Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is a widespread injury affecting tens of thousands of workers across the construction, engineering, road, rail and utilities sectors. Associated with the long-term, continuous use of handheld vibratory power tools, HAVS remains the most widely reported health issue under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). Affecting the use of joints in the hands and arms, as well as causing damage to the blood vessels and nerves, symptoms include numbness, tingling, blanching, pain, sensitivity to the cold and, in some cases, loss of grip.
While there has been a general reduction in the number of HAVS claims made between 2009 and 2018, 180 new cases were reported in 2018 alone, as well as a 33% increase in HAVS breaches on construction sites in 2018. The HSE has also fined a number of firms for failing to assess or manage the risks associated with vibrating power tools, with recent breaches resulting in fines in excess of £600,000. As it is clear that some businesses are failing to fully protect their workers against HAVS, it is imperative that employers recognise when to implement suitable control measures, ensuring their workplace complies with vibration exposure levels and that the health and wellbeing of their staff is not compromised.
Is protecting workers against HAVS a legal requirement?
A number of regulations are in place to ensure employees are protected against exposure to high levels of vibration in the workplace. Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that it is the duty of all employers to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all of their employees while they are at work, with hand-arm and whole body vibration falling directly under this remit.
As part of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 place a number of obligations on employers regarding the level of vibration exposure in the workplace, with the intention of preventing workers from developing HAVS. Section 4 of the regulations detail the ‘Exposure Action Values’ (EAV) and ‘Exposure Limit Values’ (ELV), which requires employers to make an assessment of exposure to identify whether either of these values is likely to be exceeded.
The 'exposure action value' is the daily level which, if exceeded, employers are required to take action in order to control exposure, while the 'exposure limit value' is the maximum level of vibration that a worker can be exposed to in a day. Each of these values is measured by calculating the average (A) exposure over an eight-hour day, otherwise known as A(8). A daily EAV of 2.5 m/s2 A(8) indicates that management is required to deal with the risk, while a daily ELV of 5 m/s2 A(8) signifies that the risk to health is high and that employees should not be exposed.
What measures do I need to put in place to protect my workers against HAVS?
According to the HSE’s Hand-Arm Vibration at Work: A Brief Guide, in order to minimise the level of vibration transmitted from equipment and into the hand, employers must first determine which equipment poses a risk to workers, how many workers use it and for how long each day. This will allow you to examine how risks from vibration can be reduced and subsequently implement control measures and alternative methods of working.
Section 5 of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations states that employers are required to regularly assess and monitor workers’ daily level of exposure to vibration. This is achieved by consulting with staff on which methods of work may involve regular exposure to vibration, checking equipment to review any warnings about vibration exposure when in operation, as well as determining whether any employees are showing any symptoms associated with hand arm vibration.
As with all health and safety-related matters in the workplace, risk assessments are recommended to identify those who would be particularly susceptible to risk from vibration, factoring in such areas as the magnitude, type and duration of exposure; the effects of vibration exposure on employees whose health is at risk; information from manufacturers; and effects on the workplace. If the results of the risk assessment demonstrate that there is a risk to workers’ health as a result of vibration exposure, employers are required to submit employees to health surveillance, which can be used to detect the early signs and symptoms of HAVS.
Health surveillance must be carried out when exposure levels are at or above the designated EAV, with a questionnaire required to ‘diagnose’ an employee as being fit for work before any symptoms related to HAVS are officially reported. To ensure diagnosis is accurate, you must ensure that your health surveillance scheme includes a fully qualified and competent occupational physician. If workers show any signs of HAVS based on the results of the questionnaire, employers are then required to provide them with the relevant information, advice and training depending on the severity of the symptoms. This is intended to boost awareness around the dangers of HAVS, while also ensuring that workers understand the correct use of hand-guided power equipment. Subject matter should cover the sources of hand-arm vibration, health effects, how to recognise and report symptoms, risk factors, why health surveillance is important and how to use equipment to minimise vibration exposure.
Finally, there are a series of control measures that employers can implement to reduce their workers’ needs to hold vibrating power tools for extended periods of time. These include the maintenance of equipment in accordance with manufacturer instructions, the organisation of workstations to prevent employees from working in uncomfortable postures and the correct planning of work schedules to make sure that exposure levels remain below the ELV.
How can SOCOTEC help?
SOCOTEC carries out hand-arm vibration surveys and reports to enable clients to control exposure to high levels of vibration and protect their workers against HAVS. As part of this service, our Occupational Hygiene team can:
- Provide information on the actions that employers should take in line with the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005
- Determine which tools, processes and tasks are most likely to cause excessive vibration exposure
- Measure and assess hand-arm vibration using human-vibration meters and tri-axial accelerometers
- Decide where action needs to be taken to reduce vibration exposure levels
- Calculate the trigger times taken to reach a level of exposure where action is required, as well as exposure limit values
To enable comments sign up for a Disqus account and enter your Disqus shortname in the Articulate node settings.