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Written by
on 27 September 2016


Do you monitor your workers use of tools and equipment that vibrate which are harmful to health when overused?

On site machinery poses all kinds of risks asides from the obvious. Most risk assessments will account for crush-type injuries, but do yours consider long term risks associated with equipment use?

What is HAVS?

Just as extended exposure to dust causes all manner of respiratory illnesses, heavy industrial machinery has its own long term risks. By far the most common is Hand and Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

HAVS – also known as dead finger, vibration white finger and VWF – is caused by extended use of vibrating machinery, like pneumatic drills. Over time, the vibration causes damage to blood vessels, nerves, muscles and joints – typically in the hand, fingers and wrist.

Initially the effects of HAVS are relatively mild. At the end of the day workers may notice a slight tingling in their fingertips, and possibly some whiteness. Left unchecked however, the symptoms become more severe with the whole finger becoming white and the sense of touch becoming dulled.

As the condition progresses, the symptoms become more like Reynaud’s syndrome (which HAVS is closely related to). Sufferers will find that damage to the blood vessels in their hands cause fingers to change colour – particularly when cold. As blood flow is restricted, fingers turn white. When blood flow is restored, the fingers turn an intense red – accompanied by uncomfortable throbbing.

At its worst, HAVS affects the nerves and muscles of the hands and arms. Affected workers will experience in a temporary loss of manual dexterity, accompanied by excruciating pain. These attacks may last several hours, during which time they will be unable to work – or even carry out many basic tasks at home.

There is also a risk that damaged reduced flow could lead to the loss of fingers in extreme cases.

Why does it matter?

HAVS is a progressive disease – left unchecked the symptoms can become debilitating for the affected person to the point that they can’t work at all. And as an employer you have a legal duty to reduce the risk of developing conditions like HAVS at work.

To date the UK government has paid over £100 million to former coalminers who have developed HAVS as a direct result of their work activities. One case saw seven miners awarded £127,000 each in compensation – and private employers face similar fines where their negligence causes workers to develop HAVS.

Although completely preventable, HAVS is incurable. You have a duty to stop your workers from developing the condition, because it cannot be “fixed

What practical safeguards can you put in place?

HAVS injuries are caused by vibrations at frequencies within the range of 50 and 300HZ. The International Standards Organisation drew up the ISO5349-1 standard to help calculate the risk posed by machinery to workers.

Safe limits have already been defined

The HSE went a step further, giving construction tools an Exposure Action Value (EAV). The EAV clearly indicates how long a machine may be used before vibration exposure reaches harmful levels, and action needs to be taken. They HSE even provides a useful ready reckoner for calculating daily vibration exposure limits where only the vibration frequency is known.

As you draw up a site risk assessment plan, these figures will help you allocate work and ensure employees are not exposed beyond the acceptable limits. You can also plan how best to share workloads, and provide workers with regular breaks to further reduce risks. If your project has a particularly strict deadline, you will need to allow for enough workers to cope with the safe working time limits.

HAVS-specific PPE

In some cases you could consider the use of anti-vibration gloves or similar to provide additional protection. It is important to note that these kinds of PPE are designed to protect against vibrations at specific frequencies, so you must choose the appropriate gloves for the tools being used. Using gloves calibrated to the wrong frequencies will be ineffective and offer little to no additional protection.

The reality is that PPE provides some protection, but strict adherence to time limits is far more effective. HAVS is a life-changing industrial disease – but it is completely manageable.

For more help and practical advice on minimising the risk of your workers developing HAVS, please get in touch.

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A chartered safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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