Two recent cases have highlighted the hazards that can affect workers using construction equipment for extended periods of time.
A ground engineering company was fined after a worker contracted severe hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). The employee was eventually diagnosed as suffering from HAVS after repeatedly bringing his symptoms to the company’s attention for over five years.
An HSE investigation discovered that there was no suitable health surveillance programme in place to check for the early signs of HAVS and so steps that could have stopped the irreversible condition from developing were not taken.
The company pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 7(1) of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 and were fined £6,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,263.45.
In November 2016, Thanet District Council was fined £250,000 for not protecting workers’ health when a worker was left with permanent injuries after being diagnosed with HAVS. The breaches occurred between 2005 and 2014.
An HSE investigation discovered that the worker spent up to six hours a day using a range of powered equipment. He was not under any health surveillance or told how to report his symptoms.
The council was issued with an improvement notice. When it started to rectify the problem, a further 15 cases of ill health related to vibration exposure were identified.
The council had not taken steps to eliminate or control the exposure of its workers to HAVS. It also failed to educate its workers on the risk and on how to control exposure to vibration. There was no risk assessment or controls in place until 2014.
Training was so poor that when new equipment was brought in, workers looked on the internet to see how it operated. Workers were not rotated to give them a break from the tools.
The council pleaded guilty to breaching Regulations 6(2) and 7(1) of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 and was fined a total of £250,000 with £18,326 in costs.
What is hand-arm vibration?
Hand-arm vibration occurs when the vibration of work equipment is transferred into workers’ arms and hands. It can happen when work is being carried out which involves power tools or hand-guided equipment. It can also happen if the worker is holding materials which are being processed by vibrating machinery.
Jobs requiring regular and frequent use of vibrating tools and equipment and handling of vibrating materials are found in a wide range of industries, including building and maintenance, construction, forestry, heavy engineering, concrete manufacture, mining/quarrying and motor vehicle manufacture and repair.
When it is hazardous?
If the exposure occurs regularly and frequently, it can lead to health effects that are permanent.
What health effects can it cause?
Hand-arm vibration syndrome covers a range of conditions as well as specific conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
What are the early symptoms?
The earlier it is identified, the easier it will be for the employer to take remedial action and stop it getting any worse. This means that employers need to be aware of the symptoms, which could include any combination of the following:
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).
The time these symptoms take to appear may vary depending on the person. In some cases, the symptoms may only take a few months to appear but in other cases, it may take a few years. The longer the exposure goes on, the worse the symptoms will become. There is a good chance that they will eventually become irreversible.
What effects do these symptoms have?
The effects of HAVS will include:
pain, distress and sleep disturbance;
inability to do fine work (e.g. assembling small components) or everyday tasks (e.g. fastening buttons);
reduced ability to work in cold or damp conditions (i.e. most outdoor work) which would trigger painful finger blanching attacks;
reduced grip strength, which might affect the ability to do work safely.
These can have a serious effect on the jobs which a person suffering from them is able to carry out. It can also affect their day-to-day lives, including family and social activities.
Don’t wait for the employees to tell you they have a problem with their hands before you assess the vibration hazard.
Start by conducting a risk assessment of the task and highlight the power tools/equipment that will be used while considering the usual hazards e.g. cuts, shock, entanglement.
Also look at the manufacturer’s instructions/technical data for the vibration rating.
Determine how long the task will take with that specific power tool and assess (using the HSE assessment tool) to ensure the vibration is below a level to cause harm.
Depending on the outcome of the assessment, this will determine what control measures will need to be implemented.
Once this is completed, share your findings with the employees who will be carrying out the work (it is not secret) and explain the control measures that are necessary to safeguard their health.
Also explain to the employees if the power tool becomes damaged e.g. out of balance, worn grinding disc, bent drill, buckled cutting disc, they MUST stop using the power tool and report to their line manager for replacement or repair.
Remember the vibration given in the technical data is when the power tool is new and in top condition. Vibrations created by power tools generally increase with age as they wear.