Spotlight On – Hand-Arm Vibration

Spotlight On: Hand-Arm Vibration

In June, national bus and coach builder Alexander Dennis Ltd. was fined after they ignored numerous warnings about the dangers that the overuse of hand-held power tools posed to their workers’ health.

In this article, we’re going to put the spotlight on hand-arm vibration in the workplace, and the risks associated with it. 

What is hand-arm vibration, and when is it dangerous? 

The HSE define hand-arm vibration as ‘vibration transmitted from work processes into workers’ hands and arms’. Operating hand-held power tools can cause such vibration. These tools include, but are not limited to:

  • road breakers
  • hand-guided equipment (e.g. lawnmowers)
  • or through contact with materials being processed by machines (e.g. pedestal grinders)

Whilst occasional exposure is unlikely to cause ill health, regular and frequent exposure to exposure can result in permanent and serious health issues.

Health Effects

Prolonged or frequent exposure to hand-arm vibration can have a number of health effects. These can include carpal tunnel syndrome and a whole range of conditions known collectively as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).

Symptoms are varied, but can include:

  • tingling and numbness in hands and fingers
  • being unable to feel things properly
  • loss of strength in the hands
  • fingers turning white and becoming red and painful on recovery.

The effects vary widely from person to person. For some, symptoms may take years to develop, whereas others might notice effects after only a couple of months. Continued exposure to vibration is likely to worsen the situation, or even render it permanent.

These symptoms can have serious effects on workers’ quality of life. They may be in pain and distress, which in turn can affect sleeping patterns. They may find themselves unable to complete everyday tasks such as fastening and undoing buttons, or other fine work tasks. Symptoms may become worse in cold, wet situations. A reduced grip strength may render the worker unable to work safely.

If you notice any of these symptoms yourself, amongst your employees, or between colleagues, you should seek advice. The faster the risk is assessed and suitable measures put in place to control the risks associated with hand-arm vibration, the better chance employees will have at avoiding chronic HAVS issues.

Who is affected? 

According to the HSE, the most likely industries to involve hand-arm vibration are:

  • Building and maintenance of roads and railways;
  • Construction;
  • Estate management (e.g., maintenance of grounds, parks, water courses, road and rail side verges);
  • Forestry;
  • Foundries;
  • Heavy engineering;
  • Manufacturing concrete products;
  • Mines and quarries;
  • Motor vehicle manufacture and repair;
  • Public utilities (eg water, gas, electricity, telecommunications);
  • Shipbuilding and repair.

Prosecution

As mentioned at the start of this article, June saw the prosecution of a national bus and coach building firm after they ignored multiple warnings about the dangers of hand-arm vibration in the workplace.

Over a number of years, they persistently failed to heed advice, reports, and even complaints from workers about suffering from symptoms of HAVS.

The case against them was heard in Sheffield Crown Court after nine of their workers were diagnosed with HAVS. The court heard that the exposure to hand-arm vibration was uncontrolled, and there were no restriction on the type of hand-held power tools employees were using, not the length of time they were allowed to operate them for. On top of this, tools were not properly maintained or replaced, meaning that workers were exposed to further unnecessary vibrations. No training or information was provided to workers about how to minimise the risk, and no health surveillance was carried out.

The firm pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and were fined £100,000 plus costs of £18,643.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Christine Mellor said:

“Alexander Dennis continually ignored their employees’ symptoms which showed they were suffering from the effects of vibration caused by the extensive use of a variety of hand-held power tools – sanders, drills, grinders etc. It failed to heed recommendations from consultants they had engaged to assist in managing the health risks to employees, including the advice from occupational health professionals.

At the same time, the company was fully aware that successful civil claims had been brought by employees. Despite all this, Alexander Dennis continued to expose employees to an uncontrolled risk.

The risks associated with the use of hand-held power tools and of developing HAVS and carpel tunnel syndrome are well recognised in the industry. There has been written guidance from HSE since 1994 and specific regulations setting out the duties of employers since 2005.

There can be no excuse for the company’s reckless disregard for their employees’ health HAVS is a serious, permanent condition which frequently has lifelong consequences.”

Find out more about vibration in the work place from the HSE here >>

 

 

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