Vibration at work
Continuous exposure to vibration can cause long-term, painful damage to your hands and fingers, while over time shocks and jolts from driving certain types of vehicles can cause severe back pain.
Vibration can be split into two broad categories:
- hand-arm vibration (HAV), which comes from the use of hand-held power tools; and
- whole-body vibration (WBV), which is transmitted through the seat or floor of mobile machines and vehicles being driven over rough ground.
Research commissioned by Health and Safety Executive suggests over one million people are exposed to high levels of vibration in the workplace.
Symptoms and conditions
HAV can damage nerves, blood vessels and joints of the hand, wrist and arm – a debilitating group of conditions broadly known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). When the condition principally affects circulation to the fingers, it is often called vibration white finger. The main symptoms associated with HAVS are:
- tingling and numbness in the fingers
- lack of dexterity and sensation in the fingers
- loss of strength in the hands
- fingertips turn white become painful in cold and wet conditions
If these symptoms are caught early enough, they can disappear if appropriate action is taken. However, prolonged exposure once symptoms have set in can make the condition gradually worse, which is usually permanent.
Prolonged exposure to hand-arm vibration can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a painful condition where the nerve in the wrist becomes compressed. It causes tingling, numbness and pain in your hand and fingers.
The main health problem associated with whole-body vibration is back pain.
Anyone is at risk if developing hand-arm vibration syndrome if they frequently use vibrating tools or machines such as:
- concrete breakers
- sanders, grinders, disc cutters
- hammer drills
- chipping hammers
- chainsaws, brush cutters, hedge trimmers
- powered mowers
- scabblers or needle guns
People could be considered to be at a greater level of risk if they use hammer action tools for more than 15 minutes a day, and rotary and other “action” tools for more than an hour a day.
People working in industries such as construction, estate management and maintenance, forestry, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding and repair are most likely to be at risk.
Drivers of some mobile machines may be exposed to whole-body vibration and shocks, particularly those who are required to drive or exit the vehicle in cold or wet conditions and on rough and uneven surfaces. These machines include tractors, forklift trucks and quarrying or earth-moving machinery, among others.
Other work factors, such as posture and heavy lifting, can also contribute to back problems for drivers, but whole-body vibration can make this worse.
Older people, younger people, pregnant women and those with previous back or neck problems are likely to have an increased risk.
What your employer should do
The main regulations covering hand-arm and whole-body vibration are the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. They require employers to:
- control health risks from vibration
- provide information, instruction and training to employees on the risk and the actions being taken to control risk; and
- provide suitable health surveillance, to identify any harm early on so that appropriate action can be taken
The regulations set out legal thresholds for both hand-arm vibration and whole-body vibration – known as the “action value” and the “limit value”. As part of their risk assessment, employers must establish whether employees are exposed to vibration above these levels. As the name suggests, if vibration is found to be at or above the action values, then the employer has to take a particular course of action. The limit values must not be exceeded.
If an action value is exceeded, the employer must reduce employees’ vibration exposure. For hand-arm vibration, they should consider factors like:
- Limiting the time that employees are exposed to vibration, such as by introducing work rotas
- Planning work to avoid individuals being exposed to vibration for long, continuous spells
- Using alternative work methods which eliminate or reduce exposure
- Mechanising or automating the work
- Selecting the lowest vibration tool that can do the work efficiently
- Limiting the use of high-vibration tools wherever possible
- Introducing maintenance programmes for equipment to prevent increases in vibration
When looking to reduce the risks posed by whole-body vibration, employers should consider factors like:
- Introducing working methods and materials that eliminate or reduce exposure
- Replacing manned with unmanned machines, if possible
- Choosing work equipment of appropriate ergonomic design
- The type of seat and tyres
- Maintaining vehicles and unmade roads and ground conditions
- Limiting the duration and magnitude of exposure, ensuring work schedules have adequate rest periods
- Protecting employees from cold and damp
What you can do
- Ask to use suitable low-vibration tools
- Always use the right tool for each job
- Check tools before using them to make sure they have been properly maintained and repaired to avoid increased vibration caused by faults or general wear
- Keep cutting tools sharp so that they remain efficient
- Reduce the amount of time you use a tool in one go by doing other jobs in between
- Avoid gripping or forcing a tool or workpiece more than you have to
- Store tools so that they do not have very cold handles when next used
- Encourage good blood circulation by:
- keeping warm and dry (when necessary wear gloves, a hat, waterproofs and, if available, use heating pads)
- giving up or cutting down on smoking, which reduces blood flow
- massaging and exercising your fingers during breaks