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This month, GP Alice Fitzgibbon looks at another condition related to the workplace: hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
HAVS is a condition caused by regular, prolonged use of tools or machinery that vibrates. Over time, the vibration causes damage to the nerves, blood vessels and joints of the hand, wrist and arm. This results in the painful and irreversible condition of HAVS, recognised as an occupational condition. Since 2005, the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations have been in place to better protect workers against HAVS. However, according to the Health and Safety Executive there are an estimated two million people who are deemed at risk in the UK.
So, who exactly is at risk? Regular or prolonged use of the following kinds of equipment are known to have a risk of developing HAVS:
- Concrete breakers
- Sanders, grinders, disc cutters
- Hammer drills
- Chipping hammers
- Chainsaws, hedge trimmers
- Powered mowers
- Hammer action tools
This list names only a few examples – there are many more! The length of time spent using the vibrating tools or machinery, and the type of vibration they emit, determines the risk. Usually, it may take years to develop but sometimes it can occur within months depending on how much exposure to vibration there has been.
Hand-arm vibration syndrome has early signs and symptoms. It is really important to take note of these as if you continue to use vibrating tools then the condition may become considerably worse. It can result in permanent symptoms which cause pain and disability. It may impact your ability to work. You should be on the lookout for:
- tingling and numbness in your fingers (which might disturb you at night)
- Loss of feeling in the fingertips
- Weakness in your hands- being less able to pick up or hold heavy objects.
You might also experience vibration white finger (VWF) as a symptom. This is a painful condition when your fingertips become white in the cold or wet or when using the vibrating tool. They then become bright red upon recovery (this white then red colour change is known as Raynaud’s phenomenon). This happens as a result of damage to the blood vessels from the vibrations – blood flow becomes temporarily reduced to the fingertips.
The early signs of HAVS such as finger tingling and numbness may also be a symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). In carpal tunnel syndrome it is normally the thumb, index and middle fingers that are affected. CTS may also be related to exposure to vibration and we will revisit this next time.
If the early signs and symptoms of HAVS are ignored, they will get worse and more severe. If you have any symptoms or concerns then you should report these to your employer and receive a health check. It is their responsibility to protect you against HAVS; you should follow any guidance or measures that are put in place. The risk of HAVS may be reduced by:
- Using suitable low-vibration tools
- Always using the right tool for each job (to do the job more quickly and expose you to less hand-arm vibration).
- Maintaining and repairing tools properly to avoid increased vibration caused by faults or general wear. Check them before use!
- Making sure cutting tools are kept sharp so that they remain efficient.
- Reducing the amount of time you use a tool in one go, by doing other jobs in between.
- Avoid excess gripping or forcing a tool or workpiece.
- Storing tools so that they do not have very cold handles for the next use
- Encouraging good blood circulation by:
- Keeping warm and dry (using gloves and waterproofs when necessary, heating pads if available);
- Stopping smoking (it is known that smoking reduces blood flow)
- Massaging and exercising your fingers during breaks.
The Health and Safety Executive has published a useful guide for workers on hand-arm vibration at work. It can be found at Hand-arm vibration at work: A brief guide for employers INDG175 (hse.gov.uk).