The health effects of hand-arm vibration
What is hand-arm vibration?
Hand-arm vibration is vibration transmitted from work processes into workers' hands and arms. It can be caused by operating hand-held power tools, such as road breakers, and hand-guided equipment, such as powered lawnmowers, or by holding materials being processed by machines, such as pedestal grinders.
When is it hazardous?
Regular and frequent exposure to hand-arm vibration can lead to permanent health effects. 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.
What health effects can it cause?
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.
What are the early symptoms?
Identifying signs and symptoms at an early stage is important. It will allow you, as the employer, to take action to prevent the health effects from becoming serious for your employee. The symptoms include any combination of:
Tingling and numbness in the fingers;
Not being able to feel things properly;
Loss of strength in the hands;
Fingers going white (blanching) and becoming red and painful on recovery (particularly in the cold and wet, and probably only in the tips at first).
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 and may become permanent.
What effects do these symptoms have?
The effects on people include:
Pain, distress and sleep disturbance;
Inability to do fine work (eg assembling small components) or everyday tasks (eg fastening buttons);
Reduced ability to work in cold or damp conditions (ie most outdoor work) which would trigger painful finger blanching attacks;
Reduced grip strength, which might affect the ability to do work safely.
These effects can severely limit the jobs an affected person is able to do, as well as many family and social activities.
Do you have a hand-arm vibration problem at work?
This will depend on whether your employees regularly and frequently work with vibrating tools and equipment and/or handle vibrating materials. It will also depend on how long your employees are exposed to vibration and at what level. As a simple guide you will probably need to do something about vibration exposures if any of the following apply:
Do your employees complain of tingling and numbness in their hands or fingers after using vibrating tools?
Do your employees hold work pieces, which vibrate while being processed by powered machinery such as pedestal grinders?
Do your employees regularly use hand-held or hand guided power tools and machines such as:
concrete breakers, concrete pokers
sanders, grinders, disc cutters
chainsaws, brush cutters, hedge trimmers
scabblers or needle guns
Do your employees regularly operate:
Hammer action tools for more than about 15 minutes per day; or
Some rotary and other action tools for more than about one hour per day.
Do you work in an industry where exposures to vibration are particularly high, such as construction, foundries, or heavy steel fabrication/shipyards?
Which jobs and industries are most likely to involve hand-arm vibration?
Jobs requiring regular and frequent use of vibrating tools and equipment and handling of vibrating materials are found in a wide range of industries, for example:
building and maintenance of roads and railways
estate management (eg maintenance of grounds, parks, water courses, road and rail side verges)
manufacturing concrete products
mines and quarries
motor vehicle manufacture and repair
public utilities (eg water, gas, electricity, telecommunications)
shipbuilding and repair
What kinds of tools and equipment can cause ill health from vibration?
There are hundreds of different types of hand-held power tools and equipment which can cause ill health from vibration. Some of the more common ones are:
concrete breakers/road breakers
cut-off saws (for stone etc)
power hammers and chisels
powered lawn mowers