Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) occurs when someone has frequent exposure to vibration. This syndrome frequently manifests as carpal tunnel syndrome or vibration white finger.
Unfortunately, HAVS cannot be cured, only prevented.
Who is at risk of developing HAVS
HAVS is caused by vibrations transferring from machinery to a person’s arms and hands. Anything you’re holding in particular that vibrates a lot can cause HAVS and it can occur in a matter of months. Any work where you are frequently exposed to vibration through the arms and hands can lead to this debilitating condition and permanent problem.
There is a wide range of industries whose workers might be at risk of developing HAVS and, therefore, lots of workers can develop the condition.
Typical industries and jobs where we see a high incidence of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome are:
- Rail and road workers
- The construction industry
- Estate management
- Heavy Engineering
- Utility workers
- Laboratory work
Which tools pose a significant risk?
It’s important to acknowledge that workers don’t have to be in contact with the vibrating equipment or tools to receive vibration at dangerous levels. Workers who hold workpieces and materials and pass them through tools or machinery are at risk too. Here are some pieces of equipment and tools that pose a risk of HAVS.
- Concrete breakers
- Impact wrenches
- Power chisels
What are the symptoms of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome and how does it affect people?
There is a huge variety of symptoms of HAVS and many people experience debilitating symptoms day-to-day affecting both their work life and their home life.
Some common symptoms include:
- Tingling, pain or loss of feeling
- A reduction in fine motor skills
- Reduced grip and strength
- Wasting of muscles
- Raynaud’s disease
When people have pain, loss of feeling or a reduction in fine motor skills it impacts their ability to work, especially if they are wanting to continue working in the same industry that caused the condition.
The condition can make it difficult to do things like fastening buttons and zips. It is also a condition that will get worse once it has developed.
What does the law say?
By law, employers have to control their workers’ exposure to vibration in the workplace. If employers fail to do this, they could be open to litigation.
There are two levels of vibration exposure as categorised by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). These are Exposure Limit Value and Exposure Action Value. The cut-off point is the Exposure Limit Value. This means that when vibration levels exceed this limit, the worker must cease their exposure immediately and there needs to be action from employers to ensure safe levels. The Exposure Action Value is a level whereby there needs to be mitigating actions to prevent any damage to workers’ health.
The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005
After the implementation of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations, employers are required to:
- Assess all vibration risks
- Assess who is likely to be exposed to vibrations above the Exposure Action Level (EVA)
- Introduce control measures to reduce or eliminate risk to the lowest possible level
- Provide health checks regularly to anyone who is exposed above the Exposure Action Value
- Asses who is most likely to be exposed above the Exposure Limit Value
- Act immediately to reduce exposure above the ELV
- Provide employees with information on control measures as well as health risks
- Consult employees and trade unions on control measures.
When workers are exposed to vibrations, there are some things that can be implemented to avoid them developing Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome.
- Hold tools loosely and in different positions
- Use the right tools for the work and use them correctly. Workers should not grip too tightly and should not use any tool for longer than is necessary
- Take breaks of at least ten minutes regularly away from the tool. Short bursts are much better for preventing HAVS compared to long periods
- Don’t work when you’re cold and don’t let your hands get cold
- Don’t smoke as tobacco contains chemicals that affect circulation.
Why do vibrations cause HAVS?
It is not entirely clear how vibrating tools cause HAVS. It is probably owing to the vibrations causing very slight and repeated injuries to the small blood vessels and nerves in the hands and fingers.
What should people do if they think they have HAVS?
If you think you have HAVS, the first port of call is the doctor but incidences of HAVS always need reporting to employers. Unfortunately, there are not many treatments that ease the symptoms of HAVS. For people with HAVS, they should avoid being exposed to further vibration from tools.
As we’ve seen, with HAVS, prevention is everything. With a condition that can’t be properly treated, employers must take adequate steps to protect their employees and workers from developing this condition. Employers need to follow the law and employees need to ensure that they follow the rules with regards to how tools are used and how often they are used.
If a person is diagnosed with HAVS, there are several things that they need to do to protect themselves from the condition getting worse: they shouldn’t smoke, should keep their exposure to vibration minimal and don’t allow their hands and fingers to get cold.