HAVS – Hand-arm vibration syndrome
Using certain types of tools creates vibration, which transmits to the operator’s hands and arms. Prolonged exposure to hand-arm vibration can cause serious medical issues and trigger HAVS – hand-arm vibration syndrome. Employers, whose staff uses vibration tools, such as drills, chainsaws, strimmers, sanders and power mowers, must carry out risk assessments and annual health surveillance to monitor and minimise the risks.
If not managed properly, employees using vibration tools can develop a condition called HAVS. It used to be called vibration white finger because one of the common symptoms is Raynaud’s phenomenon, which causes fingers to go white. The name was changed to HAVS, as other symptoms may occur in addition to white fingers.
Fit for Work describe the symptoms: “HAVS affects the nerves, joints, muscles, blood vessels or tissues in hands or forearms. It can cause numbness in the fingers and hands, poor circulation and muscular pain. In more severe cases, it can mean that sufferers can lose the ability to use their hands normally, as they may have reduced manual dexterity and grip strength.”
Early intervention can prevent HAVS
HAVS is a serious condition, which is usually permanent. If picked up early enough, can stop the condition from becoming worse. The early symptoms of HAVS include:
- Tingling and numbness in fingers after using vibration tools
- Loss of feeling in hands
- Loss of strength in hands
- Fingers turning white in cold weather
Once symptoms are diagnosed, exposure to vibration should be limited or reduced. As Fit for Work explain, “if left unchecked, HAVS can be a life-long debilitating condition. Severe HAVS could also be a cause of long-term sickness absence in employees as it could mean that they are no longer able to continue in their current role.”
Employers must monitor vibration exposure
The longer the exposure to vibration tools, the higher the risk of developing HAVS. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has guidelines on managing hand-arm vibration at work. They also set out the maximum recommended exposure times. Generally vibration tools should be used for short periods with frequent breaks or rotation of duties. Employers can measure the exposure to vibrating tools using the HSE Exposure Points System.
Ways to minimise the risk of HAVS
‘Patient’ health directory lists steps thought to help prevent HAVS in workers who use vibrating tools:
- Hold tools as loosely as possible and in varying positions.
- Ensure that tools are well maintained.
- Use tools correctly and use the right tool for the job. The aim is not to need to use excessive grip, nor to use a tool for longer than necessary.
- Take regular breaks of at least 10 minutes away from the tool. Short bursts of work are better than long periods of work without a break.
- Keep warm while at work – especially your hands.
- You should not smoke – the chemicals in tobacco can affect blood flow.
Contact us for advice about health surveillance to manage vibration exposure at your workplace.