Are your workers among the millions at risk from Hand Arm Vibrations?

Last month we read about a case highlighting a condition from which millions of British workers are at risk.

Construction company Peter Duffy Ltd was sentenced in August for safety breaches after multiple employees were diagnosed with Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

Leeds Magistrates’ Court heard the company reported seven cases of HAVS between November 2016 and August 2018. All of the workers involved had been carrying out ground works involving vibrating tools. Many of them had been working in the industry for over 20 years.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that in 2016 the company contracted a new occupational health provider to replace their existing one. The diagnosis of the workers’ conditions resulted from these changes. Prior to the new company taking over the contract, there was no suitable health surveillance in place to identify HAVS.

Peter Duffy Ltd of Park View, Lofthouse, Wakefield, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2 (1) of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company was fined £40,000 and ordered to pay £3,919 in costs.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Chris Tilley said: “The company should have undertaken a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to identify the level of vibration employees were exposed to throughout their working day and then put in place appropriate control measures.

“Furthermore, the company should have put in place suitable health surveillance to identify HAVS in their workforce.”

For anyone who doesn’t know HAVS can be serious and disabling – it is preventable but the tragedy is that once the damage is done it is permanent.

Hand arm vibration can be a substantial health risk wherever powered hand tools are used for significant lengths of time. This is most likely when contact with a vibrating tool or work process is a regular part of a person’s job. Occasional exposure is unlikely to cause ill health.

Hand arm vibration can cause a range of conditions collectively known as hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), as well as specific diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

It’s estimated that nearly 2m people in this country are at risk from HAVS in a variety of industries such as construction, engineering, landscaping and manufacturing. Typically, we think of those industries where people are operating heavy-duty vibrating equipment, such as handheld power tools like pneumatic drills or equipment that has to be hand-guided like circular saws. However, it can also affect those who use fine equipment with high frequency vibrations such as dentists and dental technicians.

HAVS can prevent people from doing fine work and cold can trigger painful finger blanching attacks.

Early symptoms of HAVS can include a combination of tingling and numbness in the fingers, not being able to feel things properly, a loss of strength in the hands, fingers going white and becoming red and painful on recovery.

For some people, symptoms may appear after only a few months of exposure, but for others they may take a few years. They are likely to get worse with continued exposure to vibration.

The latest figures have revealed that between 2010 and 2019, 5,620 new cases of HAVS were diagnosed in Great Britain and, as the case reported above shows, if employers are found to have breached health and safety law they can face fines running into the tens of thousands of pounds.

So, what can employers do to protect their staff from HAVS?

Well, there are clear measures set out in The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations which focus on the elimination or control of vibration exposure.

The most efficient and effective way of controlling exposure to hand-arm vibration is to look for new or alternative work methods which eliminate or reduce exposure to vibration.

Health surveillance is vital to detect and respond to early signs of damage. It allows employers to take action to prevent the health effects from becoming serious for their employee.

As a simple guide, employers need to do something about vibration exposures if:

  • employees complain of tingling and numbness in their or fingers after using vibrating tools
  • employees hold work pieces which vibrate while being processed by powered machinery
  • employees regularly use handheld or hand-guided power tools and machines
  • employees regularly operate either hammer action tools for more than 15 minutes a day or some rotary or other action tools for more than about one hour per day
  • employees work in an industry where exposures to vibration are particularly high such as construction, foundries, heavy steel fabrication or shipyards.

It is useful for employers to engage in routine monitoring or logging of workers’ vibration exposure and to help bosses know when to implement this, the HSE has produced a handy Vibration Exposure Monitoring Q&A document.

If you’re worried about putting the right measures in place to protect your employees from HAVS, or have any other health and safety concerns, you can contact our experienced team of experts.

We will work closely with your business to identify risks in the workplace, provide advice on how they can be controlled and ensure that you successfully meet the required standards.

You’ll have peace of mind knowing that we are always here for you when it comes to meeting your legal obligations as an employer in regards to health and  safety matters.

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