can minimise the risk of injury from vibration:

  • Try to find alternatives to using vibrating machines / tools.
  • If you must use vibrating equipment, source items specifically designed to be low-vibration.
  • Avoid exerting too much grip pressure while you are holding the tool.
  • Ensure tools you use are suitable for the intended task.
  • Use equipment that is well-maintained (e.g. that includes attachments that are kept sharp, such as drill bits, chisels, etc) and has a valid test certificate.
  • Wear suitable protective clothing, particularly on the hands (to keep them warm).
  • Take regular breaks from working with vibrating tools, and exercise your fingers at regular intervals.

These are just a handful of the tips that employers can pass on to their employees in order to help reduce their risk of developing HAVS.

Official regulations

The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 introduce 'action' and 'limit' values for hand-arm and whole-body vibration. The regulations require employers to:

  • make sure that risks from vibration are controlled;
  • provide information, instruction and training to employees on the risk and the actions being taken to control risk; and
  • provide suitable health surveillance.

How to manage the risks

Vibration is measured in ‘metres per second squared’. This is abbreviated to m/s2 or MS-5, with the last figure indicating the vibration level. The higher the figure the greater the vibration level.

There is a simple 'traffic light' system to help identify the appropriate level of usage for each piece of equipment:

Green (low risk): Low vibration levels between 0-5m/s2 - eight hours maximum daily usage.

Amber (medium risk): Medium vibration levels between 5-10m/s2 - two hours maximum daily usage.

Red (high risk): High vibration levels over 10m/s2 - assess the risk on an individual basis. Minimal usage time.

The most accurate figures, however, are those produced from 'real-life' testing by establishments such as OPERC, a non-profit making, independent body that was established at Loughborough University. OPERC shares information gathered from research and helps to promote plant and equipment science.

Logging vibration risks

When you are managing vibration risks, make sure you keep thorough records to log all exposure for each employee (showing daily exposure levels in points), as this protects both employee and employer. Over time this builds up into a personal record that can be kept and referred to by both parties to provide a full exposure history, and which employees can take with them if they move on to new jobs in the future.

The HSE recommends that the Exposure Action Value (EAV) must not exceed 100 points in a single day, and the Exposure Limit Value (ELV) must not exceed 400 points in a day – and steps should be taken to remove operators from jobs if they regularly exceed 100 points in a single day.

Our policy

We have a responsibility to help reduce the amount of vibration that our customers are exposed to, and we will always try to find a suitable alternative to vibrating tools whenever possible. However, some jobs do demand vibrating tools – so we select our hire stock responsibly to ensure that it is from manufacturers that are constantly striving to reduce the risk to end users. When you can find no alternative to vibrating machinery, you can have peace of mind that all of the tools that you hire from Best at hire:

  • come with the relevant information necessary to operate them safely and with minimum risk to health – including information to help you assess vibration and noise risks, when relevant;
  • are fit for purpose, well-maintained and in good working order.

Health and Safety is a top priority for Best at hire, and we want to keep our customers well-informed.

We are keen to create long-term partnerships with our customers, and that includes working with you to tackle any key safety areas that are of concern. A small part of this involves sourcing our tools responsibly from well-respected manufacturers; maintaining them properly; and keeping you up to date with accurate vibration figures. Call us now on 0344 288 8088 to talk to one of our team of experts.

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