How to manage the risk of hand-arm vibration
- Regular, sustained use of certain hand-held tools can lead to a range of debilitating health conditions unless appropriate precautions are observed
- Any organisation that carries out activities which require employees to use such tools needs to carefully assess the risks and put the right safeguards in place
- Failure to do so can leave organisations at risk of facing sizeable personal injury claims and health and safety fines
Over the past 30 years, UK employers have made significant strides in reducing the risk of workplace accidents. There has arguably been less focus, however, on the occupational health aspect of health and safety management, such as the effects of long-term exposure to loud noise or vibration.
“Many organisations aren’t great at dealing with the kinds of health issues where you can’t physically see an injury,” says Steve Thomas, Team Leader – Casualty Practice, Zurich Risk Engineering.
“With occupational health issues, where the symptoms can take many years to develop, employers can fall into the trap of thinking ‘this isn’t a problem I need to worry about today’.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has begun to place far greater emphasis on the importance of occupational health issues, in particular the effects of long-term exposure to vibration.
Over the past year, a number of organisations have received six-figure fines for health and safety failings which have resulted in employees developing symptoms of hand-arm vibration (see boxout).
What is Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome?
Regular use of certain hand-held tools, such as strimmers, concrete/tarmac breakers, grinders, sanders, drills and saws, can lead to Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), which encompasses a number of chronic and debilitating health conditions such as Vibration White Finger, often coupled with Raynaud’s disease, and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. These conditions can lead to loss of sensation in the arms, hands and fingers, and can impair the ability to grip objects.
Hand-arm vibration can occur across a wide range of industries and job roles in the public and private sectors – from highways maintenance workers to groundskeepers and street cleaners. Organisations that fail to protect their employees from the risks of hand-arm vibration could potentially face costly personal injury claims and/or regulatory action.
The HSE will typically begin an investigation when it receives a report that an employee has been diagnosed with a medical condition linked to hand-arm vibration.
“Very often, the HSE will find a whole range of failings, including a failure to carry out appropriate risk assessment or even to assess the safety or suitability of the equipment employees are using,” says Steve.
How to reduce the risk of hand-arm vibration claims and fines
There are a number of steps organisations should follow in order to minimise the risks.
- Evaluate: conduct an audit of all activities/tasks, in order to understand which of these might involve the use of tools or machinery that vibrates.
- Prioritise: determine the level of risk assessment required for each task/activity – for example activities involving use of hammer drills or concrete breakers may require a more rigorous risk assessment.
- Control: put appropriate control measures in place, for example – ensuring employees have sufficient rest/break periods; providing them with guidance on how to use equipment safely; and explaining what they should do if they are displaying any symptoms of hand arm vibration. Organisations should also be prepared to transfer employees to a different job or reduce their level of exposure to vibration significantly if the risk cannot be otherwise managed safely.
- Review: consider the need for on-going monitoring of the effects of vibration. This could be something as simple as an annual health review in which employees are asked, for example, whether they have ever lost sensation in their hands or fingers.
- Record: in order to defend claims or ward off regulatory action, organisations must be able to call upon evidence to show how they have managed the risks, so keeping clear and detailed records is extremely important.
Steve says: “The key questions for organisations to ask themselves are: Have we considered whether or not hand-arm vibration is a risk in our workplace? Do we have a strategy in place to deal with it? And does that strategy match up with the HSE’s guidance?”